This week, Rafael Nadal sent a clear and unmistakable message to the tennis world that he is still the one and the only true King of Clay. And Sunday in Italy, he capped it off taking care of rival Novak Djokovic convincingly 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 to win his ninth Rome title.
“What means most to me is this trophy,” Nadal said after winning his first title of the season. “Rome is one of the most important tournaments of the year. [It’s a big] part of the history of our sport. To be able to win here again is the main thing.”
Nadal was by the sharper of the two early and appeared to be in full flight and in devastating form, pounding balls and dominating the match. It turned into such an onslaught that he reduced Djokovic, who had won nine of his last 11 against the Spaniard, to hitting moonballs and dropshots just to avoid long rallies.
After accumulating three breaks, Nadal won the first in a blink 6-0.
As the second began, you could see Djokovic begin to find the mark and he started getting depth on his shots and finally dictating. Critically, serving at 3-3 0-40 after blowing yet another overhead, somehow Djokovic survived then managed a break with Nadal serving 4-5 to take the set and force the decider.
Minutes earlier he was DOA serving 3-all, 0-40, now a chance for Novak? Perhaps. It was one set of tennis for the Rome title and role of favorite in Paris. But Nadal dug in quicker and grabbed an early break. A dejected Djokovic smashed his racquet and one could sense the air had gone from his sails. There wasn’t going to be any comeback.
Nadal’s 6-0 opening set was the first bagel between the two in now 144 total sets. And it capped a hell of a week for Rafa which just at the right time.
“I don’t care winning 6-0 or 6-4, being honest. That is just a fact. I don’t care much,” Nadal said. “I played a great first set in all aspects. No mistakes. Playing so aggressive, changing directions. These kind of days happens. It’s not usual and probably will not happen again… the first set is just an important part of the match. What helps the first set is shows that I was able to play at that level.”
Djokovic, who looked a little flat early, mounted a great charge in the second before fading in the third. And all the tennis he’s played, he said, did catch up to him.
“In the second set, it was better,” said Djokovic. “Just overall, I was lacking a little bit more of a dynamic movement, kind of attacking the ball. He’s got a very difficult, heavy topspin. He can change directions so easily. He’s got a great flick of the wrist. He’s so talented on any surface. But, I mean, clay especially. He covers the court so well.
“I’m really glad that I managed to get into the third set, considering the first set where I was blown away from the court. Obviously third set was not much different from the first,” Djokovic added. “I was just running out of fuel a little bit today. Just kind of missed that half a step, especially on the backhand side. He used it very well. He’s been playing some terrific tennis throughout the entire week. He was just too strong today.”
Djokovic will still be the top seed, and now we head into Paris with Nadal, Djokovic and 2018 finalist Dominic Thiem all sharing clay titles.
“I think it was a great week, considering I was one shot away [from losing in the] quarter-finals against Del Potro. To get to the finals is really a great result,” Djokovic said. “I haven’t played my best today, I haven’t felt my best. At the same time I managed to fight. That’s the positive I take from it.”
Most importantly, Nadal now heads to Paris having just beaten two guys he lost to earlier this year in big matches, Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas. He’s also got that first title of the year out of the way so that question has been answered.
But after watching this week, how are you going to win three sets off Rafa at Roland Garros?
I. Don’t. See. It.
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