Roman Conquest: Nadal Wins 54th Renewal Of Storied Rivalry Against Djokovic

ROME, May 19, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and World No. 2 Rafael Nadal renewed their longtime and storied rival in the final of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome Sunday afternoon. Djokovic was in pursuit of his second straight Masters 1000 title in two weeks while Nadal was playing in his first clay final of the year, and had arrived in the Italian capital without a title of any kind for the first time since 2004.

Before the match, the top-seeded Djokovic was asked if he was happy to see second seed Nadal and 17-time Grand Slam champion Nadal back in a final, considering what he’s gone through during the European clay season. Djokovic’s response was simple but honest. “As an admirer of his, yes. As an opponent, no.”

As they took to the red clay of Campo Centrale, each shared the record for most ATP Masters 1000 titles (33). Now, after two hours and 25 minutes of hungry battle, the 32-year-old Nadal holds the record solo.

The King of Clay recaptured his magic – and, with the start of Roland Garros just a week away, Nadal’s 6-0, 4-4, 6-1 victory over Djokovic was a statement win.

While awaiting the trophy ceremony, a happy-but-relieved Nadal was asked by an ATP Tour TV interviewer how crucial it was to win the Rome final. He said, “For me, as I said every day, to win a title is important but for me the most important thing is to feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy, and then with the feeling that I am improving. I know that if I’m able to reach my level, you can win, you can lose, but normally I’m going to have my chances especially on this surface.

“So I’m very happy for the victory, it was a great match, I played well, so just enjoying that moment.”

Their eighth meeting in Rome, played under under unusually sunny skies and 17ºC temperatures that made the courts play faster – and favored the Spaniard – was classic Nadal. He fought from start to finish and his energy level never let up. While Djokovic enjoyed a career head-to-head win-loss record of 28-25 going in, and Nadal entered with a 4-3 advantage in meetings in Rome – which included four finals (2-2), and a 16-7 edge on clay – Nadal didn’t waste anytime taking it to his 31-year-old Serbian opponent.

“He’s my greatest rival of all time, for sure,” said Djokovic, following his semifinal win against unseeded Diego Schwartzman of Argentina Saturday night. “I’ve had so many matches against him. We have the longest rivalry of tennis of all time. Every time we get to play each other, it’s a thrill. It’s the ultimate challenge.”

Nadal won 70 percent of his service points and was pretty solid in winning points on both his first and second serves. He faced just two break points and was broken just once, in the second set. Nadal gained 17 break points against Djokovic and converted six of them, including three in the opening set. Nadal outpointed Djokovic 92-70, winning an equal number of points on his serve and his returns.

Remarkably, this was the Spaniard’s 50th Masters 1000 final (he improved to 34-16) and Nadal no doubt has always enjoyed success in Rome. Winning nine singles titles – including the last two – will do that. However, in his mind, Nadal mentally wiped his past slate clean. Although this was his fifth match in four days, Nadal focused his attention on playing Djokovic, who was looking to lift his first trophy in Rome since 2015 – and, like Nadal, was also competing in his fifth match in four days due to weather delays earlier in the tournament.

“It’s always extra special to play against Novak,” said Nadal. “It’s an important victory for me. This is one of the most important events of the year.”

After he beat No. 8 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece to move into the final, Nadal said, “The main thing is I am playing better. For me, tomorrow is an opportunity to play against a great player. It’s another test. I hope to be ready to compete well. It’s going to be a tough one.”

Meeting for the first time since the 2019 Australian Open final in January, won by Djokovic in straight sets, Nadal and Djokovic had combined for 12 of the last 14 Italian Open titles.

With so much familiarity of competing against one another – and Djokovic had won nine of their past 11 matches – the keys to victory came down to Djokovic’s ability to rely upon first strike tennis and use his backhand cross-court to tame Nadal. Meanwhile, Nadal hoped to capitalize on hitting forehands down the line and turn the final into a track meet, taking advantage of Djokovic’s lengthy quarterfinal and semifinal matches, in which he spent more than five hours on court – two hours more than Nadal.

Nadal made a definitive statement in breaking Djokovic in each of the Serbian’s first two service games to take a 3-0 lead just 16 minutes into the final. The Spaniard looked to be the sharper, more focused player compared to the rattled Djokovic. It prompted Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport to comment to American audiences tuned in, “This is some of the best tennis Nadal has played all season.”

