Rome, May 12 (EFE).- Nine-time champion Rafael Nadal needed to produce a high level out of the gate at the Italian Open, but he was able to lift his game when necessary to defeat promising teenager Jannik Sinner 7-5, 6-4 on Wednesday evening and advance to the round of 16 of this elite clay-court event.
Several other top men and women, however, were bounced out of the tournament in their opening matches.
Nadal, who had received a bye in the first round, told reporters that he had drawn perhaps the toughest possible second-round opponent and the 19-year-old Italian lived up to the billing at the Foro Italico, which due to coronavirus precautions will not allow fans on the premises until Thursday.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion lost his serve in the opening game of the first set when he left a ball far too short in the court on break point and Sinner cracked a forehand crosscourt winner.
Although he got the break back in the ensuing game thanks to one of his bread-and-butter shots, the down-the-line forehand, Sinner struck again in the fifth game by striking a lethal backhand down-the-line winner to set up break point and then grabbing a 3-2 lead a few points later with a backhand volley winner.
Sinner, however, struggled to impose his serve on perhaps the greatest clay-court returner of all time, getting broken back once again in the sixth game and then dropping serve once again to lose the set after a long game filled with highlight-reel rallies and great displays of court coverage.
The Italian had no intention of going quietly in the second set and grabbed an early break in the third game, but his inability to win free points on his first serve proved costly in the end.
Nadal broke back to even the score at 4-4 and then two games later clinched victory with one last untouchable forehand down-the-line winner.
Sinner challenged the Spanish great from the baseline like few players in the world can, but his insufficiently potent first serve (one ace and a 60 percent winning percentage on first-serve points) was his undoing.
“(It was) a positive match for me. I think I did a lot of things well. I played a solid match,” Nadal said. “(I am) happy in (that there were) a lot of positive things against a very tough player like Jannik. Very pleased with the victory.”
Next up for the world No. 3 in Thursday’s round of 16 will be another talented young player, 14th-ranked Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who defeated Italian wildcard Stefano Travaglia 7-6 (7-2), 6-3.
In other round-of-32 men’s singles action, Austrian world No. 4 Dominic Thiem rallied from a 3-6, 1-3 deficit to defeat Hungary’s Martin Fucsovics 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-0 on Wednesday, while German world No. 6 Alexander Zverev continued his strong run of form in a comfortable 6-2, 6-2 victory over Bolivian qualifier Hugo Dellien.
Russian world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, however, continued to struggle on clay in a 6-2, 6-4 loss to countryman Aslan Karatsev.
In women’s round of 32 action on Wednesday, 39-year-old American great Serena Williams stumbled to a 7-6 (8-6), 7-5 defeat at the hands of Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska in her first tournament match since losing in the Australian Open semifinals in mid-February.
Australian world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty defeated Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova 6-4, 6-1, but second-ranked Naomi Osaka of Japan was upset by American Jessica Pegula 7-6 (7-2), 6-2 and third-ranked Romanian Simona Halep was forced to retire with a left calf tear while trailing Germany’s Angelique Kerber 6-2, 3-3.
The 2018 French Open champion’s injury is a major setback less than three weeks before the start of Roland Garros, tennis’s most prestigious clay-court event. EFE