Rome Masters: Unbeaten Djokovic in a class of his own
It is only a matter of time until the Serbian world No2 takes his rightful place at the top of the rankings
Even two hours of rain at the Foro Italico could not dampen the anticipation surrounding a double-final day at the Rome Masters.
On the dot of 2pm, just as Sam Stosur and Maria Sharapova appeared on court, the building clouds began to unload.
The milling thousands kicked their heels -a few gave up and headed home -but the prospect of Sharapova followed by the hottest rivalry in men’s tennis, Djokovic and Nadal, gripped most of the crowd like glue beneath the shelter of the centre court’s rim.
If the women’s match failed to ignite the flames when it did get under way at a little after 4pm, it was enough of an appetiser to the main course to dry out the damp edges.
Sharapova has a huge following in Rome and she powered her way to a 23rd career title through a Stosur who never produced the kind of tennis that had beaten Li Na the day before.
Sharapova has won all the Majors except the French and, with the Williams sisters out of the picture and Kim Clijsters coping with an ankle injury, the window was opened in Rome for her to complete the set.
By 6pm, then, the Roman fans were nicely warmed up for the latest instalment in the Nadal and Djokovic fight for superiority. Appropriate, then, that they took to the red dirt beneath both sunlight and spotlight as the clouds scuttered away to leave behind a crisp, clear evening of drama.
It marked the first time in Masters history -21 years of it -that the same two players had met in four finals in the same year and each of them has been notching up records that make the eyes water.
Current champion Nadal has won 31 out of 32 matches in Rome, taking the title five times. This was his 31st final on clay and he had lost only three of them. By reaching the Rome final, he was also the first player to reach five straight Masters finals. His problem, though, was that he had lost to the same man in three of those finals, and now faced him again: Djokovic.
The Serb’s 2011 achievements have been nothing short of remarkable. His 36 match-winning streak for the season translated into titles at all six tournaments he had played, including the Australian Open and three Masters titles. Along the way, he had beaten both Nadal and Roger Federer three times, and was, by Rome, within striking distance of the No1 ranking.
Nadal had ensured the top spot by reaching the semi-finals but the result of this match was still hugely significant for the clay finale of Roland Garros.
Djokovic had already taken an important step in his No1 campaign when he beat Nadal for the first time in 10 attempts on clay in Madrid. But that was a fast court where Nadal had lost before. Rome’s clay was more to Nadal’s liking -but this proved to make little difference to the unstoppable Djokovic.
If Nadal expected his opponent to show signs of weariness from his three-hour, three-set match the night before, he was soon disabused: The Serb continued where he left off with piercing, line-skimming shots to the baseline on both wings.
The exchanges were long and probing but Djokovic, who kept the ball lower and sharper, had the upper hand and eventually managed to break through the increasingly frantic hitting of the Spaniard in the eighth game.
With a first serve percentage of 79 per cent, the set seemed a formality, but Nadal broke back and served to level the score.
Djokovic, though, attacked with a near-perfect combination of penetrating forehands to the corners, searing backhands down the line and the most flexible defence in the game. He broke with a cross-court backhand to take the set 6-4.
The crowd, already buzzing from the quality and the intensity of the tennis, raised the decibel level with chants of equal volume for both men. If they favoured one or other of the players at the start, the divide was blurring by the minute. Every point was applauded by every spectator and each face was wreathed in smiles, often accompanied by a shake of the head in disbelief.
The shock wave extended into the second set as Djokovic immediately broke Nadal to lead 2-0 but the Spaniard turned the tables and strutted to the next change-over on even terms again.
The tension was palpable: Djokovic began to look battle-weary as he constantly flexed his right hip and stretched out his legs; Nadal picked up on the physical vulnerability and became visibly more aggressive.
But although the Spaniard appeared to have the impetus, Djokovic gave not an inch, still finding the back corners with inch-perfect hitting and now throwing in a scattering of what has become one of the best drop-shots in tennis.
Serving to stay in the match, Nadal resisted in heroic fashion after Djokovic took at 40-0 lead. He pulled back to deuce, but that simply delayed the coup de grace. Djokovic broke to take a famous victory, 6-4, in a scoreline that barely did justice to more than two hours of gladiatorial battle.
In a particularly nice mirroring of Rome’s on-court battle, the front row brought together two adversaries from the 1960s. Nicola Pietrangeli and Manolo Santana fought one another for the French title twice, the Spaniard winning on both occasions.
They sat now, exchanging impassioned conversation and popcorn, before two men who seem destined to do the same in three weeks’ time.
For this new rivalry looks set to continue all the way to Roland Garros. The Serb has not simply extended his match-winning run to 39 nor his title-winning run to seven. He has twice beaten the man who was himself unbeaten on clay last year, and surely goes to Paris as favourite to beat him again.
It is clearly what this most confident of players has in his sights. “[Nadal] is the best player ever to play on this surface,” he said. “I have won against him twice in the last eight days which I think is an incredible achievement for me, and he has given me a lot of confidence for the French Open.
He is just 405 points adrift of Nadal in the rankings: the French title could take Djokovic to No1 at last.