Remarkably, Nadal, whose records on clay are unparalleled in modern tennis history, had thus far failed to win a clay title this year. Having begun the ‘red swing’ with 11 titles in Monte-Carlo, 11 in Barcelona and four on the clay in Madrid, he arrived in Rome without adding to his tally at any of them. He had not even made the finals.
Indeed, as Nadal entered his 50th Masters final, it was the first time since 2004 that he had reached Rome without a single title to his name.
But come the Eternal City, where he held a record eight titles, the tide was turning: With each successive round, he looked and sounded more like the Nadal his fans have come to know and love.
He beat his first two opponents for the loss of just two games in total, beat compatriot Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 6-0, and then dismissed the young player who had beaten him in Madrid, No8 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-3, 6-4.
It would not be until the final against that arch rival and world No1 Djokovic, that Nadal finally lost a set, and that after trouncing the four-time former champion in the first set, 6-0. Djokovic was showing just how much physical and emotional energy he had expended in his late-night run to the final via two gruelling three-setters over Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman.
Nadal, currently No2 in the world, had lost his last two matches against Djokovic, last year in Wimbledon and in the final of the Australian Open this year, and that opened a three-match gap in their head-to-head, 28-25—the most played rivalry in tennis.
Could he stem that head-to-head flow towards Djokovic? Could he reclaim his record in Masters titles? Could he get a key title under his belt before going for No12 at Roland Garros?
The answer was a resounding yes, 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 after two hours and 25 minutes. For Nadal took control of the match from the start, while Djokovic was off the pace and unable to replicate his usual precision to the back corners.
Come the second set, though, Djokovic began to play with more intensity and energy, saved all four break points he faced, and with his serving level rising to over 80 percent, he finally got his breakthrough to take the set, 6-4.
Nadal, though, hit back at the start of the third set, breaking immediately, and would go on to break twice more for his ninth Rome title, his 34th Masters, his 61st match-win in the Italian city.
Nadal was broken just twice during the tournament, and saved 13 of the 15 break points he faced. But the most remarkable stat of all was in this 54th meeting against Djokovic: never before had he scored a 6-0 set—in the 141 played.
However, perhaps the words of Djokovic will be treasured longer than any statistics:
“He’s one of the greatest champions this game has ever seen. His mentality, his approach, his resilience, ability to fight back after long absence from the tour, injuries, surgeries…he’s had it all. He keeps on showing to the world why he’s one of the biggest legends of tennis history. I have the greatest respect for him.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge