Rafael Nadal wins 51st against Djokovic to put Rome Masters and No1 within his grasp
Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in straight sets to reach the Rome Masters final as he seeks the world number one ranking
Twelve years after their first professional match, and over a year since the last of their 50 previous matches, two titans of modern tennis, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, renewed the most played rivalry in their sport.
Not in a final, as had been so often before: 24 times, in fact. But these most prolific Rome Masters champions—seven titles for Nadal, four for Djokovic—had met in four finals at the Foro Italico and shared the spoils 2-2. And this 51st meeting came with plenty more back story.
Nadal undoubtedly started as favourite after extraordinary runs on clay this season: His 11th titles in both Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, and the quarters in Madrid last week, all without losing a set from the start of his 10th French Open campaign last June until facing Dominic Thiem in Madrid.
And his record in Rome also spoke volumes: He had never missed the tournament since winning the first of his seven at his very first attempt in 2005. He made the finals twice more, to stack up a 51-6 tally, and by this latest meeting with Djokovic, he was 54-6—though he had been sorely tested by Fabio Fognini in a three-set quarter-final along the way.
Djokovic was still relatively untested at this very top level, having only gradually worked back to full playing fitness after a long absence with elbow problems after Wimbledon last year. He played in Australia, only to resort to surgical intervention on that elbow straight afterwards, and arrived in Rome still searching for peak form, 6-6 for the season and ranked 18.
But the four-time Rome champion from eight finals was second only to Nadal in this particular arena, 42-7, and had never missed the tournament since reaching the quarters at his first in 2007. And while he lost out to Nadal on that occasion, the two men were all square in their six Rome meetings and, taken across the board, Djokovic has won seven of their last eight meetings, including Rome, Monte-Carlo and Roland Garros.
Buoyed up by his popularity in Rome, where he has routinely addressed the fans in Italian, he came through to the semis in some style, but most impressively fighting back from a first-set loss to beat Kei Nishikori in the quarters.
So no surprise that the colosseum-like centre court at the Foro was packed from clay to sky for this record-breaking rivalry, and the first match between members of the ‘big four’ this year.
They were treated to a rip-roaring first set. Djokovic made a terrific start with a return-of-serve forehand winner, and he pounced again to earn two break points. He faced some fine serves from Nadal for the hold, but it was as though Djokovic had never been away.
He produced a love hold with a volley winner and an ace, and his next service game went the same way, breaking out a killer drop shot. But Nadal was just warming to the task on a sun-baked afternoon. He earned his first break point in the sixth game, then another, and Djokovic hit long for the break, 4-2.
That set the stage for the rally of the match so far, a drop, an angled return, a pick up, another angled touch winner, and Djokovic appealed to the crowd for more support as he brought up 30-0 and the hint of a break back. But Nadal’s ever-improving serve kept the Serb at bay, 5-2—though not for long.
A series of long, probing baseline rallies edged another chance for Djokovic in the eighth game, and a shanked backhand from Nadal brought the break back. The Serb was up to 12 winners after a blistering forehand down the line to open another hold, but Nadal took it to 6-5, also to love. No problem: first a forehand and then a backhand winner from Djokovic and it was a tie-break.
They changed ends level, 3-3, but then Nadal pulled off his signature forehand down the line, and used it again to draw an error from Djokovic, 5-3. The Serb tried a serve and volley change-up at 6-4, and was punished with a searing forehand pass down the line for the set to Nadal: 7-6(4).
It had been a gladiatorial 71 minutes, showing Djokovic’s form was back to its clinical best. The only question, after his tough three-setter into the previous evening, was whether his stamina levels were also back to their old formidable levels.
Perhaps it was fatigue, perhaps it was the superlative level that Nadal now found on his beloved clay. And it is worth reiterating that the Spaniard was surely fresher this year as he entered ‘his’ season than he had ever been. Never before had he arrived on clay fully rested since the Australian Open. It had been forced by injury, but perhaps it was also a blessing in disguise for Nadal’s French Open and No1 ambitions.
Whatever the cause, Nadal got an early break in the second set with greater weight and penetration of shot, and broke for a 2-1 lead. A love hold and it was 3-1.
The Spaniard was running Djokovic ragged across the baseline, but he suddenly found himself at deuce after a double fault and some gutsy resistance from Djokovic. The Serb then thumped a forehand return-of-serve winner for a second deuce, as the game extended to 10 minutes in what felt like a make-or-break moment for an increasingly frustrated Djokovic. But the Serb could not break, Nadal held with a winner onto the side-line, 5-3, and broke for victory after almost two hours with his 22nd winner, 6-3.
And that took Nadal to a remarkable 18-1 on clay for the year, and into the final. One more win would make it eight in Rome plus a return the Spaniard to No1. To achieve those goals, he will play either defending champion Alexander Zverev or Marin Cilic, who is playing in his first clay Masters semi-final.
But to end where we began, in 2006, the year that these two champions played their first match.
Djokovic will fall to No22 in the ranks after failing to defend his final points from Rome last year—the lowest he has been since the summer of 2006. It is not a record Djokovic will want to dwell on, and his fast-improving shape and confidence in the last month will surely ensure that the rise back up the ranks comes soon. After all, he has no points at all to defend after Wimbledon, unlike his biggest rivals, Nadal and Roger Federer.