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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, May 7, 2021

Alex Zverev

Alexander Zverev rallied from 2-4 down, sweeping Rafael Nadal for the third time in a row, 6-4, 6-4, to roll into the Madrid semifinals vs. Dominic Thiem.

Photo credit: Mateo Villalba/Mutua Madrid Open

Sporting a sleeveless shirt, Alexander Zverev disarmed king of clay Rafael Nadal on his home court with stunning conviction.

Beating Nadal to the punch with his forehand and pounding any short returns he saw, Zverev rallied from 2-4 down flying through 10 of the final 14 games sweeping the top-seeded Spaniard 6-4, 6-4 to charge into the Mutua Madrid Open semifinals.

"It helped that I've beaten him the last few times that we played," said Zverev, who has now swept six sets in a row from Nadal, including indoor wins at the 2019 ATP Finals and 2020 Rolex Paris Masters. "Of course it's on hard court, which is very different.

"Yeah, I mean, I don't know. To beat Rafa on a clay court in Spain, you have to play your best. I'm extremely happy to have done that. Yeah, we'll see what the next few matches hold for me."

More: Thiem Fights Into Fourth Madrid Semifinal

Obviously, it's a surprising result given five-time champion Nadal was coming off his 61st career clay-court crown in Barcelona, had the massive backing of the Spanish fans on the largest tennis stadium in his nation and carried a mind-blowing 454-41 career clay-court record into this match.

None of that mattered much to Zverev who exploited a sloppy seventh game from the Spaniard, elevated his intensity after Nadal challenged his serve in the eighth game and actually out-hit Nadal in forehand exchanges for much of the final set and a half. Zverev scored his third consecutive straight-sets win over Nadal.

"I had the match under control at the beginning, playing well for six games, probably playing better than him," Nadal told Tennis Now's Chris Oddo in his presser immediately afterward. "Then in the 4-2 serving for 5-2, I did a disaster. Another bad game with my game with 30-Love.

"Of course, playing against one of the best players of the world, under this circumstances, with this speed of the court, is very difficult to still confident. So, yeah, I tried. But is true that the serve was difficult to control today. Yeah, well done for him."

The high altitude and fast pace of the Madrid court left Nadal lunging, shaking his head and muttering to himself at times trying to catch up to the depth and pace of Zverev's drives. The Acapulco champion converted three of six break points, including breaking twice in a row in the opening set, improving to 13-2 in Madrid. 

While Nadal was not nearly at his best, credit Zverev for taking the racquet out of the 13-time Roland Garros champion's hands, dictating play with his fierce forehand and more aggressive court positioning and treating Nadal's short returns with sheer disdain.

It all added up to Zverev's third consecutive straight-sets win over Nadal sending the 2018 Madrid champion into a blockbuster clash vs. Dominic Thiem that's a rematch of the wild and crazy 2020 US Open final. Zverev held a two-set lead then went up in the fifth set only to see Thiem rally and capture his maiden major in a fifth-set tiebreaker. Thiem joined legendary Hall of Famer Pancho Gonzales becoming just the second man in history to win a US Open final after trailing by two sets.

Scoring his first career clay-court win over the 13-time Roland Garros champion, Zverev has now won three in a row vs. Nadal narrowing his lead in their head-to-head series to 5-3.

The world No. 6 has the biting serve and massive two-handed backhand to combat Nadal's ferocious crosscourt forehand and as Nadal's confidence waned, his shots grew shallow.

Signs of stress bubbled up on the red clay then bit Zverev in the sixth game. The former Rome champion is most comfortable playing his forehand crosscourt. Nadal knows it and gave the German plenty of space in a crosscourt exchange baiting him to go down the line. Zverev went for it but missed his forehand down the line to face triple break point.

The 6'6" German's second serve has been solid for much of the tournament, but he gagged on a second serve sending a double fault into net to gift a love break and 4-2 lead to Nadal.

Serving to stretch the lead, Nadal got burned attacking. Twenty-eight minutes into the match, Nadal approached to Zverev's two-hander and paid the price as the German bolted a backhand pass for break point. Zverev zapped a forehand pass to break back in the seventh game. 

A slight tiff fired up Zverev, who denied break point in the eighth game, to level with a shout. Earlier in the game, Zverev argued Nadal only challenged his serve after the Spaniard spotted his own return land long, asserting that was an unreasonable and unfair challenge. Zverev lost the argument but ultimately won the game for 4-all and played with an intense edge.

It was Nadal's turn to tighten as he committed a couple of errors then slapped a second serve into net to face break point. Zverev was the aggressor throughout and coaxed a netted pass pulling off the rarity in breaking Nadal twice in a row on clay for 5-4.

A backhand drive volley gave Zverev double set point. The German hammered his second ace down the middle streaking through his fourth straight game to take the 49-minute opener. 

You know the pace and force of Zverev's two-handed backhand, and through the first 12 games he did a lot more damage with his forehand than the 34-year-old Spaniard. Zverev had seven more forehand winners—8 to 1—when Nadal escaped a break point with a forehand drop shot winner that helped him hold for a 2-1 second-set lead.

A crackling return into Nadal's body rattled out a netted forehand earning Zverev double break point. Measuring his menacing forehand, Zverev froze Nadal roping a clean forehand winner down the line that completely quieted the Spanish faithful breaking for 3-2.

The fifth seed provoked a puff of red dust to rise ripping his fourth ace off the T consolidating the break with an emphatic love hold for 4-2.

Tennis Express

Dancing on the ledge of a calamitous break, Nadal fought off two break points, catching a break when Zverev sailed a second-serve return on the second break point. Nadal navigated the stress holding firm in the seventh game and getting the crowd revved for rally.

Zverev pressed the mute button jumping all over a short return to hammer a backhand winner that broke a 30-all deadlock and helped him hold for 5-3. By then, the US Open finalist had a 25 to 6 edge in winners.

Rapping a forehand winner down the line gave Zverev double match point. He blasted a backhand crosscourt drawing a netted return and erupting in a triumphant shout scoring his third straight-sets win over the 20-time Grand Slam champion in one hour, 44 minutes.

"I feel like I'm going to go back to the right path. I'm doing a good job of that," Zverev said. "Hope I can continue playing the way I played in the next matches.

"Yeah, it's not going to get easier. Dominic is also a great player. I got to respect that. I got to respect the fights that we've had with him in the past few matches, hopefully be able to go to another Madrid final."


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