Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal: Three of their best at the Italian Open

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There is no rivalry in men’s tennis as storied as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal’s. The two men, unquestionably amongst the greatest players of this or any other era, will renew their rivalry in the Italian Open final, an event that has played an important role in shaping their shared history. It will be the eighth time they have clashed in Rome, a city where they have dominated for the past decade-and-a-half, with four of the previous seven having come in finals. But which were their best encounters in the Eternal City?

2018 semifinals – Nadal defeats Djokovic 7-6 6-3

Nadal came into the 2018 Italian Open with his hold on his clay-court throne as secure as ever. Although a frustrating loss in the Madrid quarterfinals to Dominic Thiem had temporarily cost him his world #1 ranking, he knew that the title in Rome would take him back to the top of the mountain. Djokovic, meanwhile, had been lost in the wilderness since lifting his first French Open title in 2016 due to a damaging elbow injury. Indeed, he had not reached a tour-level semifinal all season when he arrived in Rome and was on the verge of falling outside the top 20.

Understandably then, Nadal was the overwhelming favourite going into the match, even if Djokovic had been showing signs of life, particularly in an impressive 2-6 6-1 6-3 win over Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. Nadal began smartly, breaking Djokovic in the sixth game of the match, with the Serbian’s second serve and backhand buckling under the weight of Nadal’s pressure. But diminished by a long struggle with injury and a lack of matches though he was, Djokovic refused to yield.

He rallied from 2-5 down to force a tiebreak off the back of some excellent hitting, pulling Nadal out of position with sharp, angled groundstrokes reminiscent of him in his Grand Slam winning pomp. The contest was very much alive. But then Nadal, as he so often has on the red clay, found another level. He smashed through Djokovic’s defences to win the tiebreak 7-4 and bring the Serb’s momentum to a crashing halt. With Djokovic unable to come again, he eased through the second set to seal a 7-6 6-3 victory and went on to edge Zverev in the final. But Djokovic, who could take pride in his day’s work, was inching ever closer to returning to his best.
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2016 quarterfinals – Djokovic defeats Nadal 7-5 7-6

Two years earlier, the roles had been reversed. Djokovic’s position in the sport was one of unchallenged dominance. He had won three Slams in a row, and four out of the last five, with the French Open, the last bastion resisting his power, looking increasingly likely to fall to him. Nadal, in contrast, had looked a shadow of his former-self in 2015, even suffering a 7-5 6-3 6-1 humbling at the hands of Djokovic in the French Open quarterfinals. It had looked as though his body had finally and decisively broken down.

He certainly did not look in position to challenge Djokovic, against whom he had lost six straight matches without winning a set. But he showed in Rome that he was still a force to be reckoned with. In the first set, he had traded blow for blow with Djokovic, until a moment of magic from the world’s best had stolen the set from under his nose. Undeterred, he rallied to break early in the second set and looked to have Djokovic on the ropes. But he proved unable to take his chances, wasting five set points. Djokovic seized on the respite, breaking back to force a tiebreak.

Nadal, despite a valiant effort, could not fight him off and the Serbian drove a backhand into the open court to seal victory. Less than a month later, he would finally claim the elusive Coupe de Mousquetaires. Nadal would see his French Open end in disappointment when an ankle injury forced him to withdraw before the third round. But his title-drought in Paris extended no further, as he stormed to yet more glory at Roland Garros in 2017, winning his tenth title, all without dropping a set.
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2014 final – Djokovic defeats Nadal 4-6 6-3 6-3

Strangely, just one of their seven meetings in the Italian capital has gone the distance. But it was some clash. Both men had come into the 2014 Italian Open in good form. Nadal had recovered from a shock defeat in Monte Carlo to David Ferrer to claim the Madrid Open. Djokovic’s clay-court season had been disrupted by an elbow injury, but he had swept the Sunshine Double in March under the tutelage of new coach Boris Becker.

But Djokovic, though still posing the most serious challenge to Nadal’s clay-court domination, was, as ever on clay against the Spaniard, still the underdog. And in the face of Nadal’s suffocating defence, he looked short of ideas in the early running. A rampant Nadal raced out to a 4-1 lead and Djokovic seemed in danger of finding himself on the wrong end of a hiding. But, thanks in part to a net cord that bounced his way, he was able to reduce the arrears. Though it came to late to save the opening set, it gave him a platform to build on in the second.

And that is exactly what he did. Delivering a punishing forehand blow on the run to break through in the third game of the second set, Djokovic seized control of his destiny in the final. Nadal fought tooth and nail to stay alive, and very nearly succeeded, but Djokovic was at his imperious best and even the great Spaniard ultimately could not live with him. Each time Nadal threatened to rally, Djokovic shut the door, claiming an instant classic 4-6 6-3 6-3 and his third Italian Open crown. But it proved a false dawn for the Serb as Nadal avenged the defeat when it really mattered in the French Open final.

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