Lol. It’s 2021 and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are still the best in the business on clay right now. It’s been that way for about 10 years now, and who knows how much longer that continues.
Credit to both, though, for enduring a tough week of tennis and coming back from the brink to remain in the hunt.
Nadal was on the edge of elimination two days against to Denis Shapovalov. The young Canadian played his finest match of his career on clay but a forehand misfire cost him the upset.
Nadal recovered exceptionally from that marathon win (and a tough one a day earlier against Jannik Sinner) to overwhelm Alexander Zverev who had rolled Rafa a week before in the Madrid altitude.
Today, Rafa needed an easy day and he got one cruising past the big guy Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4. Opelka came into the match having not dropped serve all week, but you knew that was going to change.
Rafa dodged an early bullet at the start then got some help from Opelka who wasn’t connecting on his serve like he has been. Rafa got a break in each set and that was enough.
“When you play these kind of matches, you know not going to be a beautiful match,” Nadal said. “That you not going to find rhythm on the match. You’re going to have just a few chances of have a break or even no one.
“I think I played the match that I had to play, no? I saved that moment. I had two breaks, two sets. That’s a positive thing for me. Be in the final again here means a lot to me.”
While Nadal had an uncomplicated afternoon, no such luck for Djokovic. The Serb had to win two finishing off Stefanos Tsitsipas in a thriller 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 and then toughing-out Lorenzo Sonego 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2.
The match with Tsitsipas resumed today with the Greek up a set and 2-1. That lead extended to 4-2 when Djokovic began to make a push. And he did just that breaking Tsitsipas twice to force a decider.
Tsitsipas managed to shake off the second set disappointment to jump ahead in the third. He led by a break twice and served for the match at 5-4. Djokovic wouldn’t be denied.
“Kind of felt like we played two matches. We did. One yesterday, obviously where he was the better player,” Djokovic said. “He started better also today. I managed somehow to hold my nerves, break his serve in the important moments in the second and third set.
“Without a doubt, until the last shot, I didn’t know whether I was going to win. But I believed that I can. You can always fight and give your best, let the god decide who takes the win.
“I’m just really, really glad to overcome this challenge. It’s the toughest match of the year for me so far.”
Tsitsipas once again showed why he belongs in the conversation of top players, but also showed why he has a bit to go. He’s there, he just needs to take advantage of those opportunities. Today was a missed chance. Barcelona was another.
Meanwhile, Djokovic’s day was far from done. Home hope Sonego who earlier stunned Andrey Rublev 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 was up next.
Djokovic mastered the Italian early. Sonego’s a decent player, but doesn’t have a huge weapon other than his grunt and drop shot. And in form, Djokovic got the break to serve it out at 6-3, 6-5. But two match points went by and Sonego stayed strong, then overcame a 3-0 hole in the breaker to force a second third set for both on the day.
Djokovic saved break points to start the third and that hold lit the fire that put the World No. 1 on track to victory.
“I think I bounced back very well after the second set,” Djokovic said. “I lost the first game Love-40, 30-40, missed a forehand down the line. Maybe if he started with a break up in the third things would look differently.
“I have only myself to blame for not closing the match in two sets. At the end of the day he is showing why he reached his first semifinals. He’s a quality player. Not easy to play against him. Obviously he had the crowd behind him. It was an electric atmosphere out there on the court.”
So, after a long day and long week of tennis, the final is set. And after four straight Masters surprises, we are back to old ways.
“Rafa and I had a little laugh today in the locker room after I won against Tsitsipas,” Djokovic said today. “We kind of joked around that the old guys are still not giving up. I saw he said somewhere a few days ago that Roger, him and I are old, but I disagree with him. I think we’re showing some different, fresh energy. We had a laugh about it.
“It’s great to play him again in the final. He’s the guy that I have encountered the most in my career. Definitely my biggest rival of all time. Playing him on clay in the finals of one of the biggest tournaments in the world is always extra motivating for me.
“Even after all we have been through in our careers there’s still this excitement when we have to face each other. I mean, at least from my side I know that that’s going to be the case as long as we play against each other on this level.”
RAFAEL NADAL v NOVAK DJOKOVIC
This will be their 57th meeting (!!!) with Djokovic ahead by a nudge 29-27.
On clay, it’s 18-7 for Rafa and 9-5 in Rome, which means this is their 15th meeting in Rome alone. Amazing. Most guys don’t play someone else 15 times, let alone doing that at the same event!
This is their first meeting of the year, and first since Nadal’s straight set win at the French last year. I expect a similar outcome tomorrow.
Both these guys are warriors like no other, so it’s hard to put any stock into how much they’ve played the last few days. Djokovic could have played a third 3-set match I doubt it would matter. Lol.
On form, I give the slight edge to Nadal. He’s a 9-time Rome winner (Djokovic “only” has five) and had two relatively comfortable wins yesterday and today.
Djokovic probably should have been sent home by Tsitsipas (though you could argue Shapovalov should have eliminated Nadal), but more worrisome is he dropped a set to Sonego. And he’s got a couple suspect losses on the dirt to Dan Evans in Monte Carlo and Aslan Karatsev at his own event in Belgrade.
Nadal isn’t what he used to be, either. Pushing 35 (Djokovic turns 34 next week), Nadal lost to Rublev in Monte Carlo and then fell in that dissapointing Madrid quarter to Zverev. Neither of which were horrible losses, but they did show his age.
Djokovic mentioned he’ll get up to play Nadal. but earlier in the week, he also mentioned his goals are shifting. He’s now open about focusing on the Slams and not so much on Masters and the rankings. I think deep down, he still wants all the titles and the top ranking, but maybe the losses won’t sting as much. I don’t think that’s the same for Rafa who plays to win, regardless of event or significance.
But the field is catching up and their games are slowing down.
These two titans of tennis are at the top of break points converted (roughly 45% apiece), however it’s been an adventure of late for both. Nadal’s been better in his last two matches, but was just 4/14 against Shapovalov and 5/15 against Sinner. And he had similar issues last month.
Djokovic has been worse. Today, 4/12 against Sonego, 6/23 against Tsitsipas. And remember he went 5/23 against Karatsev and finished just 3/10 against Evans.
So in the big moments, Rafa and Novak have been off their norms which means toward the end of tomorrow’s battle, expect to see some nerves. Who manages them better probably wins.
Nadal’s the rightful favorite here based on surface and I think that’s the right pick. Djokovic is the defending champion. He’s won his last nine matches in Rome and 17 of his last 19. But those two losses? Yup, Rafael Nadal.
The Pick: Nadal in 3
Since Djokovic has declared his focus is now on Slams, I wonder if Djokovic would want to give anything away in terms of strategy tomorrow. There’s not much new between them, but if Djokovic has a different plan for Rafa on clay, would he want to reveal that tomorrow or save it for Paris where odds are they will meet again and with much more at stake?
I don’t know but it’s an interesting subplot. I know Rafa will give it his all, but Novak could keep a card or two in his pocket to save for the French.
Of course when these two meet expect long points, long games, long sets and long matches, even with the serve clock! And we’ve seen so many marathons already, so why not one more, no?
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