BEVERLY HILLS, May 17, (THEWILL) – It was a tennis final that was tagged, “The Final of the Eternal Duo in the Eternal City,” when two of the greatest players in tennis history, the Spaniard Rafael and the Serb Novak, clashed in Rome at the title match for the Italian Open on Sunday.
The final between the pair was expected to be a clash of the titans and it did not disappoint. Djokovic was first to edge ahead with a break of serve but Nadal broke right back and they both held serve all the way to 6-5 before a huge Nadal forehand gave the Spaniard the set.
It was not looking bright for Djokovic, who had endured a gruelling path to the final and was still holding his own against the best clay court player in the world. Combined, Djokovic had spent nearly five hours on court to reach the final as he went past Stefanos Tsitsipas 4-6 7-5 7-5 in the quarter-final and Lorenzo Sonego 6-3 6-7 (5) 6-2 in the semi-final.
But, Djokovic steamrolled Nadal in the second set which was back to the roaring, confident world number one that he was fighting off a breakpoint to take the next five games in a row. That result sent the final to a third set for the decider with a masterful display of top shelf tennis from the Serb.
Djokovic, still on the ascendancy, had opportunities early in the final set to once again forge ahead to victory but on the day in Rome, Nadal was not going down so easily. The Spaniard held on tightly to his service to escape a break point and bring the sets up to 3-2. Instead, he broke Djokovic’s next serve for a 4-2 lead.
From that point, Nadal seemed to have cracked open the resilience of the Serb and powered through to another service break to claim victory over an arch-rival that was always a worthy opponent with a terrific 6-2. After two hours and 49 minutes, Djokovic was congratulating Nadal as the Spaniard showed deference to the Serb.
In Nadal’s favour was the less strenuous path to the final which was unlike the marathon day of play that Djokovic endured before their meeting. Nadal needed only an hour and 32 minutes on court on Saturday to dispatch American Reilly Opelka 6-4 6-4 in his semi-final.
To his credit, however he too had his fair share of battles to reach the final, most notably a third-round thriller against Denis Shapovalov, where he dug deepest to come from 6-3, 3-0 down, heroically fight off two match points to stay in the game and still end up a 3-6 6-4 7-6 (3) winner.
Even the King of Clay himself had to admit that there was some good fortune about his title victory in Rome when he said in his post-match remarks: “Well, I was lucky at some moments this week, especially against Shapo.”
Nadal, the 20-time Grand Slam champion needed to produce an inspired display to scale past 18-time major winner Djokovic, who improved as the game progressed, before taking victory in three sets 7-5 1-6 6-3 and tie Djokovic’s record of 36 career Masters 1000 crowns with the 10th Rome triumph in his career.
Such has been Nadal’s joint domination of victories at Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) competitions that Rome is now the fourth separate event that Nadal has won 10 or more times. In the bag already are 11 wins at Monte Carlo, 12 at Barcelona and the incredibly unprecedented 13 at Roland Garros.
As two of the best players on the ATP tour, both finalists have their longevity in the sport to thank for the strings of records they have in the game. Apart from being Nadal’s 10th Rome title and 36th Masters 1000 crown, it was also his 88th career ATP title, which is the fourth-most in the Open Era after Jimmy Connors’s 109, Roger Federer’s 103 and Ivan Lendl’s 94, in that order.
He will take the title in Rome as a major boost ahead of his most favourite clay major at Roland Garros especially after a pair of quarterfinal losses at the other two clay-court Masters 1000s of the year in Monte Carlo and Madrid.
Djokovic also did some good numbers in Rome despite not clinching the trophy at the end. It was his first final since his own favorite major, the Australian Open, which he won again in February this year. On the way to this Italian Open final, the Serb set a few milestones too. His marathon victory over Sonego was the 950th tour-level win of his career and qualified him for a Masters 1000 final for a record 53rd time.
And, Djokovic is going to be at it again in a week’s time when he is scheduled to play the ATP 250 event in his hometown of Belgrade. That is one reason he continues to stay at the top of the game’s rankings.