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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Thursday, May 9, 2024


Rafael Nadal saved seven of nine break points beating Zizou Bergs 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to score his 70th career Rome win today.

Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Crashing to the court, Rafael Nadal rolled over on the red clay, leaped to his feet then dashed to dig out a forehand drop-shot winner.

Withstanding a second-set knockdown, Nadal climbed off the clay fighting to his 70th career Rome win.

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Steely resolve and twisting topspin helped Nadal score a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 comeback conquest of tough Belgian qualifier Zizou Bergs in his Rome opener today.

“Of course that was not my best match; I was practicing better than how I played today without a doubt,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “But I found a way to win and that’s so important at the beginning of the tournament for me.

“As I said before: my game is more unpredictable than before. I didn’t play much tennis for the last two years. So yeah, some up and down, but I think I can do much better than what I did today and I hope to do it in the next round.”

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty.

Contesting his 19th Italian Open, Nadal snatched a 3-1 lead in all three sets, but saw Bergs battle back to win five of the final six games of the opener and test his serve in the decider as well.

Credit Bergs for taking his cracks at returns and showing no fear of the 14-time Roland Garros champion.

Still, Nadal has never lost back-to-back clay-court matches in his pro career and wasn’t about to go down today. Nadal raised his Rome record to 70-8, returning to the Eternal City with deep desire. Nadal hit his first serve with more sting at times than he did in Madrid, including an ace that helped him serve out the match.

Throwing his body around the court like a stunt man at times, Nadal rose from that fall and fought off seven of nine break points beating Bergs in two hours, 53 minutes to improve to 7-3 this season.

Ten-time Roman ruler Nadal will face former Miami Open champion Hubert Hurkacz for the first time in round two.

Building 3-1 leads in every set, Nadal was challenged trying to close and on serve at times. 

"I see it like a very positive today," Nadal said. "Even if I didn't play well, that for me was a little bit in some ways surprising, in another hand not surprising because I didn't play much tennis for almost two years.

"I need to accept that my level, it's a little bit more on and off. It's not like used to be that was very stable everything. I need to find this stability again. Matches like today helps, no?"

Ripping three rousing returns in a row, Nadal earned triple break point in the fourth game. Though Bergs saved the first two, Nadal lacerated a drive he could not handle to break for 3-1. Nadal went up 3-1, 30-15, but could not consolidate.

Twenty-three minutes into the match, Bergs read the wide serve and hit an angled backhand return winner breaking back with a firm “come on!”

Playing for the first Masters 1000 win of his career, Bergs settled in and found his footing as the set progressed. Bergs carved a fine drop shot winner capping a hold at 15 to even after eight games.

Growing a bit defensive and frustrated, Nadal missed a backhand batted at the errant ball falling into a triple break point chasm. Nadal laced an ace to save the first break point, but then double-faulted off the tape to gift Bergs his first lead of the day, 5-4, after 41 minutes.

The Belgian qualifier cracked a forehand down the line then went up 30-0 when Nadal blinked and netted a dropper—his 15th error—before an errant return gave Bergs triple-set point.

A fired-up Bergs slammed a flying forehand volley winner, closing the 41-minute opener with a bang. Bergs won five of the final six games of the set. Nadal betrayed his own cause, committing 16 unforced errors compared to 10 for Bergs.

World No. 108 Bergs grew up idolizing Nadal and said today he was "literally living the dream."

"Sometimes you lose because you don't really believe," Bergs said. "Maybe that's the case. It hard for me to say. But I really feel like we did our best in our being capable of trying to beat him... "I mean, his game is very tough. It's so heavy. Such a high spin balls. Playing my weaknesses. You can tell even his team did homework on me, what I don't like.

"The intensity he can give sometimes with his forehand and backhand, it's brutal. It's just a wonderful time playing him. It's what you want to do in your tennis career."

Three points into the second set, a fan apparently took ill near the top of the stadium causing a pause in play. Chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani leaped into action gathering some water bottles and passing them into the crowd asking fans to pass them up to the person in distress. Paramedics were called into issue aid.

While that was going on, Nadal had a conversation with his coaching team, including Carlos Moya, who encouraged the 14-time Grand Slam champion. Meanwhile, Bergs sat on his courtside seat with his eyes closed in a meditative state.

After about a 10-minute delay to help the fan, play resumed and Nadal zapped a forehand winner down the line to cap a love hold to start the second set.

In a crackling 27-shot rally, Nadal unleashed a forehand flurry at Bergs drawing an error for double break point. On the second break point, Bergs double faulted, giving Nadal the break and a 2-0 second-set lead.

Dialing in his forehand, Nadal was hammering that shot with vigor.

The 10-time Rome champion powered through 12 of the first 14 points of the set charing out to a 3-0 second-set lead.

Building a 3-1 lead for the second straight set, Nadal ran into trouble facing a break point. A churning forehand helped him save it, prompting his sister, seated next to their mom in the front row, to leap from her seat and applaud knowing how crucial the save was. Nadal held firm for 4-1.

Serving at 4-2, 15-30, Nadal caught a break when chair umpire Lahyani awarded him a first serve because of an unexpected noise erupting from the stadium speaker. Nadal made good use of that first serve reprieve going up 40-30. Bergs made a terrific forehand flick volley then drafted left and stuck a self-preservation volley for deuce.

Stepping into the court, Nadal hit with more authority withstanding another tough serve test for 5-2.

Serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal clipped the tape with a forehand to face break point. Bergs had a good look at a 105 mph serve but bashed a return long. Working his way forward, Nadal crushed a massive smash for set point and celebrated with an uppercut.

Whipping a crosscourt forehand winner, Nadal snatched the second set to force a decider after one hour, 49 minutes.

Sarasota finalist Bergs belted a beautiful running forehand pass down the line, starting the final set with a superb strike.

Two games into the second set, Nadal showed his improvisational brilliance.

Scampering behind the baseline, the Spaniard scooped a forehand, slipped, fell to court, rolled over on the red clay, leaped to his feet for a retrieval then dabbed a forehand drop-shot winner earning a roar from Rome fans.

Those heroics—and a Bergs netted drop shot at 30-all—helped Nadal survive and hold for 1-all.

The 37-year-old Spanish superstar mixed a shoulder-high loopy topspin to back Bergs up then lasered a diagonal forehand for break point in the third game. In the 13-stroke rally that followed, Nadal cornered Bergs with a series of forehand then unleashed a fierce forehand strike breaking for 2-1 with a series of first pumps.

Picking up his pace, Nadal powered through a strong hold blasting a backhand winner to seize a 3-1 lead for the third consecutive set.

The Belgian int he backward black baseball cap wasn’t done. Bergs saved a break point on a wild Nadal backhand pass that sailed and eventually held for 2-3.

Exploiting a double-fault and a pair of errors, Bergs earned triple break point two-and-a-half hours into the match.

Lining up a forehand, the Belgian netted it on the first break point. Nadal dabbed a dropper denying the second then drilled a forehand down the line saving the third break point. Nadal burst through five points in a row earning a hard-fought hold for 4-2.

Service games continued to be arduous as Nadal rallied from love-30 down holding for 5-3.

Serving for the match, Nadal slammed an ace down the T then rattled out a framed backhand error capping a gritty two hour, 53-minute victory with smiles and waves to the crowd. Father Sebastian Nadal held his grandson, Rafa, Jr., in his arms as the crowd cheered sharing family bond.

Nadal, now 18-1 in Rome openers, will try to lift his level in the second round against seventh-seeded Hubert Hurkacz.


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