Rafael Nadal And The Rain Kept The Future Of Tennis In Check

What if the rain hadn’t come? Maybe Alexander Zverev would have gotten his third straight title, and the most significant win of his life: Rafael Nadal on clay in a final. That’s not an especially big “maybe,” either, just a medium-sized one.


That “maybe” had not yet materialized in the opening set of Sunday’s Italian Open final. Zverev lost 6-1 to Nadal, but then the 21-year-old began moving forward in the court more aggressively and swinging free on his best shot, his two-handed backhand. The Rafa topspin, which torments so many players on tour and pushes them back off the court, seemed not to faze him, perhaps because his 6-foot-6 stature put him in decent position to hit the ball even when it kicks up high off the clay. Zverev was still getting worked side-to-side along the baseline, but handled that pressure well thanks to the smooth movement so unusual for a player of his large size. He flipped the first set’s results to take the second one 6-1.

Across 444 tour-level matches on clay, there have been only a dozen matches in which Rafa lost a set 6-1 or 6-0. People don’t usually come into his house and cause a commotion. That lopsided second set put Zverev in rare company. After breaking Rafa’s serve in the third set, the young German was up 3-1 and poised to capitalize on the opportunity. Rain came and went, then lingered long enough to halt the match at 3-2. Zverev had won nine of the last 12 games.

Illustration for article titled Rafael Nadal And The Rain Kept The Future Of Tennis In Check
Photo: Dean Moutharapoulous (Getty)

Players took refuge under umbrellas, fans retreated, tarps rolled out to shield the dirt. Play was delayed for a total of 50 minutes. When it resumed, the match was unrecognizable. Nadal, who had looked so vulnerable before the downpour, followed his more familiar script: break serve, hold serve, break serve, hold serve, and claim an eighth title in Rome with a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory. Any doubts in his mind or errors in his gameplan had been erased in the bad weather. “He came out way faster, played way more aggressive than I did. It took me a long time to get activated again. I ran out of time,” Zverev said after the match.

Zverev—who, despite all his struggles at the majors to date, still appears likely be tennis’s next multiple slam winner—was deprived of a career milestone. He has earned his wins over Federer, on grass in 2016 and on the hard court last summer (with a little assistance from back pain). But Nadal has still eluded him in all five meetings. He had his match points at Indian Wells in 2016, the five-setter at the Australian Open in 2017, and he was up a break in the deciding set yesterday, but he has never been able to complete the feat. The rain, and Rafa, saved Rafa.

Illustration for article titled Rafael Nadal And The Rain Kept The Future Of Tennis In Check
Photo: Julian Finney (Getty)