Nadal upped his lead to 4-0 by taking advantage of a missed return by Djokovic. Then, Nadal gained his third break of Djokovic’s serve in the next game. While it took five break points to finally do it, Nadal won a marathon 16-point sixth game with a cross-court backhand winner. He closed out the 38-minute first set on his first set-point opportunity when Djokovic hit a backhand return long. What a statement – and the first time there’s been an opening-set bagel by either player in the history of their rivalry. However, it also represented Nadal’s fourth 6-0 set win of the tournament. The World No. 2 won 80 percent of his service points – dropping just three points on his serve – and outpointed Djokovic 31-16 in winning the opening set of the final.

As the second set began, one had to wonder if Nadal could keep up his intensity and whether there was anything left in Djokovic’s tank that would enable him to turn his first-set misfortunes around. Djokovic achieved his first break point of the match at 40-Ad in the third game, but the Spaniard erased it with a forehand winner and went on to hold for 2-all. Djokovic faced and erased three break points to hold for 4-3. Then, Nadal held for 4-all when he hit an emphatic winner as the late-afternoon shadows began to challenge both players. Nadal gained his 13th break point of the match as Djokovic wasn’t able to hit a forehand return near the net at the end of a 15-shot rally. But, the Serbian remained resilient and won the next three points to hold his serve at 5-4. Then, he broke Nadal for the first time, taking advantage of back-to-back forehand errors, as the match reached the one hour and 38 minute mark – and it meant there would be a third set and Djokovic look ready to fight.

Nadal came out fighting, too, and broke right away in the opening game of the final set. It prompted a racquet smash by Djokovic, perhaps, out of frustration. In Djokovic’s next service game, down 0-2, he failed on an easy drop shot – his sixth – as fatigue began to set in. However, he saved his 11th break point and held to remain in the match as it reached the two-hour mark. Later, Nadal broke to go ahead 4-1 and consolidated it with a hold to move to within one game of the title. Soon, it would be all over, except for the plaudits from the crowd and the presentation of the trophies. There was no backing down by Rafa. He wanted this win badly.

“What a huge week it’s been for Rafa,” said Davenport after Nadal secured match point. “He needed this and wanted this. He played his best tennis of the year to win. It’s been a statement week for Rafa.”

Indeed, and by winning Rome, it marked the 16th consecutive year that Nadal has won at least one title.

During his press conference after the final, Djokovic reflected upon where he fell short against Nadal, but also praised his victorious opponent. He said, “I’m really glad that I managed to get into the third set, considering the first set where I was blown away from the court. Obviously third set was not much different from the first.

“I was just running out of fuel a little bit today. Just kind of missed that half a step, especially on the backhand side. He used it very well. He’s been playing some terrific tennis throughout the entire week. He was just too strong today.”

After lifting the winner’s trophy – completing a huge week – Nadal moves on to Paris with a sense of renewed confidence where he will chase after a 12th French Open title. Who knows, maybe three weeks from now, both with a day’s rest, Nadal and Djokovic could meet again in another clay-court final on the rebuilt Court Philippe Chatrier. It would be fitting.

Cabal and Farrah win Italian doubles title

Defending champions and No. 3 seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farrah, both from Columbia, won their second consecutive Italian doubles title. On Sunday, Cabal and Farrah defeated No. 6 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Michael Venus of New Zealand, 6-1, 6-3, in 58 minutes on Pietrangeli.

When Cabal and Farrah won in Rome last year, it was their first ATP Masters 1000 crown. They won their first title of 2019 recently in Barcelona on clay. On Saturday, Cabal and Farrah took out No. 1 seeds Lukas Kubot of Poland and Marcelo Melo of Brazil, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 10-8, with a come-from-behind win.

Meanwhile, the South African-Kiwi duo, who were playing in their first ATP Masters 1000 final, were seeking their first title since winning at Marseille in February 2018. This was their second final of the year (Auckland and Rome) after playing in five finals last year.

Now, with their second title of the year, Cabal and Farrah will be among the favorite teams at Roland Garros.

“I kept repeating to myself and to (Cabal), ‘If we come back from this game, we got it. Let’s just focus to come back from this game,’” Farah told ATPTour.com. “And I feel like when you win tournaments, things go your way. That’s the way it is. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know how to explain it. … When it’s yours, it’s yours.”

Cabal added: “We just keep fighting, keep fighting point by point. We got the level. We know we can beat anyone and that’s what we focus on.”

The winners split €284,860 and earned 1,000 ATP Rankings points while the finalists divided €139,020 and 600 points.