Rafael Nadal’s bid for an 11th crown at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia enjoyed a smooth start on Wednesday afternoon as the legendary Spaniard blunted the big-serving John Isner to seal a 6-3, 6-1 second-round win at the ATP Masters 1000 event.
Nadal has been untouchable at the Foro Italico for much of his career and he immediately looked settled in his return games against Isner, countering the American’s huge serve with his trademark spinning groundstrokes. Although the unseeded Isner competed well, he struggled to recover any momentum after letting slip two break points at 3-3 in the opening set as Nadal dominated the second to move to a 69-7 match record in the Italian capital.
Nadal identified his hold in the seventh game of the first set as the key turning point in his eighth tour-level win over Isner. “I finished better than how I started, without a doubt,” said the Spaniard after the match. “The beginning of the match was not good for me.
“He had some chances on the return and had two break points. [He had] two not difficult balls so I was in his hands at that moment. I was lucky that he missed those shots and then I was able to break. Then the match changed, of course. With the first set on the board, and having the break in the first game of the second [set], everything changed.”
The win continued Nadal’s comeback to competitive action after he reached the quarter-finals of the Mutua Madrid Open last week following a six-week layoff due to a rib injury. Having lost to eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz in Spain, the win over Isner ensured Nadal has still never lost consecutive matches on clay, with Wednesday’s victory taking him to 44-0 in matches following a defeat on the surface.
An evenly matched opening set hinged on the seventh and eighth games, as Nadal saved two break points to hold before breaking the American for 5-3. He served out to clinch the set as Nadal began to up his level to the delight of a passionate Italian crowd.
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Nadal’s return game continued to look in good shape against former World No. 8 Isner, and the 36-time Masters 1000 champion broke the World No. 27 three times in the second set to complete a comfortable 76-minute victory. The win was built on relentless consistency from Nadal, who made just three unforced errors in the match.
“I just focussed on myself,” added Nadal when asked about his second-set improvement. “I focussed on trying to keep going. I knew I had to do things better than I had done, and I need to practise to try and do it better and better.”
The Spaniard next faces another North American star in the third round, 13th seed Denis Shapovalov. The pair met in a memorable semi-final in Rome last year, when Nadal saved two match points before prevailing over the Canadian in a deciding-set tie-break after three hours, 27 minutes.
“Last year was a joke, the match that I saved here against him,” said Nadal. “[I was] super lucky. I know how dangerous he is, I need to play well, of course. I need to play better than today, but after a while without being on court it is another victory and I have the chance again to play against one of the best players in the world.
“I need to build things again after a tough stoppage and that’s what I am trying now. I just need to stay with the right attitude, and let’s see if I am able to make that happen.”