Reinstalled at a career-high world No.3 and with his third Masters 1000 title now secured, it’s only a matter of time before Alexander Zverev breaks through at a Slam.
So says Rafael Nadal, after the Spaniard required three hard-fought sets to defeat the 21-year-old and win his eighth final in Rome.
The defending champion at the event where he had become the youngest Masters winner since Novak Djokovic 10 years ago, Zverev charged to a 6-1 lead and led by a break in the third set before Nadal wrestled control.
Extending more than two hours, it was Nadal’s toughest test in five consecutive wins over the German and, he believes, points to the threat Zverev could pose as soon as Roland Garros.
“Tennis is tennis in Grand Slams or Masters 1000s or in any event,” Nadal said of Zverev, who amassed 13 straight wins in a clay-court run that incorporated titles in Munich and Madrid.
“It’s impossible to don’t have a great result in Grand Slam when you have the level that he has.”
Nadal, who reclaimed the No.1 ranking from Roger Federer on Monday, will be an overwhelming favourite to land his 11th French Open title in Paris next month.
The list of those able to trouble the Spaniard on clay is small, with major winners struggling as Novak Djokovic works his way back to form, Stan Wawrinka recovers from injury, and the likes of Federer, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro absent.
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For Zverev, the lack of a major breakthrough to match the impressive results he has achieved elsewhere has long been a talking point – Wimbledon 2017 is the only major of the 11 contested in which he’s progressed to the second week.
His fourth-round run ended with a five-set loss to Milos Raonic.
“You know, it’s just time,” added Nadal, suggesting that Zverev’s surprising lack of major success until now is “all a coincidence”.
Buoyed by his ability to compete at a consistently high level during the clay-court swing, Zverev was celebrating the positives as he enters the clay-court Slam.
“I think this week is the most, actually, satisfying. Because even when I was tired, I still found a way against great players,” said Zverev after narrowly missing out on a successful title defence in Rome.
“And this is not easy to do. This is one of the biggest tournaments that we have in the world. So, you know, finding a way to get to the finals after two tournaments that I won is something amazing for me, I think.”
Amassing a 16-2 record on clay since Monte Carlo, Zverev’s only other loss was to Kei Nishikori in the semifinals of that event. His 30-8 record for the season overall makes him the ATP’s highest match winner in 2018.
If there’s a worry for the German, who only turned 21 in April, it’s that the time on court can take a physical toll.
But with several days of rest planned, Zverev appeared ready for his next challenge as the second seed at Roland Garros.
“Rafa will be the favorite there, there’s no question about it. I’ll be in the other half of the draw. So, that’s a good thing,’ he smiled.
And on a more serious note, further encouragement comes from recent form.
“I was not far away from beating Rafa on a clay court in a Masters final,” Zverev said. “I felt like I had control over most of the points. That is very important against him on clay.”
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