Rafa Nadal is officially back as clay’s finest, after defeating an exhausted Novak Djokovic in their 54th career meeting.
You were asking for titles. Finally, I have a title. Rafa Nadal
R. Nadal (Spa, 2) d. N. Djokovic (Srb, 1) 6-0 4-6 6-1
Rafael Nadal was a man on a mission in Rome, beating world No.1 Novak Djokovic for the 26th time (28 wins for the Serbian) in two hours and 25 minutes in a sold-out Pietrangeli Stadium. The win allowed Nadal to re-assert his dominance in the Masters 1000 category, since this was his 34th title, one more than Djokovic, who had caught up with a week ago in Madrid.
Since 2011, or actually since the famed Madrid semi-final of 2009, Djokovic had proven himself the only player capable of regularly beating Nadal on clay, with seven wins each (the total career head-to-head is now 17-7 for Nadal on the dirt), finding the Spaniard’s Kryptonite, the anticipated backhand down the line on his loopy cross-court forehands, even becoming one of the two men to beat him at Roland Garros – the other being desaparecido Robin Soderling. The two hadn’t met since the final of the Australian Open, when Nole had swept the floor with the man from Manacor, winning 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, highlighting a clear lack of serenity on Rafa’s part whenever the two meet, since the world no.2 had been absolutely spotless in that tournament before crashing at full speed against the Serbian wall. However, the conditions in the Eternal City were completely different, both in terms of surface, and fitness-wise. Nadal had spent less than four hours on court, proving himself in mighty form, while Djokovic had played for almost eight, barely escaping against Juan Martin Del Potro, and battling almost as hard against Diego Schwartzman, both times finishing very late.
This difference in conditioning, coupled with Nadal’s ruthlessness and desire to finally win a tournament this season (he was trophy-free since August), produced an all-out bloodbath in the opening set, with Nadal baking his fourth bagel of the week, the first ever in their rivalry, the most contested of the Open Era. Rafa’s forehand was particularly sharp, rolling at an astounding 59 rounds per second. An absurd drop shot gave him an immediate break point, which Nole saved by hitting straight at the body with an anticipated forehand. He wasn’t letting go, though, and forced Djokovic to hit a bad drop shot to escape from a rally, passing him with his backhand. A forehand unforced made the den collapse on itself, and Nadal took the lead.
The set was pretty much over after that, as Nadal broke again in the third game, seeing through his opponent’s moonballing to hit an inside-in winner, and put salt in the wound in the fifth, forcing another mistake with a perfect defensive lob, before Djokovic hit a rare backhand winner. It was anodyne, in the end, for Nadal rose to break point again with an impossible forehand down the line on a slide, and took a 5-0 lead after more deuces behind a backhand passing shot down the line, at the end of an 11-minutes-long game. He served the set out with a forceful serve to the T after 39 minutes, winning 61% of points on Nole’s first serve and dominating 9-0 in rallies over 9 shots.
It goes to Djokovic’s credit, and to Nadal’s intimidated attitude towards him, that the first seed actually managed to take a set from his opponent, despite his depleted state – a sign of extraordinary will, in a situation where every other player would have thrown the towel, contenting himself with reducing the humbling features of the debacle. The Serbian aced out wide to score his first point of the day, and, while he had to come back from 15-30 down in the third game, he stayed afloat with a net approach and a perfect slice serve, and took Nadal to deuce on his own serve for the first time in the ensuing game, going down the line as soon as he could to flee from the topspin cage Nadal had built, and rose to a break point with an aggressive rally with extremely varied angles, eliciting an error. Nadal wasn’t impressed, and hit a forehand combination, breaching down the line and conquering with an inside-in winner. While the Spaniard held in that game, it was clear that the first seed was giving everything he he had left, as he showed his engagement once more by saving three break points in the seventh game, after Nadal had chased a lob to cause an overhead miss – one of Djokovic’s few weaknesses. Nole saved those that were effectively three match points, pushing a second serve to the T, then slicing to the body and profiting from an avoidable forehand mistake by Nadal. The world No.2 wasted a break point in the ninth game as well, getting rejected by a wide serve (Djokovic kept a high percentage throughout the match), and paid the ultimate price while serving to stay in the set at 4-5 down: he took a 40-30 lead after a jumping drop shot error by Djokovic, but was then hurt by a cross-court backhand return, before conceding a set point with a long forehand, and incredibly lost a set he could have ended much earlier with another mistake, unsettled by Djokovic’s flat two-handers.
A full psychological implosion wasn’t in the cards though, as Djokovic was irretrievably spent, and adrenaline could only take him so far. Nadal took him to a double deuce right away, exploiting another shaky overhead to cause a forehand miss, and a further drop shot into the net. A strenuous defence provoked one more wide Djokovic approach, and this time Nadal showed no mercy, hitting a cross-court backhand that Djokovic couldn’t keep into play, and causing him to destroy his racket.
The first seed tried to hang on, taking Nadal to a deuce in the following game with a short forehand, but Rafa served brilliantly to hold. Nadal fetched a break point in the third game as well, with a forehand on the run (Djokovic was again shallow with his net game). Nole saved himself with a backhand down the line and another brave second serve, but that was his last wail of the afternoon.
Nadal held easily, and rose to a break point while 3-1 up with a forehand winner, and rejoiced as Djokovic’s backhand landed long. Djokovic managed to concoct a 15-30 lead, but the Spaniard held on to go 5-1 up, and went to bite the champion’s trophy for the ninth time when Djokovic missed one final volley.
Nadal won his first title of the season (out of two finals), the 81st in 118 finals (58 out of 66 on clay), and will still be trailing Djokovic in both the ATP Ranking and in the Race to London, but more importantly re-assesses his role as the man to beat in Paris. Will he meet the same old foe in three weeks time? We’ll see.