There have been a handful of sporting achievements at the Eternal City–none more so revered than one half of the local football club AS Roma following their historic Champions League comeback over the mighty Barcelona in 2018.
On Sunday afternoon at Foro Italico — the sports complex in Rome which is just a few metres away from the Olympic stadium (the centre of AS Roma’s miraculous victory)– it was Rafael Nadal who won the 54th heavyweight contest against his great rival Novak Djokovic to clinch his first title of the season and a remarkable 9th overall at the Italian Open.
Nadal’s 6-0 4-6 6-1 success, which took two hours and 25 minutes, was a further reminder that Novak Djokovic will need to play with distinction at the upcoming French Open to wrestle his crown as clay’s undisputed master.
The Spaniard walked in as strong favorite to claim his ninth title in Rome despite his subpar performances during the early part of the European clay-court swing. His recent renaissance, coupled with Djokovic’s brutal schedule in the last three days, proved decisive.
Perhaps the most staggering outcome was not simply because Nadal avenged his straight sets demolition against Djokovic from their Australian Open encounter in January, but the manner in which he did it. In the pair’s previous 53 matches with 142 sets played, neither had won a set 6-0. Yet it was Nadal who was firing on all cylinders from the get-go, using his turbine-like topsin forehand to perfection to unsettle a weary Djokovic.
The Serb saved two match-points to beat Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals, and then overcame a punishing three-setter against diminutive Argentine Diego Schwartzman in the semis, taking his time spent on court during the week over five hours and 34 minutes (almost two hours more than his opponent in the final).
The opening exchanges saw the 11-time Roland Garros champion pounce on the short ball from the World No.1 at every attempt. Djokovic’s pattern of playing his usually reliable cross-court backhand to Nadal’s forehand did not materialize. The Spaniard would only engage in those rallies from an offensive position. For sustained passages of play, Djokovic could not find his range to hit easy winners.
The ferocious hitting from some of Nadal’s groundstrokes had the Serb leaning back and forced him to return from way behind the baseline with little conviction. Djokovic resorted to play the drop shots as early as the first game of the match (incidentally one of very few to work), committing over half a dozen errors from that tactic.
Nadal raced to a 3-0 lead muscling a forehand winner past a lethargic Djokovic to take a double-break lead in the first set. At that point, if it was a boxing contest, Djokovic would have been hit to a pulp and the Spaniard’s knuckles would have been extremely bruised. Yet, just when the Serbian superstar was attempting to get a foothold into the contest, it was Nadal who had clinched it, dishing out his fourth bagel set of the week and the remarkably the first ever over Djokovic.
Djokovic, like the great champion he is, responded to take the second set. He saved three breakpoints in succession in the seventh game of the second set and crucially one more in the ninth game to put pressure on Nadal to serve to stay in the set. The Spaniard failed striking a forehand long, and the momentum swung in Serb’s favour.
However, the World No.1 would not take advantage as Nadal showcased his dominance on clay once more to edge his great rival and win his 34th Masters 1000 crown, laying a marker that he is still the King of Clay.
Main Photo from Getty