After a week of endless marathon matches and uneven play, the dust has literally settled in Rome leaving familiar rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to duel for the final clay Masters event of the season.
Nadal, who had played erratic tennis all week put together a very tight Rafa-like performance today crushing the young upstart Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2. Following a string of 3-setters, it was just what Nadal and his shaken confidence needed.
“I think I started the match in a perfect way, in the second set he made more mistakes than usual,” said Nadal who had lost at least a set in his four prior meetings with the Bulgarian. “But, talking about myself, I played a solid match and was very good with my backhand. Yesterday I played a great match and today was a good confirmation that I play better, that the forehand starts to fly again, the top spins as well. A lot of positive things.”
Djokovic’s road was far, far tougher. The Serb clashed with the big serving Milos Raonic in a three hour 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-3 thriller. It was a nip-and-tuck affair as the Canadian flashed not just his lethal serve/forehand combo but a newfound backhand and better mobility. The improvements paid off. Raonic hung tough until late in the third when Djokovic finally swept him away.
“It was a big win,” said Djokovic. “Because it gives me a lot of strength and belief that I hope I can carry into tomorrow’s final and the rest of the season.
“He played at a high level, especially on his serve, and I cannot recall the last time when I felt so helpless in the return games. I couldn’t really read his serve.
“He did surprise me with his movement,” said Djokovic. “He is moving really well and has improved his backhand down the line, especially. He comes to the net and has improved his variety.”
At the end of the day Raonic and Dimitrov have no reason to hand their heads. For the two 23-year-olds it was a very promising week. Despite the bad outing today, the future is bright for Dimitrov who’ll likely crack the Top 10 in the coming months. Raonic showed some added savvy today and with his power and frame, he’s going to be at the top of the game for the next 4-5 years if not longer. These two will have their time, it’s just not now.
Their losses also pave the way for chapter 41 of the best rivalry in tennis: Nadal vs. Djokovic.
Rafa (still) leads this one 22-18 and 13-3 on clay. But Djokovic has won three straight and they’ve split their last two on dirt. Entering, I’d give a slight edge on level of play to Novak. He’s had the better season and he’s been playing better of late. Nadal, meanwhile, has really struggled. Of course except for today.
The problem for Rafa is even when he’s playing near his best, Djokovic still gives him fits. So mentally, Rafa’s going to be worried going in because he knows this is a different battle. He’s the favorite, he’s the King of Clay and the pressure is on him not to cede his surface this close to the French. But he’s got issues.
“Djokovic always plays unbelievable, he’s a complete player and has all the shots,” said Nadal. “If I want to have chances to win I have to play my best tennis, be aggressive. It will be a very tough match. That’s the only way. I have to be ready for the competition.”
Djokovic, though, hasn’t been at his best either. We’re still seeing those ill-timed lapses in concentration – what happened in the first set breaker when he was up 3-0? – and he just doesn’t look right at times.
For me, all things being equal on the clay (both guys playing a decent game from the baseline and they are fit – Novak is coming off a 3-hour match today) the match hinges on Rafa’s second serve. If he’s having a hard time with his second then Djokovic, a master returned, is going to be dictating, and that’s bad news for the Spaniard. However, if Nadal serves well he’ll be the one in the forecourt and being the aggressor. He can apply the pressure and get Djokovic thinking.
For Djokovic, he’ll have to attack that second and be willing to hit the backhand down the line. I guess it would be asking to much for him to cut out the nickle-and-dime errors, but like Nadal, who’s also battling his own bloopers, I think we’ll see likely see some good tennis mixed with some bad.
So that said, this is a tough one to pick. With the big prize still three weeks away, neither player is firing on all cylinders right now. But this is Rafa’s domain and he’ll do everything in his power to protect what’s his. He’s the King of Clay afterall.
The pick: Nadal in three
In the opening act, the women’s final pits heavy favorite Serena Williams against local hero Sara Errani. I can only imagine what Serena will do to the Italian’s puffy second serves.
Tennis Channel has live coverage starting at 7:30am.
SUNDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 1:30 pm
WTA –  S Williams (USA) vs  S Errani (ITA)
Not Before 4:00 pm
ATP –  R Nadal (ESP) vs  N Djokovic (SRB)
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