Tennis: Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic to win sixth Rome Masters title and reclaim world No 2 spot
THE world’s three best players continue to exchange places and overtake each other like leaves floating in a stream.
Only a week after ceding the No 2 position to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal stepped back up again by winning the BNL Internazionali in Rome – his sixth title in eight entries to the highly rated tournament.
Even more encouragingly for Nadal and his army of supporters, he beat Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, in the final. It was a hard-fought contest, certainly much closer than their last meeting in the Monaco final, where Djokovic had been wrestling with the emotional aftermath of his grandfather’s death. But after seizing a crucial advantage towards the end of the first set, Nadal maintained it to claim a 7-5, 6-3 win.
This final should have happened on Sunday evening, but the combination of wet weather and a marathon women’s final (which Maria Sharapova eventually won at close to 6pm) meant that it was held over.
The extra rest must have been a mercy for these two players, given the physical intensity of their battles. In Melbourne in January they contested a six-hour final. Even Monday’s match ran to 140 minutes for two sets.
In the early stages, it looked as if Djokovic might be able to reassert the psychological dominance that he had established over Nadal with seven consecutive wins – all in finals – up until their meeting in Monte Carlo.
He was dictating the play with the intricate geometry of his groundstrokes, while Nadal was slow in finding his range with his forehand, the bone-jarring weapon that has made him so dominant on clay. But after an exchange of breaks midway through the first set, Djkovic’s composure was rattled by a bad line call in the 10th game.
The score was 30-30. Had he won that long rally, he would have had set point. But when he landed a forehand on the outside of the line, the official called “out” and the point had to be replayed.
Nadal won it this time, and followed up by sweeping three games in a row to take the set.
While the standard of play was high, Djokovic was not at the peak of his powers. He made two inexplicable errors on easy smashes, and never quite settled into the pounding rhythm that can make him so dangerous off both wings.
The upshot is that Nadal must now be a firm favourite to win the French Open — which starts on Sunday — for a record seventh time.
He has only ever lost one match at Roland Garros, against Robin Söderling in 2009. And Söderling, sadly, is not playing at all at the moment, having suffered serious damage to his health from a bout of glandular fever last year.
“He [Nadal] is always the favourite even if I win against him seven times — he is the best player in the world on this surface,” said Djokovic afterwards.
“The match today was quite close, even if he won in straight sets. I made unforced errors and I don’t think he played extremely well. I will go to Paris with confidence.”
Nadal agreed with Djokovic’s assessment, saying: “I didn’t consider myself that good. I can do better. You cannot expect to be perfect and your opponent is not going to be perfect all the time. When you are losing finals like I did last year, and one this year, you have to keep control of your emotions.”