Rafa Reigns In Rome, Returns To No. 1

Rafael Nadal outlasts Alexander Zverev in three gripping sets at the Foro Italico

That did not take long. One week after relinquishing the top spot in the ATP Rankings, Rafael Nadal will make his return to No. 1.

Nadal is set to embark on his 174th week at the pinnacle of men's tennis after ousting Alexander Zverev 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, in a pulsating final at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Sunday. He capped another dominant week on the dirt, capturing his third ATP World Tour title in less than a month.

After five years, the Spaniard is back in the winners' circle in Rome. He notched an unprecedented eighth crown at the iconic Foro Italico, adding to victories in 2005-07, 2009-10 and 2012-13. Nadal was at his ruthless best once again and following a quarter-final defeat to Dominic Thiem last week in Madrid, he was even more determined to lift another trophy.

"It has been an amazing week," said Nadal. "Such an important week to have this trophy with me again after losing in the quarter-finals in Madrid. It was unforgettable and emotional for me. It's amazing to win eight titles in Rome. It's a difficult event and to have the chance to win again here means a lot. This is the moment to enjoy winning here again."

Nadal also added a slice of history with his victory in the Eternal City. The 31-year-old now stands alone in fourth place on the Open Era titles list, adding a 78th piece of silverware to pass John McEnroe. Only Jimmy Connors (109), Roger Federer (97) and Ivan Lendl (94) remain ahead of him.

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Open Era Title Leaders

Player Open Era Titles
(1) Jimmy Connors 109
(2) Roger Federer 97
(3) Ivan Lendl 94
(4) Rafael Nadal
(5) John McEnroe 77

Zverev sprinted out of the gates on an overcast late afternoon in the Italian capital, snatching an immediate break in the first game. The German looked to continue to play aggressive, first-strike tennis, which is exactly what saw him win 13 straight matches and reach consecutive ATP World Tour Masters 1000 finals.

The Foro Italico is Nadal's playground and he would strike back with considerable aplomb. The Spaniard broke right back to love with a sublime drop shot, and he would secure another break with a cross-court forehand winner two games later. Zverev had no answer for Nadal's penetrating groundstrokes and devastating return game.

But Zverev would respond in kind to open the second set, suddenly raising his level and out of nowhere the 21-year-old reeled off five straight games. If you turned away for a minute, you missed it. Matching Nadal's pace and depth off the ground, the World No. 3 fired back to force a decider. It ended Nadal's streak of 17 consecutive sets won in clay-court finals.

And as Zverev carried the momentum into the third set with another break, the drama built to a crescendo as the skies closed and rain began to fall on Centrale. A pair of delays suspended play for a combined 55 minutes, with Zverev leading 3-2. But the rain would dampen the German's momentum, and Nadal snatched the initiative upon resumption. Zverev would not win another game. The World No. 1 drew level and grabbed another break for 5-3, before closing out his eighth Rome title with a brilliant drop volley winner.

"When it happened, the rain delay, I didn't feel in that moment that it would help me," added Nadal. "That's my feeling. It's true that, if we analyse it now, of course, we can say that the rain delay helped me. But really, in my opinion, what helped me is that I came back with a clear idea in terms of tactical issues and in terms of decisions that I took after that break.

"And, of course, a little bit of luck that I had the break back immediately. That was a big help. And I think I played with the right determination and strategy later."

Nadal secured the title after two hours and nine minutes, firing 19 total winners, including nine off his backhand wing. Zverev, meanwhile, launched 21 winners, but made 28 unforced errors. The Spaniard dominated the shorter rallies, claiming the majority under five shots by a count of 33-25.

Victory in Rome was well deserved for the now 32-time Masters 1000 champion. Earlier in the week, Nadal got his revenge over Denis Shapovalov after falling to the surging teen in Montreal last year, and he would overcome home favourite Fabio Fognini from a set down. On Saturday, longtime rival Novak Djokovic, who defeated Nadal in his two final losses in Rome, was ousted in straight sets by the Spaniard.

Despite the loss, Zverev will ascend to the top of the ATP Race To London standings on Monday. Following victories in Munich and Madrid, he saw his win streak snapped at 13 straight in his bid to retain the Rome title.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Zverev said about the rain. "Next time, I have to find a way to come out better after the rain and play better tennis. He came out way faster and played much more aggressive than I did.

"And, you know, with the fatigue I had it took me a very long time to get activated again and to get going. Obviously, it wasn't enough time. It just changed momentum. And Rafa is somebody that if you're not in the match and if you're not feeling the ball well, you have no chance."

Tour-Level Match Wins Leaders In 2018

Player Match Wins
(1) Alexander Zverev 30
(2) Dominic Thiem 25
(T-3) Rafael Nadal 23
(T-3) Juan Martin del Potro 23

Zverev, who owns a tour-leading 30 match wins this year, will next turn his attention to Roland Garros, where he hopes to dethrone Nadal and stop the Spaniard from claiming an 'Undécima' at the clay-court Grand Slam. And with only 10 points to defend in Paris, his quest continues to become the first player outside the Big Four to crack the Top 2 of the ATP Rankings in 13 years.

"I think this week is the most satisfying, actually," Zverev added. "Because even when I was tired, I still found a way against great players. And this is not easy to do. This is one of the biggest tournaments that we have in the world. So, finding a way to get to the final after two tournaments that I won is something amazing for me. And I was not far away from beating Rafa on a clay court in a Masters final. So I guess I can take that into Paris."

Did You Know?
Nadal extended his FedEx ATP Head2Head record to a perfect 5-0 against Zverev, marking the second time he has prevailed this year. Last month he earned a straight-set win in Davis Cup action.