As sporting monuments go, Rafael Nadal will need his own sculpture in the Eternal City. The super Spaniard conquered Rome and the indefatigable Novak Djokovic yet again to win his 10th title at the Italian Open.
Nadal’s 7-5 1-6 6-3 victory puts him level with Djokovic at 36 ATP Masters 1000 titles. And he served a telling reminder to Novak Djokovic and co., that he is not ready to relinquish his grip on the French Open, which starts in a week.
Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic
In their 57th heavyweight meeting, Nadal beat Djokovic for the 28th time, narrowing the Serbian’s lead in the head-to-head to just one match as Roland Garros looms.
For Djokovic, this should provide him some impetus and positive sensations heading to Paris. He is undoubtedly Nadal’s closest challenger at the second Grand Slam of the year, where Nadal’s grip on the Coupe des Mousquetaires has been tighter than a kingsnake.
Nadal’s latest triumph means that this is the fourth tournament that he has managed to win double-digit titles–after Roland Garros (13), Barcelona (12), and Monte Carlo (11).
Nadal's Most Successful Tournaments 🏆
🇫🇷 Roland Garros: 13
🇪🇸 Barcelona: 12
🇲🇨 Monte-Carlo: 11
🇮🇹 Rome: 10
— ATP Tour (@atptour) May 16, 2021
In the post-match interview, Nadal said, “I was lucky in some moments against Shapovalov. But I played a good tournament after, I had a positive win and am super happy.”
Nadal saved two match points against the young Canadian in the Round of 16 in one of his toughest bouts of the week.
The First Set
In last year’s French Open final, Djokovic lost the opening set 6-0, but he made sure there would be no recurrence. And the opening point proved that with both players engaged in a high-octane rally before Djokovic cracked a backhand winner that kissed the line.
The pair would exchange breaks early on before they found their feet. After seven successive holds, Djokovic was next to blink. At 5-5, the first set appeared destined to be decided by a tiebreak until the scoreboard pressure got to Djokovic despite holding a 40-30 lead. He produced an untimely double fault to give Nadal a way in. After a small cat and mouse game, the Spaniard converted on his third attempt after a Djokovic error.
Nadal, as cool as an Italian gelato, served the first set when Djokovic shanked an angled forehand.
“You would have to draw blood to beat Nadal on this surface,” Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber summed what we all knew. And Djokovic had been in this muddle before. He beat Nadal from a set down in the 2014 Rome final and Nadal knew no matter the lead, his rival is dangerous when his back is against the wall.
As if to prove that theory right, Djokovic would save a break point in the opening game of the second set, and that would be the closest sight of Nadal grabbing the match by the scruff of its neck. Djokovic broke Nadal after that and at 3-1 in the second set he was bossing all the rallies extending beyond four shots. And after Nadal was broken again, the 57th meeting between these two gladiators would be decided by a third set.
This was now the battle of endurance. Nadal’s path towards the final was littered with speed bumps. He recovered from deficits in both sets against Jannik Sinner and then produced an incredible comeback in the Round of 16 against Denis Shapovalov. He prevented Alexander Zverev from inflicting back-to-back clay-court defeats.
Tennis is a game of fine margins. Djokovic was in the ascendancy in the third set. He was the first player to manufacture a break point at 2-2, when he produced a stunning forehand down the line winner on the empty court. However, in his very next point, he netted a routine forehand. Nadal was on the ropes for most of that rally, and every Djokovic groundstroke appeared destined for an outright winner until his untimely unforced error. It was a massive momentum shift once Nadal managed to get out of that minefield unscathed.
Nadal broke Djokovic in the next game to love. He shut the gates and extinguished Djokovic’s pursuit for a sixth title.
Did you know: Since 2005, either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, or both, have contested each final of the Italian Open. And with 11 final appearances in Rome, this is the most number of finals Djokovic has appeared in one tournament.
Main Photo from Getty.