Its been a struggle but despite the ‘next generation’ getting close to eliminating the ‘old guard’ during the course of the last week at the Rome Masters, the final itself shows that youngsters still have a way to go!
Kind of felt like we played two matches. We did. One yesterday, obviously where he was the better player. He started better also today. I managed somehow to hold my nerves, break his serve in the important moments in the second and third set Novak Djokovic
The last two Masters have been won by Stefanos Tsitsipas (Monte Carlo) and Alexander Zverev (Madrid) and on Sunday, it will be either Novak Djokovic or Rafa Nadal who will join the list by claiming the Rome Trophy — much as they have done over the past decade — having this time successfully overcome a series of tough hurdles.
The King of Clay, Nadal, was a point away from elimination twice two days ago against Canada’s Denis Shapovalov having been forced into a tight three-setter the previous round by the Italian teenage prodigy Jannik Sinner.
He then enacted revenge over Germany’s Zverev for his Madrid loss and on Saturday, topple the American 6’11” giant, Reilly Opelka comfortably 6-4 6-4 to take his expected place in the final.
For the Spaniard, who will turn 35 in June, avoiding another marathon was the order of the day which seemed unlikely on paper bearing in mind Opelka, with his howitzer serve, had not been broken all week.
Fortunately for Nadal, the Opelka serve was slightly off and Nadal broke him once in each set to bring to an end the American’s best run on ever on clay.
“When you play these kind of matches, you know (it’s) not going to be a beautiful match,” Nadal said following his win. “That you not going to find rhythm on the match. You’re going to have just a few chances to have a break or even not one.
“I think I played the match that I had to play, no? I saved that moment. I had two breaks, two sets. That’s a positive thing for me. Be in the final again here means a lot to me.”
In contrast Djokovic had a much easier passage into the quarter-finals where Tsitsipas had him on ropes and ready for the knock-out but for the intervention of rain.
The Serb was 4-3 down when play was first suspended and then trailed 6-4 2-1with the Greek serving when the decision was made to suspend the match overnight.
That break was enough for his team to reinvigorate their charge when play resumed early on Saturday when he took control.
At first Tsitsipas extended his second set lead to 4-2 at which point Djokovic started to apply the pressure to break twice and force a deciding third set.
Again the pair were locked together but it was Djokovic who finally got the result 4-6 7-5 7-5.
“Kind of felt like we played two matches. We did. One yesterday, obviously where he was the better player,” Djokovic admitted. “He started better also today. I managed somehow to hold my nerves, break his serve in the important moments in the second and third set.
“Without a doubt, until the last shot, I didn’t know whether I was going to win. But I believed that I can. You can always fight and give your best, let the god decide who takes the win.
“I’m just really, really glad to overcome this challenge. It’s the toughest match of the year for me so far.”
Later in the afternoon he had to return to the court to take on the local hero Lorenzo Sonego and was forced into another three setter before being able to claim his expected place in the final 6-3 6-7(5) 6-2 where his rival Nadal awaited.
Djokovic mastered the Italian early and could have won in straight sets as he served for the match at 6-3 6-5 but failed to convert two match points.
Sonego also struck back from 3-0 sown in the tie-break to force a deciding set, Djokovic’s second of the day.
“I think I bounced back very well after the second set,” Djokovic said following his 6-3 7-6(5) 6-2 victory. “I lost the first game Love-40, 30-40, missed a forehand down the line. Maybe if he started with a break up in the third, things would look differently.
“I have only myself to blame for not closing the match in two sets. At the end of the day he is showing why he reached his first semi-finals.
“He’s a quality player. Not easy to play against him. Obviously he had the crowd behind him. It was an electric atmosphere out there on the court.”
And so to the 57th meeting between these two rivals with the World No. 1 Djokovic leading 29-27 in what will be their 15th meeting in Rome and their first of the season.
On clay, though, Nadal leads 18-7 while in Rome the Spaniard is also ahead, this time 9-5 and on the current statistics, he emerges as the favourite.
Whatever the outcome, it will be a very watchable final.