Once is enough when it comes to beating Rafael Nadal on clay court.
Throughout his career, Nadal has never lost consecutive matches on his favorite surface and the Spaniard extended that perfect record on Wednesday by beating John Isner 6-3 6-1 to reach the third round of the Italian Open.
Nadal was coming off a loss to 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in the Madrid Open quarterfinals last week. After a first-round bye, he improved to 44-0 in clay matches following a loss on the surface.
Perhaps most importantly, Nadal has regained some confidence as he recovers from a stress fracture to his ribs that kept him out for six weeks before the tournament in Madrid.
While he would clearly love to add to his record total of 10 Italian Open titles, Nadal’s biggest goal is to get back to his best form in time for the French Open, which starts in less than two weeks.
Nadal has won 13 of his 21 Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros.
When the match was over, Nadal headed straight to the practice court to hit more balls. He explained that he is “in a bit of a hurry” to find the best shape for him as soon as possible.
“I need to work as much as I can,” Nadal said. “Today’s match was not that physically demanding.”
It was essentially decided for a short stretch.
Nadal struggled with his serve at 3-3 in the first set, missing a forehand into the net and then double faulting to set up break points for Isner.
But the American made unforced errors on both of his break chances and Nadal eventually held on.
In the next game, Nadal broke Isner’s serve when the lanky American missed a comfortable forehand volley into the net. Nadal then held his ground to close out the first set and broke Isner’s serve in the opening game of the second.
Next, Nadal meets Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian he beat at the same stage last year in a grueling three-set victory in which the Spaniard saved two match points.
“Super lucky,” Nadal said, reflecting on playing Shapovalov last year. “I know how dangerous it is. I need to play better than today.”