Rafael Nadal strolls past big-hitting John Isner and into last 16 of Italian Open

Spaniard moves step closer to title No 11 in Rome while Tsitsipas battles to victory over Dimitrov

Rafael Nadal celebrates after his 6-3, 6-1 victory over John Isner at the Italian Open in Rome on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. Getty
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Rafa Nadal began the defence of his Italian Open title with an emphatic straight-sets victory over big-serving John Isner on Wednesday.

Nadal, who returned from a rib injury this month and was beaten at the quarter-final stage by the eventual champion Carlos Alcaraz in Madrid last week, dominated Isner eventually winning 6-3, 6-1.

The Spaniard, who is aiming for his 11th title at Rome's Foro Italico, is looking to build momentum going into the French Open that starts in less than two weeks. Nadal has won 13 of his 21 Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros.

When the match finished, Nadal headed straight to the practice court to hit more balls. He explained that he’s a “bit in a rush” to find his best form “as soon as possible”.

“I need to work as much as I can,” Nadal said. “The match today was not that demanding physically.”

It was essentially decided during one brief stretch. Nadal struggled on his serve at 3-3 in the first set, missing a forehand into the net then double-faulting to set up break points for Isner. But the Isner made unforced errors on both of his break-point opportunities and Nadal eventually held.

In the following game, Nadal broke Isner’s serve when the 2.08 metre tall American missed a comfortable forehand volley into the net. Nadal then held at love to close out the first set and broke Isner’s serve in the opening game of the second.

“I finished better than I started – without a doubt,” Nadal, who takes on Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the last 16, said. “He had some chances on the returns. I was in his hands in that moment. Lucky that he missed those shots.”

Second-seeded German Alexander Zverev, who was routed by Alcaraz in the Madrid final on Sunday, beat Sebastian Baez 7-6, 6-3 to end the Argentine qualifier’s eight-match winning streak and will now face Australia's Alex de Minaur.

Monte Carlo champion and former French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, seeded fourth, looked to be strolling into the next round after taking the first set against Grigor Dimitrov in just over half an hour.

But Bulgarian Dimitrov, beaten by world No 5 Tsitsipas in both Barcelona and Madrid in recent weeks, fought back from 5-3 down in the second set to level the match and looked to have the better of his Greek opponent in set three.

However, he failed to capitalise on two match points, which both came against serve, and Tsitsipas rattled off five straight games in the tie-break to ensure a 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 victory.

“Incredible fight. I'm extremely happy I was able to overcome this obstacle,” Tsitsipas said post-match. “Grigor played really well, gave me a hard time on the court.

“Just so many emotions. The fact that I was able to process all of that and come back stronger in the third-set tie-break, it was such a great way to redeem myself after not being able to hold in that last game of the second set.”

Updated: May 11, 2022, 4:25 PM
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