2018 in review: Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev rule on clay

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2018 in review: Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev rule on clay

* ATP 250 Budapest: Marco Cecchinato (ITA) vs John Millman (AUS) 7-5 6-4 World number 92 Marco Cecchinato arrived in Budapest with just five ATP wins under his belt, looking to qualify for the main draw and continue where he left in Monte Carlo in the previous week.

It wasn't to be for him, though, losing in the second qualifying round to Jurgen Zopp but he still earned the place in the main draw as a lucky loser after Laslo Djere was forced to withdraw. Marco grabbed the opportunity with both hands, going all the way to clinch his first ATP title despite never playing in the semi-final at this level before.

Cecchinato is the ninth player in the Open era who won an ATP title as a lucky loser and the third in the last two seasons after Andrey Rublev and Leonardo Mayer in Umag and Hamburg last July. The title match was the most important in a career for both him and John Millman who had an initial disadvantage, having to complete his semi-final match against the 5th seed Aljaz Bedene earlier on Sunday just to get a chance to compete in the final.

He had to save three match points in the 12th game of the third set before ousting the Slovenian but he couldn't repeat that against Cecchinato, losing 7-5 6-4 in an hour and 47 minutes to stay empty-handed. Marco and John played twice before but all the way back in 2011 on the Futures level, with Cecchinato winning both matches which gave him the advantage in this encounter as well.

The Italian won just four points more than his rival, saving five out of seven break points to keep the pressure on the other side of the net. Millman gave his best but his serve was broken four times from eight opportunities he gave to Cecchinato and he failed to win at least a set despite a set point in the opening set and a 4-2 lead in the second! Cecchinato drew first blood in the third game when Millman sprayed a forehand error and he saved a break point in game six to move 4-2 ahead.

Still, John found the way to break him next time around, hitting a backhand return winner to level the score at 4-4 and take charge on the court, creating a set point on the return in game 10. Marco saved it with a nice smash and that proved to be very important when he won four points in a row in the following game to break Millman after a poor backhand from the Aussie.

Cecchinato held in game 12 to close the opener after a great running forehand and he was just a set away from his first ATP crown. John fought off two break points at the start of the second set and he earned a break in game two to open up an early lead, looking good to send the match into a decider after two more break chances in game six that could have sent him 5-1 up.

Cecchinato saved both with good serves and he closed the game with a forehand winner that kept him in contention in this second set. The Italian broke back in the very next game and he was not to be denied from that point, scoring another break in game nine and sealing the deal after a lucky net cord in the following game to start a huge celebration of what has been his most important win in a career up to that point.

* ATP 250 Munich: Alexander Zverev (GER) vs Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 6-3 6-3 World number 3 Alexander Zverev successfully defended his Munich title after a 6-3 6-3 win over a compatriot Philipp Kohlschreiber in an hour and 11 minutes, lifting his seventh ATP trophy and the first since Montreal last August.

The young German didn't enjoy a perfect start of the season but he found his form in Acapulco, Miami and Monte Carlo, scoring 21 ATP wins in a season so far and defending an ATP title for the first time in his career.

Kohlschreiber played great tennis before the final, seeking his fourth title in Munich from six finals but he lost the second straight match to Alexander on the home soil after getting broken four times. Zverev served at 80% and he saved two out of three break points to keep the pressure on the more experienced rival who couldn't endure it, unable to impose his shots on both the first and second serve or to overpower Sascha from the baseline.

Philipp saved a break point in the opening game of the match with a service winner to avoid an early setback and the match was on, with four easy holds on both sides in the following games. It was Sascha's turn to survive a scare in game six, fending off two break points to level the result at 3-3 and stay on the positive side of the scoreboard.

This proved to be even more important when Zverev scored a break in game seven with a lob winner. This gave him the momentum and he clinched the set with another break in game nine when Philipp's forehand landed long, moving a set away from the title defense.

Kohlschreiber made a better start in set number two, earning a break in game three when Sascha placed a backhand beyond the baseline but he sprayed a similar error in the following game to lose his serve and the advantage, sending the momentum back to the other side of the court.

Zverev served well in the rest of the set and he was waiting for a chance on the return patiently, creating a break point in game eight after Philipp's backhand error and converting it with a forehand winner to move 5-3 ahead and serve for the title in the next game.

He delivered it in the best possible way, hitting four service winners to start a huge celebration in front of the home crowd, happy with the way he played and with the trophy in his hands after a long break. * ATP 250 Estoril: Joao Sousa (POR) vs Frances Tiafoe (USA) 6-4 6-4 Performing in his 10th ATP final, the home favorite Joao Sousa claimed his third ATP title (the first since Valencia 2015) after a 6-4 6-4 triumph over the young American Frances Tiafoe in an hour and 19 minutes, becoming the first Portuguese player who lifted the trophy at Portugal Open that was launched in 1990.

