Elina Svitolina and Alexander Zverev could hardly be more convincing at the tour level.
Svitolina, ranked fourth, defended her Italian Open title Sunday with a 6-0, 6-4 win over No. 1 Simona Halep. The win improved her record in finals to 12-2, having won eight in a row. It was her sixth consecutive win in matches against a WTA No. 1, having beaten Halep twice, Angelique Kerber three times, and Serena Williams once. Svitolina dominated Halep in the final, especially in the first set, in which she dropped only eight points.
Zverev, ranked No. 3 and also a defending champion here, carried a 13-match winning streak into the men’s final after titles in Munich and Madrid. He appeared on the verge of stunning top-seeded Rafael Nadal, reeling off nine of 11 games in the middle of the match before succumbing to a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 defeat as Nadal became champion here for the eighth time and reclaimed the ATP No. 1 ranking from Roger Federer.
Both Svitolina and Zverev, however, have much still to prove in the sport’s marquee moments.
For Svitolina, 23, a Grand Slam title feels inevitable and perhaps overdue. But when the M.C. of the trophy ceremony suggested that she could repeat her success in Rome by making the final of the upcoming French Open, Svitolina gave a short, nervous laugh.
“It’s still so, so far,” she said. “I try to take one match at a time, that’s very important. In a Grand Slam, it’s very tricky, so, you know, we’ll see how it goes. But I’m definitely going to enjoy Roland Garros on this high note.”
That trickiness has stopped Svitolina from replicating her tour successes on the sport’s biggest stages. In 22 appearances at Grand Slam events, Svitolina has never advanced past the quarterfinals despite reaching that round three times.
As Svitolina ascent has made her a contender, recent losses have been particularly wrenching. In the French Open quarterfinals last year, Svitolina led Halep by 6-3, 5-1 before losing five straight games and then the match, 3-6, 7-6(6), 6-0. At the United States Open last year, Svitolina led Madison Keys by a break at 4-3 in the third set before dropping the last three games of the match. At the Australian Open in January, a hip injury contributed to her lopsided quarterfinal loss to unseeded Elise Mertens.
There were two such sets in the men’s final, during which momentum swung repeatedly. After Zverev broke Nadal’s serve in the first game, Nadal responded by reeling off six straight games to win the first set, 6-1, losing just five points against Zverev’s serve. Zverev then responded by racing out to a 5-0 lead in the second set before winning it, 6-1. Zverev carried his advantage into the third set as well, gaining a 3-1 lead. Then came a divine intervention for Nadal: the first of two rain delays. Nadal won one game between the delays, then all four following the second, to complete the victory.
Zverev, 21, rued the decisive change in momentum.
“Next time, I have to find a way to come out better after the rain and play better tennis,” Zverev said. “He came out way faster and played much more aggressive than I did.”
Like Svitolina, Zverev has accomplished multitudes at the tour level. He’s won eight titles, three of them Masters titles. He’s beaten Roger Federer on grass and had several narrow defeats against Nadal. This year, he’s reached the final of three of the five Masters tournaments, helping him to earn more ranking points than any player on tour this year so far.
At Grand Slam events, however, his results have fallen short. In 11 Grand Slam events, he has only reached the fourth round once, at Wimbledon last year. He is 0-7 against top-50 players at Grand Slam events.
Despite the hurdle, Zverev said little would change in his approach at the next major.
“I’ll try to play the same way — play the same way over a longer period of time — which it will be in Paris,” he said. “And we’ll see.”
“Tennis is tennis,” Nadal said. “In Grand Slams, or Masters 1000s, or any event, when you are able to win Masters 1000s, when you are able to compete well in all the events that he did already. It’s true that he did not have great results in a Grand Slam yet — because it didn’t happen. It was all a coincidence. It was impossible to don’t have a great result on Grand Slam when you have the level that he has.”
Nadal was more forceful when an Italian reporter suggested that Zverev might not be able to handle the best-of-five format.
“We’re going to do one thing: If he’s not playing well in Grand Slams in the next two years, you can come back to me and tell me ‘You don’t know anything about tennis,’” Nadal said. “I believe it’s going to be a different story. That’s my feeling: Tennis is tennis. Doesn’t matter best-of-three, best-of-five; and playing best-of-five is a bigger advantage for the best players, and Sascha is one of the best players, so it’s a big advantage for him.