Nadal v Zverev: Where the match can be won

 - Chris Oddo

A tactical deep dive into this highly-anticipated semi-final clash

Germany’s Alexander Zverev will try to tackle the toughest challenge in tennis on Friday when he meets 13-time champion Rafael Nadal for a spot in the Roland-Garros final.

The pair have not locked horns since 2021 at Rome, when Nadal scored a 6-3, 6-4 triumph. The Spaniard holds a 6-3 edge in the head-to-head rivalry with Zverev, but the German has won three of their past four clashes.

What can the 25-year-old do to slow down legendary Nadal at his personal proving ground? How can Nadal hold off the rising German to secure a place in a record 14th final on the Parisian clay? 

Read on for a look inside the keys to the match...

Zverev’s second serve must pass muster 

Of the four remaining semi-finalists on the men’s side, Zverev ranks last in second serve points won by quite a distance.

The third-seed is winning just 50 per cent of points behind his second offering through five matches. Meanwhile, Nadal has been torrid against his opponent’s second serve, winning 58 percent of such points as he has swept through 42 per cent of his return games. 

If Zverev is going to avoid facing constant pressure on his serve he must do two things: first, make a high percentage of first serves. He has done that effectively through five matches in Paris, hitting the mark on 68 per cent of his first deliveries.

Second, he must find a way to win at least half of his second-serve points. To do this he will have to keep his double-fault tally low.

This has been a thorn in the German's side for several seasons, and nothing has changed in Paris. Zverev leads all remaining men’s contenders with 27 double faults in five matches. 

Longer rallies favour the Spaniard 

Much of the talk coming into the tournament centred around Nadal’s fitness, due to left foot issues that surfaced during his round of 16 loss to Denis Shapovalov in Rome. But here in Paris, the Spaniard has proven that he is fit and able to grind out tough victories.

With his doctor by his side in Paris, Nadal is confident that he can keep pushing his body to the limit.

Alexander Zverev, Roland Garros 2022, quarter-final© Pauline Ballet/FFT

"I am putting everything that I have to try to play this tournament with the best conditions possible, no?" Nadal said after defeating Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals. "I don't know what can happen after, honestly, but here I think I'm gonna be fine."

Nadal has spent almost 15 hours on court through five rounds and while doing so he has dominated longer points, winning 60 per cent of rallies that have lasted longer than five points. Nadal even dominated long exchanges against Djokovic, winning 56 per cent of such points. 

Against Zverev, who is excelling in short points - winning 56 per cent - and struggling in longer points, Nadal should push to lengthen rallies and trust the legs that have taken him this far in the tournament. 

Serve like a boss 

Normally a renowned returner, Zverev hasn’t put up dominant numbers this year in Paris. The world No.3 has managed to win 27 per cent of his return games (compared to 42 per cent for Nadal), and only 51 per cent of his second-serve return points (compared to 58 per cent for Nadal). 

It will be Nadal’s mission to exploit Zverev’s relative weakness in this category with pinpoint serving, solid serve-plus-one tactics and a willingness to use the serve as the first shot in a longer sequence.

Nadal has been broken four times in each of his previous two matches, against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round and against Djokovic in the quarter-finals.

Against Zverev he will need to have a cleaner day from the service stripe, and it all starts with accuracy off the first and second serve in order to play the points on his terms. 

Rafael Nadal, Alexander Zverev, Roland-Garros 2022© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT