Rafael Nadal vs. John Isner – Their rivalry explained

Rafael Nadal and John Isner are playing their ninth encounter at the Rome Masters, with the Spaniard seeking the eighth victory over the American. Nadal and Isner are battling for the first time since Beijing 2017, and Rafa should be the favorite at one of his beloved events on the slowest surface. Nadal won their first six encounters, including four victories on clay in Madrid, Roland Garros, Rome and Monte Carlo. Their famous 2011 Roland Garros clash went down to the wire, and Nadal came from two sets to one down to earn a 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 triumph. Their previous Rome meeting came in 2015, and Nadal prevailed with reliable performance behind the initial shot and a single break in each set. Isner’s only victory came at the Laver Cup in 2017 in two tight sets (it was not an official match back then), and their last meeting before today came in Beijing a few weeks later. Rafa took down John 6-4, 7-6 in an hour and 43 minutes in the Chinese capital with a single break of serve in the opening set.

Rafael Nadal faces John Isner for the ninth time in Rome.

Nadal tamed his strokes nicely and controlled the scoreboard, despite 36 service winners from his opponent! Rafa stayed on ten errors, and John counted to 38. Isner tried to shorten the points, and the risky game drew mistakes. John served at 79%, which he could only wish for before the start of the match. Still, even with almost 40 service winners, he was not safe in his games, facing four break points and losing serve once in the opener. The Spaniard claimed 31% of the first serve return points, and he had the edge every time he would get the rival’s serve back into the court. Rafa dropped 16 points in 11 service games and fended off all three break chances. Nadal claimed 23 out of 28 points behind the second serve, which carried him towards the finish line. Rafa had a 20-16 advantage in the winners from the field, hitting with similar efficiency from both wings, something John failed to follow.

Thanks to so many unreturnable serves, the American built a healthy advantage in the winners department, but that all vanished when we got to the errors department. Nadal finished the match with just eight unforced errors, 19 less than his rival, who was missing equally from both forehand and backhand. In addition, Isner had 11 forced errors while Nadal stayed on two, which illustrates how well the Spaniard played from the baseline. Out of all strokes he played in 84 points without a service winner or a double fault, Rafa failed to bring the ball across the net only ten times, and John could never bring his baseline game up to that level to endure the rallies with a mighty rival. Isner had a slim 49-46 advantage in the shortest points up to four strokes, mainly thanks to those service winners. Still, everything else was on Nadal’s side, as he had more and more chances to win the point with every additional stroke in the exchange. Rafa was 25-13 in front in the mid-range rallies from five to eight shots, and 8-0 in the most extended exchanges, which was expected. Nadal grabbed 33 out of 46 points that reached the fifth stroke, more than enough to secure his triumph.