© Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour

Top seed Rafael Nadal converted only one break point against Alexander Zverev in his quarter-final defeat at the Mutua Madrid Open.

Nadal: 'This Is Very Difficult To Understand, Especially For Me'

Five-time champion bowed out in quarter-finals

Top seed Rafael Nadal was left ruing his missed opportunities after bowing out of the Mutua Madrid Open quarter-finals to an on-song Alexander Zverev on Friday.

The World No. 2 led Zverev 4-2 in the first set, but the German broke straight back after a spate of uncharacteristic errors from Nadal. The Spaniard then had a break chance at 4-3, but flubbed a forehand to give his opponent a lifeline back into the set.

From there, Nadal said, the match completely turned. The 2018 champion Zverev rallied to win 6-4, 6-4 and book a place into the semi-finals.

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“I’m leaving Madrid with an overall positive feeling, but at the same time with the ugly feeling of having played a match like this today against a great player,” Nadal admitted in his post-match press conference. “I think for most of the first set, I was playing better than him. And this is the negative part; while playing better than him in the first set, I still lost 6-4.

“This is very difficult to understand, especially for me.  When this happens to me, it’s usually in the opposite way – I find a way to win sets even though I’m not playing my best or as good as the opponent.”

Nadal fired only six winners across both sets, and more than doubled the unforced error count at 17. His normally deadly forehand only generated four of those winners, and 10 of the errors. By contrast, Zverev fired 28 winners – including 18 off the forehand – to dictate the outcome.

“I felt like I was playing better for much of the first set, but after a couple of errors – unjustifiable errors at the worst times – I found myself down a set,” Nadal said. “The outlook of the match changed there, both for me and for him. I knew then that a lot of suffering was waiting for me [in the second set], and for him, the knowledge that he just took a huge step forward during the match.”

The five-time Madrid champion was quick to give his opponent credit for putting him in uncomfortable situations throughout the match. Zverev claimed his third consecutive victory over Nadal, and the first on clay, to improve his ATP Head2Head record to 3-5.

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According to Nadal, part of what makes the World No. 6 such a tough opponent to face is his huge serve. Zverev’s average first serve speed was 25 kph faster than Nadal’s (217 kph to 192) on Friday and bounced much higher in Madrid’s high altitude.

“It’s not that I wasn’t able to find my ‘minimum level’, it’s that you’re playing against someone whose serve gets you into big trouble,” Nadal said. “Every serve goes above 220, so in conditions like these I have to return like six metres behind the baseline and even then I’m still hitting the returns at shoulder height.”

After a bad day at the office on his home turf, Nadal was eager to look ahead to the rest of the clay season as he prepares for the Internazionali BNL d’Italia and Roland Garros. He is aiming to add a 10th title at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Rome, and extend his record haul in Paris to 14 titles. Victory in Paris would also put Nadal at the top of the all-time Grand Slam winners list with 21 major crowns.

“Where the clay season stands is very simple: quarters, champion and quarters. And now comes Rome,” Nadal assessed. “That's all there is. I’ve been able to reach quarter-finals in Monte-Carlo, win in Barcelona and reach quarter-finals here, and I feel like I’ve been moving forward.

“We’ll see what happens in Rome. For me, the objective before Roland-Garros is to go to Rome and win it. That’s the truth.”

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