Tiafoe could have easily played against some other opponent in the title match since Sousa had to save two match points against his compatriot Pedro Sousa in the second round, trailing 6-4 5-2 before he staged a comeback and went all the way after that to make the home crowd erupting in joy today.

Joao defended his second serve in a more efficient way and he saved four out of six break points to keep the pressure on Frances who failed to repeat his semi-final performance against the defending champion Pablo Carreno Busta, facing 10 break points and losing serve four times to miss a chance of lifting his second ATP title after Delray Beach in February.

Sousa needed five break points in the third game to take an early lead with a solid forehand attack and he saved a break point in the following game to move 3-1 ahead. Frances broke back in game six with a deep return but he couldn't impose his shots and move Sousa from his forehand, losing serve again in game seven after a smash winner from Joao that gave him the confidence before the closing stages of the set.

Frances had a great opportunity to break back and extend the set at 4-5 but Joao saved three break points with winners, sealing the deal with additional two service winners that delivered the set for him after 40 minutes.

Carried by this momentum, Sousa raced into a 4-0 lead in set number two to race towards the finish line, breaking Frances twice and hitting an ace to stand two games away from the win. Tiafoe double faulted in the first game and he sent a forehand long in game three to find himself two breaks behind and he had a mountain to climb in front of him if he wanted to get back into contention.

Serving for the win in game eight, Sousa got broken after a rare backhand winner from Tiafoe but he made no such mistakes in game 10, firing three winners to clinch the set 6-4 and celebrate the title in front of excited fans that had been supporting him throughout the week here.

Interestingly, Joao won no matches at this event in the last three editions, losing in the opening round every time before he made the most from his campaign this time around, overcoming all the obstacles to stand as the champion with the trophy in his hands.

* ATP 250 Istanbul: Taro Daniel (JPN) vs Malek Jaziri (TUN) 7-6(4) 6-4 In the battle of the players who sought the first ATP title, Taro Daniel defeated Malek Jaziri 7-6 6-4 in two hours and 22 minutes for the maiden ATP crown at the age of 25.

Jaziri had just 10 ATP wins on clay before 2018 but he scored eight in the last four weeks, entering his first ATP final and hoping to become one of the oldest first-time winners on the Tour. He was also the first Arab player in the ATP final since Younes El Aynaoui in Casablanca 2003 but he couldn't make an extra step and become a champion, facing nine break points and dropping serve three times.

Daniel played better on both the first and second serve and he saved three out of five break points, taking the most important points of the match to emerge as the champion. Malek was the better player in the opening set and he finally earned a break in the ninth game to move 5-4 up after a poor drop shot from Daniel.

The Tunisian wasted a set point on own serve in the following game when his forehand landed long and the Japanese broke back with a volley winner to level the score at 5-5. Jaziri saved a break point in the 12th game with a service winner but Taro claimed the tie break 7-4 after a great lob that Malek failed to control.

The set lasted almost an hour and 30 minutes and it was one of the longest sets in the ATP finals in 2018. Carried by this momentum, Daniel broke at the start of the second set again but Malek pulled the break back in game four after a smash winner, leveling the score at 2-2 and ready to fight for every point until the end of the match.

The Japanese made another step forward with a break in game five and he earned a match point on the return at 5-3, only to be denied by a well-constructed forehand attack from Jaziri. Malek saved another match point to bring the game home but it was Daniel who served for the win now, painting a backhand down the line winner for a hold at 30 and his first ATP crown.

* Masters 1000 Madrid: Alexander Zverev (GER) vs Dominic Thiem (AUT) 6-4 6-4 World number 3 and the 2nd seed here in Madrid Alexander Zverev won his third Masters 1000 title in the last 12 months after a flawless performance against Dominic Thiem, beating the Austrian 6-4 6-4 in an hour and 19 minutes for his eighth title overall and the second in a row after conquering Munich.

This was their sixth meeting and the second win for Sascha (the first on clay) who was the dominant figure on the court, losing 12 points in 10 service games and never facing a break point while stealing rival's serve in the opening games of each set to gain the crucial lead that he successfully carried throughout both sets en route to the title.

Zverev was by far the best player of the tournament and he overpowered Thiem both in the serving department and from the baseline, hitting with power an precision to leave his rival with no answer. Sascha had 15 winners and 12 unforced errors and Thiem couldn't control his strokes in the same way, spraying 21 mistakes and failing to match Zverev's numbers in the shortest points, with the German winning 41 out of 70 points in that department.

The youngster opened the match with a forehand return winner and he created two break points after two forehand errors from Thiem who double faulted in the next point to give his serve away and suffer an early setback. The German took full advantage of this gift, dropping just six points in five service games to take the opener 6-4.

