Preview: Nadal & Opelka Beat The Rain, But Who Will Triumph In Rome?

After rain washed out half a day’s play at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Semi-final Saturday will prove to be a hectic affair as six players are set to take the court at the Foro Italico and only two will emerge with spots in the championship match.

Second seed Rafael Nadal booked a first-time meeting against big-serving Reilly Opelka in the semi-finals, and the winner will have to wait to learn his final opponent. Top seed Novak Djokovic and fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas were locked in their quarter-final clash when rain halted play, while seventh seed Andrey Rublev and Lorenzo Sonego were waiting in the wings. The quarter-final winners will have to do double duty and contest a semi-final match later in the day for a place in the final.

Unseeded Opelka has served up 77 aces on his way to his first ATP Masters 1000 semi-final, and he got there without dropping a set. The American is by no means fond of the red dirt, and he tried to brush off his career’s best result as ‘probably just a fluke’ after his quarter-final victory over Argentine qualifier Federico Delbonis.

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“I am surprised [to reach my first Masters 1000 semi-final here]. Clay is not really my thing,” Opelka said in his post-match interview. “[It is] not much of an American thing. It is probably just a fluke, but I’ll run with it.”

Opelka’s performances this week are proving otherwise, despite arriving in Rome on a six-match losing streak. It was by no means a cakewalk, as he had to manoeuvre past experienced clay-courters and in-form players including Italian wildcard Lorenzo Musetti and Dubai champion Aslan Karatsev along the way.

The name Opelka is almost synonymous with booming serves, and he’ll have to hold for his life and back up his best shot to keep the pressure on Nadal on Saturday. But the key for the 6’11” American this week has actually been improving his overall movement around the court. 

“I hit a breaking point last week where I just felt slow on the court,” Opelka told ATPTour.com. “I’ve been in the gym a lot, I’ve been working on my speed and footwork, but this was something that was more technical about my movement. 

“I watched a lot of film of myself and I’m really happy with some habits that I broke pretty quickly. A lot of times my first step to a ball was a shuffle, a sidestep, and that’s just wrong. I’m going to be late and then I’ll be behind the whole time. Breaking that habit and making sure I’m turning my hips and running to the ball, just playing with some more urgency [and being] just more organised with my footwork has been huge.”

At this stage of the tournament, it’s usually Opelka’s opponent Nadal who can boast reaching an ATP Masters 1000 semi-final without dropping a set. That hasn’t been the case this week for the nine-time Rome champion, who has faced stern competition and had to save match points on his way to the last four.

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But champions adjust, and Nadal has had to dig deep to overcome #NextGenATP Italian Jannik Sinner 7-5, 6-4 and tapped into Plan A, B, and to come back from a set and match points down against 13th seed Denis Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3). That tactical thinking should come in handy against Opelka, a player who would likely tee off against the deep returns Nadal has been hitting all week but could struggle if the World No. 3 put his movement to the test by pulling him away from the baseline. 

Nadal’s most emphatic win of the week came against sixth seed Alexander Zverev, the player who defeated him en route to the Mutua Madrid Open title. Nadal needed two sets and two hours to claim his revenge with a confidence-boosting 6-3, 6-4 victory.

“It’s a great victory for me,” Nadal said. “Of course it’s important because [being] under pressure, under tough moments [was when] sometimes I lost important points last couple of weeks. Today, yesterday [against Shapovalov], before yesterday too, I was able to manage it well. To hold well the pressure, to put one more ball in. I think my movements have been improving.

“I’m super happy, because after the battle yesterday, to be able to be on court against a player like Sascha, he had [a] tough match too, but he’s more than 10 years younger than me… And I was able to be fit, to be ready, and [that is] something gives me confidence. So I’m very happy for that.”

Earlier in the day, last year’s champion Djokovic will try to come back from a set and a break down against Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters winner Tsitsipas, who was leading 6-4, 2-1 on Friday before rain washed out play. Djokovic leads Tsitsipas 4-2 in their ATP Head2Head, and he won their most recent meeting on clay 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1 in a classic Roland Garros semi-final last year. 

Monte-Carlo finalist Rublev will take a 1-0 ATP Head2Head lead into his clash with home favourite Sonego after defeating the Italian 6-4, 6-4 en route to the Vienna title last year. The Russian is tied with Race leader Stefanos Tsitsipas for most wins on Tour this year (29) and would meet the Greek in the semi-finals for a tie-breaker should both win.

ORDER OF PLAY – SATURDAY, MAY 15, 2021
CENTER COURT start 11:00 am

Quarterfinals – ATP – [1] N. Djokovic (SRB) vs [5] S. Tsitsipas (GRE) 46 12

Not Before 12:00 noon
WTA MATCH

Not Before 1:00 pm
Semifinals – ATP – R. Opelka (USA) vs [2] R. Nadal (ESP)

Not Before 3:00 pm
WTA MATCH

Not Before 6:30 pm
Semifinals – ATP – [1] N. Djokovic (SRB) or [5] S. Tsitsipas (GRE) vs L. Sonego (ITA) or [7] A. Rublev (RUS)

GRAND STAND ARENA start 11:00 am
Quarterfinals – L. Sonego (ITA) vs [7] A. Rublev (RUS) 00
WTA MATCH
WTA MATCH
WTA MATCH

PIETRANGELI start 11:00 am
WTA MATCH
Quarterfinals – ATP – [4] M. Granollers (ESP) / H. Zeballos (ARG) vs [5] R. Ram (USA) / J. Salisbury (GBR) 34
Semifinals – ATP – J. Peers (AUS) / M. Venus (NZL) vs [2] N. Mektic (CRO) / M. Pavic (CRO)