If you were looking for surprises in Rome this week, the men’s draw wasn’t it. While the women’s field will crown a new champion after rounds of injuries and upsets, the men’s final features two of the titans, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, locking up for another Rome title, another Masters shield and the confidence of going into the French Open as arguably the favorite.
As for the rest of the men’s event, things went fairly to order. After having to play two matches on one day, I can’t fault Roger Federer for bailing out. The weather was bad, the lines were bad and some players thought the schedule was bad. And with the French right around the corner, why risk it?
So for Roger, it’s been a positive return to the clay so far, but I just don’t think it will get any easier in Paris in a best-of-5, especially if the weather is anything like it was in Rome (cool and wet)!
Dominic Thiem’s early exit to Fernando Verdasco was about the only surprise, but again, given the Wednesday washout everything went haywire on Thursday which meant players were facing a very busy schedule ahead, and players were forced to make a decision.
Nick Kyrgios did his Nick Kyrgios thing, that is creating controversy which led to even more headlines — I’m starting to think he feeds off those viral clips of him putting on his show.
Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov and Karen Khachanov all continued their fight for the tile of Most Disappointing of 2019. How quickly things change. Around his time last year, Zverev was ahead in the points race, now he’s leading in something else. And the Andre Agassi-led Dimitrov is now playing qualifying this weekend in Geneva. Wow.
And Juan Martin Del Potro showed signs of hope. He won two matches on Thursday and then chocked a bit on that forehand on matchpoint in that breaker yesterday against Djokovic. Wherever he is, he probably just thought about that miss. Ouch.
Delpo’s countryman Diego Schwartzman had an even better tournament, not dropping a set en route to today’s encounter with Djokovic, his first semifinal match at the Masters level.
But early on, Djokovic proved why he was the huge favorite, basically doing everything Schwartzman could do, but better, and he rolled in the first set as he took advantage of the Argentine’s weaker serve.
Schwartzman broke through after a lengthy sixth game of the second, but couldn’t keep the lead as the two traded breaks back-and-forth. Eventually, though, Schwartzman got the edge in the tiebreaker and forced the decider.
Diego was doing some damage off the ground, but his main weapon was the dropshot which he went to early and often in points. But in the end, Djokovic was just two strong in a 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-3 win
“He came out with the right game plan. He was hitting the ball clean. He was hitting it fast. He was mixing up the pace,” Djokovic said. “It was really hard to read the play.”
Earlier, Nadal got back on top of Stefanos Tstisipas after the Greek stunned him a week earlier in the Madrid semifinals. You beat Rafa on clay in front of his fans, he’s going to get you back and that’s what he did today in pretty much dominating the 20-year-old in a 6-3, 6-4 victory.
Had you not watched any of the other clay events and just Nadal this week, you would think all is right with Rafa, yet this was his first final in four clay events and it came just in time.
“Is important victory for me because I played a solid match against a good player and a player who is winning lot of matches on this surface,” Nadal said. “So winning in straight sets against him is a very positive result. More than this is a feeling that I am playing better every week, every day. That’s important for me.
“I played a little bit better than him,” Nadal added. “What I had to do is play well. Last week I didn’t play very well in Madrid. Today I did better.”
And from last week to this week, Nadal, as he’s so good at doing, problem solved.
“Today when I was hitting the forehand, he was not able to hit his forehand. Last week when I was hitting the forehand, he still had the chance to go for the shots with his forehand. [That is] something that could not happen today if I wanted to have success,” Nadal said. “When I achieve that goal, I start to open the court with the backhand against his forehand, too. I was able to change down the line with the forehand. My return was a little bit more inside than last week.”
The win puts him the eight-time Rome champ into his 50th Masters final against Djokovic who’s playing in his 49th Masters final seeking a 5th title in Rome.
Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal
At the start of the week, I picked Djokovic to beat Nadal in this final. Do I stick with it?
Thus far this week, Rafa’s easily looked the better player. Del Potro should have taken out Djokovic and today, Schwartzman was giving him a lot of problems in a second straight grueling match.
Meanwhile, Nadal hasn’t come close to dropping a set and must be fully rested and confident.
“It’s obvious that I played more than Rafa. At the same time, I’m in the finals and that’s a great success,” said Djokovic. “It’s not the first time I find myself in these kinds of situations. I feel okay, [but] of course not as fresh as at the beginning of the week. It is what it is. I’ll try to recover for tomorrow.”
Added Rafa, “The main thing is I am playing better,” he said. “For me, tomorrow is an opportunity to play against a great player. It’s another test. I hope to be ready to compete well. It’s going to be a tough one.”
Head-to-head, Djokovic holds the edge 28-25 and he’s won nine of the last 11. Incredibly, it’s also their eighth meeting in Rome where Nadal leads 4-3, and that includes his most recent win in the Rome semis last year.
“He’s my greatest rival of all time, for sure,” said Djokovic. “I’ve had so many matches against him. We have the longest rivalry of tennis of all time. Every time we get to play each other, it’s a thrill. It’s the ultimate challenge.”
So I guess it would be easy to just go with the “Djokovic has to be tired from all that tennis while Rafa is back” talk, but the Serb has dominated this series and we’ve seen him before play tough matches and come right back the next day like nothing happened.
That said, after coming up short in his last three events, Nadal has to be desperate for a title. But, why did he come up short? And that’s why I’ll stay with Djokovic.
I just don’t think Rafa is fully back. And I don’t think he’s ready to beat Novak, not after what happened in Australia.
So I expect Djokovic to raise his level tomorrow, neutralize Nadal’s forehand with his backhand and if he serves well — the key to the match — he’ll win.
It wouldn’t surprise if Rafa pulls it out in the end, but I just can’t overlook those losses to Fognini, Thiem and Tsitsipas. Djokovic is better than all of them.
The Pick: Djokovic in two
Tennis Channel will have coverage of the women’s final at 7am and then the men’s final at 10am ET. There is a threat for some storms but hopefully we’ll get the match in. Ten years after their first Rome final, they meet again. These guys are insane.
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