His serve gave him a lot and the groundstrokes were there to break Thiem's rhythm and force him to play from the back of the court, something Nadal was not capable of doing against Dominic. Serving for the set at 5-4, Sascha lost the opening two points and Thiem reached the only deuce on the return but that wasn't enough to give him a break point after five service winners from Zverev who brought the set home in 36 minutes, moving closer to the finish line.

The same scenario was repeated in the second set, Zverev broke in the opening game after a forehand down the line that Thiem could only return into the net and he cemented the lead after another forehand error from the Austrian who couldn't find his range in three or four consecutive points.

Dominic fends off two break points in game three and that was the last poor service game we saw from him, dictating the pace in the remaining three games to stay within one break deficit. The problem for him was that Zverev had no intention of slowing down in his service games, blasting a service winner in game 10 to start a huge celebration of what has been one of his best weeks in a career so far.

* Masters 1000 Rome: Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs Alexander Zverev (GER) 6-1 1-6 6-3 World number 2 Rafael Nadal won his eight Masters 1000 crown in Rome and the 32nd overall after a 6-1 1-6 6-4 triumph over the Madrid champion and the 2nd seed Alexander Zverev, scoring his fifth win in as many matches against the young German.

It was a solid clash between the players who shared the previous two Masters 1000 tournaments in Monte Carlo and Madrid and the winner was decided after a rain delay at 3-2 for Zverev in the final set. The more experienced player came back stronger, he pulled the break back immediately and brought the match home with another one to lift his 78th ATP title and the 56th on clay.

Alexander did everything right after losing the opening set and he was a break up when the rain sent them off the court, never finding his rhythm again and missing a chance to grab already his fourth Masters 1000 title at the age of 21 and defend the title he has won against Novak Djokovic 12 months ago (he won 13 straight matches prior to this final, with titles in Munich and Madrid).

With this triumph and 1000 points he grabbed, Nadal returned to number 1 spot in the ATP rankings on the next day, losing it to Roger Federer after a quarter-final defeat in Madrid to Dominic Thiem. It wasn't the best serving performance from Nadal, having to play against 11 break points and suffering four breaks of serve.

On the other hand, he managed to tame Zverev's initial shot, winning almost 50% of the return points and earning five breaks from six chances, including two straight breaks after the rain delay which determined the champion.

Nadal had 19 winners and 21 unforced errors while Zverev counted to 21 winners and 28 errors, missing too many shots from his forehand and not being able to hurt Nadal with his serve that worked so well in Madrid and earlier here in Rome.

Zverev kicked off the match in a perfect way, breaking Nadal at 30 in the opening game before the Spaniard took charge, rattling off 25 out of the last 32 points of the set for a 6-1! He broke back at love in game two with a drop shot winner and held at love in game three with a service winner to move in front.

Sascha failed to make an impact with his serve and Rafa broke him again in game four with a forehand cross court winner, moving 4-1 in front with another good hold in game five. Things went from bad to worse for the German and he wasted a 40-0 lead in the next game to get broken again after a forehand winner from Nadal who held at 15 in game seven to clinch the opener in just 33 minutes.

Zverev won just five points on his serve and he struggled to find the range with his serve and forehand, unable to move Nadal from the comfort zone or to impose his shots in the rallies. Things changed dramatically in set number two, with Zverev serving at 77% and losing just six points in his games while Nadal faded from the court to suffer two straight breaks and lose the set 6-1, something we don't see too often from him on beloved clay.

Sascha forced an error from his rival in game two to gain the lead and he forged a 4-0 advantage after a picture-perfect backhand down the line winner in game four, determined to keep the points on his racquet and force Nadal to play from the awkward positions.

The German completed an amazing set with another backhand down the line winner in game seven, hitting 12 winners in this part of the match compared to only one from Nadal to enter the third set with the momentum on his side.

Rafa lost his serve at the start of the decider as well and he could have heard the alarm bells after not being able to do much in the return games. Sascha held with ease in games two and four to create a 3-1 gap and Nadal managed to make a crucial hold in game five before the bigger rain, staying within one break deficit as they headed off the court for a 50-minute rain delay.

Serving for a 4-2 advantage once they returned, Zverev wasted a game point and Rafa broke back to level the score at 3-3 and gain a huge boost before the rest of the encounter. The Spaniard held in the following game after a forehand error from Zverev and he broke again in game eight to win his fourth straight game and get a chance to serve for the triumph.

Rafa sealed the deal with a magical backhand volley at the net, celebrating his first title in Rome since 2013 and his 32nd Masters 1000 triumph, heading to Paris as the top favorite to lift his 11th Roland Garros title.