Twelve second round matches were played, with an unlucky comeback from Del Potro and a farewell to professional tennis from David Ferrer, while world No.2 Nadal easily kept the future at bay.
R. Nadal (Spa, 2) d. F. Auger-Aliassime (Can, 30) 6-3 6-2
After a few worried whispers about his health (he confirmed himself in a press conference that he has been debilitated by a “stomach bug”), four-time champion Rafa Nadal took the stage for the first time this week after a disappointing start to his spring campaign – disappointing by his standards, with two semi-finals losses in his favourite playgrounds, Monte-Carlo and Barcelona.
His opponent was Canadian sensation Felix Auger-Aliassime, ranked 30 in the world at less than 19, who stated a few days ago that he had a Nadal poster on his bedroom’s wall for years.
However, if there was any inferiority complex or subjection for his idol, at first it didn’t show: Nadal started out a little rusty, and Auger-Aliassime exploited Nadal’s customary deep return position to open wide angles, so that none of the two was able to touch the other’s serve in the opening seven games. However, the Spaniard began with a defensive approach in the rallies, prompted by the windy weather – and Nadal is the undisputed wind GOAT, his spinny shots unaffected by Aeolus’s thrust. He most likely expected a dip of focus from his young opponent, and he was right: up 40-15 in the eighth game, the Canadian shot 2 forehands long without no solicitation from Nadal, and lost the compass after an incredible defensive lob from Rafa, missing two more inside-in approaches (one of them deflected long by the net cord). Nadal, a blood-smelling shark, immediately raised his level, and opened the next game with a cross-court backhand dagger (one of only four winners in the first set), easing into a final hold to bag the first set.
Nadal then kept the momentum going, and immediately broke, without ever looking back, if not for a momentary distraction when he was serving for the match. Auger probably gave his best in that game, playing amazing defence to go 30-30, and earning his very first break point by hitting right into Nadal’s body, eliciting a couple of short returns, before a Nadal double fault prolonged the match. Rafa quickly got himself three more match points, but three hard serves by the Canadian cancelled them. A fourth one was dispelled after a lengthy arm-wrestle, before a Mallorcan net cord created a further chance for Rafa, and the ensuing rally saw him through. The Canadian made many more unforced errors in the second set (16, against just 3 winners), whereas Nadal took more and more the initiative, despite a sloppier forehand than usual – it should be borne in mind that, despite it all time great nature, it’s still a constructed shot, so it could take a while to get it going.
Even without looking like his cannibal self, he didn’t concede a break point until his final service game – this is the great advantage of his new serve, developed with Moyà, that even when he is not physically spry (again, by his standards), he can still win tons of quick points, not fatiguing himself too much, and a much more traditional and aggressive backhand adds to a style that on its best days has no discernible flaws. His fourth round might be even more interesting: Frances Tiafoe might be a little tired, after two three- setters, but his ball is heavier than Aliassime’s, so he could push Nadal a little more on the defensive.
A. Zverev (4, seeded 3rd) v D. Ferrer (Spa, 144, WC)
The final match of the night had an incredible resonance, as it was supposed to be (and turned out to be) David Ferrer’s final encounter before a well-deserved retirement. Ferru got two wildcards to play in front of his home crowd, in Barcelona and Madrid, a noble gesture on the part of the organisers.
His opponent was defending champion Sascha Zverev, who hasn’t been playing his best tennis this season, mostly due to a few issues off the court, but that in 2018 put up a thoroughly despotic showcase of his game, finishing the tournament with 48% of unreturned serves, which on clay is basically unheard of. As a matter of fact, he admits himself that clay is his preferred surface, as it allows him to stand behind the baseline to charge his catapult with an abysmally low percentage of error, even on his forehand, which can sometimes betray him, but that can be just as deadly if he gets a little more time to search for the ball with his left hand.
Ferrer didn’t disappoint, especially at the beginning, as he decided to go out kicking and wailing, exploiting three Zverev double faults to take a 3-1 lead, following it with a forehand pass, a 27-shot attrition rally that took back the clock of half a decade (he won 9 out of 13 points over 9 shots), and a drop&lob combination, and a further drop shot to try and run away for one more time, as the crowd cheered on.
However, Zverev isn’t the type to get intimidated by a hostile crowd (he won the ATP Finals after getting booed and ostracised by the O2 because of a point he had the umpire repeat against Federer), and, after a quick hold, he played two defensive rallies that shouldn’t belong in such a lengthy specimen’s arsenal, earning two counter-break points on which he didn’t have to work, gifted as he was by a Ferrer double fault, in a nice symmetry of the earlier favours traded between the two.
The contest was substantially over after that: Zverev’s heavy striking took over in the rallies, and he even started to read Ferrer’s drop shots, despite his usual position far behind the baseline. His backhand was a sight to behold, and fetched him a second break, on which he capitalised to close the first set in 41 minutes.
In the second set, the Spaniard was ostensibly worn out by the third seed’s heavy, and above all consistently deep hitting, piling up mistakes and getting broken immediately. Zverev didn’t look back, but, up 1-5, 0-40 on Ferrer’s serve, he read the room and was very respectful of the momentous situation, even stopping a little longer before the final point to let the fans stand up to cheer on Ferru for one last time, and he was visibly moved, leaving his headband on the court for one last time and offering a moving, albeit a little perfunctory, speech to thank everyone that’s helped him over the years.
In the end, it was a fitting exeunt for the Valencian: a fitting location, with two tournaments in his own homeland, for which he did so much, including winning three Davis Cups; a fitting opponent, the best player (thus far) of those who will have to pick up on the legacy of his blessed generation – in that sense, it
reminded a little of Marat Safin’s last match against Del Potro in 2009, which also took place in a tournament the veteran loved, Bercy, against a great newcomer; and a fitting route, because in both tournaments he received a wildcard for, Barcelona and Madrid, he summed up his whole career, for better and for worse, winning every match within his own limits, only to bow out against the very best (he lost to Nadal in Barcelona). So, as banal as it might sound, thank you Ferru, first of the humans.
L. Djere (Srb, 32) d. J. M. Del Potro (Arg, 8, seeded 7th) 6-3 2-6 7-5
Juan Martin Del Potro played his first competitive match in three months, losing in a tight battle to Laslo Djere, who is having a breakout season after winning the ATP 500 in Rio in late February, a win that was made even more poignant by his touching speech for his recently deceased parents.
Delpo is two-time French Open semi-finalist (2009 and 2018), so he knows his way around clay, but he’s also a slow starter, and that, combined with the understandable rustiness caused by his long absence, was on full display in the first set: Djere’s very well-rounded baseline play moved him around ceaselessly, preventing him from charging his trademark forehand, and locking him into several long rallies – the Serbian won eight out of nine rallies over nine shots. Moreover, the Argentinian’s second serve was abysmal, winning only 25% of points, obviously opening himself for a break, which inevitably occurred in the sixth game, when Djere immediately took a 0-40 lead, breaking on the second occasion after a stingy defence against Del Potro’s hardest blows. Nothing much happened after that, and the set concluded with a hold to love.
Del Potro, however, is used to lengthy battles, starting to hit more cleanly and reading the opponent’s second serve a lot better, and broke in the fourth game behind three deep returns and an awkward-yet-effective backhand half-volley. Rallies got shorter and shorter, as the Tower of Tandil hit forehand winners from everywhere (he finished the set with 13, to just five unforced errors), and closed the set with another break.
Djere, however, demonstrated an impressive resilience, and started taking more risks on the return, hitting two winners in a row off Del Potro’s second serve in the fifth game, which the Argentinian held without conceding any break points, but a change in tide was palpable. Both players were now hitting returns at a high rate, and what followed was the most exciting game of the game, with Djere holding after 10 minutes, despite conceding three break points and struggling with his inside-in forehand at times.
Ultimately, the missed chances got into Del Potro’s head, for in the ninth game he came up short on a match point, saved by Djere with a good net approach after a long rally. The Argentinian looked emptied out afterwards, and lost the final two games without putting up much of a fight, as Djere showed once again his outstanding court coverage (just like another Serbian) and thwarted his resistance. Del Potro should see the bright side though, since he was competitive for over two hours, which is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and got a taste of the surface in order to be ready for Rome and Paris. Djere will continue his Spanish campaign by facing another big server in Marin Cilic, and it’s fair to assume that it won’t be an easy call.
Other results included an easy Fognini win, which set up a clash with Thiem for the early afternoon of Thursday (despite being by far the most interesting match of the day, between arguably the two most in-form players of the clay season, it was slated for Court No.3), another gutsy three-setter for Frances Tiafoe, and a further encouraging performance from Stan Wawrinka, who beat clay specialist of the moment Guido Pella quite handily:
J. Chardy (Fra, 47) d. D. Schwarzman (Arg, 25) 6-1 6-2
G. Monfils (Fra, 18, seeded 15th) d. M. Fucsovics (Hun, 36) 1-6 6-4 6-2
K. Nishikori (7, seeded 6th) d. H. Dellien (Bol, 109, Q) 7-5 7-5
F. Fognini (Ita, 12, seeded 10th) d. J. Millman (Aus, 48) 6-2 6-2
F. Tiafoe (USA, 37) d. P. Kohlschreiber (Ger, 50) 6-4 3-6 6-3
H. Hurcacz (Pol, 52, Q) d. L. Pouille (Fra, 28) 7-5 6-1
S. Wawrinka (Swi, 34) d. G. Pella (Arg, 26) 6-3 6-4
S. Tsitsipas (9, seeded 8th) d. A. Mannarino (Fra, 56, LL) 6-2 7-5
F. Verdasco (Spa, 38) d. K. Khachanov (Rus, 13, seeded 11th) 6-7 (4) 6-1 7-5