Rafael Nadal defeated his long-time rival Novak Djokovic in three sets to claim his 10th title at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. The 7-5 1-6 6-3 score ended in almost three hours the ninth match between these two legends of the sport on the courts of the Foro Italico, the place where they faced each other the most throughout their careers. For the world number 3, this was the second time winning the title after saving match points, first it was against Roger Federer in the 2006 final, this year having faced two against Denis Shapovalov in the third round.
When such champions face each other, even the smallest margin can make the biggest difference and it felt it was the case today as Nadal and Djokovic faced for the 6th time in the final of this tournament. In a chess-like game, in which both parts knew exactly the strengths and weaknesses of the other, predicting their moves and anticipating their tactics, the world number one and three battled for 2.50 hours for the joy of the public in a high quality and dramatic final.
The Serb started strong, putting pressure on the backhand of the Spaniard, finding the first break in the match and a 2-0 lead. Nadal knew that he should not let his rival go in the score, as there are very few frontrunners as good as ‘Nole’ -and the second set was just to show that-, so he changed the pace and by using more slices and alternating them with higher shots, he targeted the world number one’s backhand to immediately break back.
The two went on serve, but the biggest chance came for Nadal on 3-3, when despite taking a scary -but consequence-less – tumble reaching a dropshot form the Serb, the Spaniard won the point and got a chance to break. The world number one saved it with a stunning backhand down-the-line winner and held.
On 5-5, Djokovic found himself in trouble again: a double fault and a striking winner from Nadal, forced him to face another break point, but this time an error leaked, and the break was served. The world number 3 bounced back from 0-30 and closed the set with a superb forehand.
The defending champion did not let the disappointment affect his game, if anything, it helped him find even more accuracy and attention: a forehand down the line winner gave him a 3-1 lead and suddenly the momentum was with him. Nadal struggled behind his own serve and he got broken once again at the end of an exhausting sixth game of more than 10 minutes. ‘Nole’ held serve and forced the match to a fitting ending with a decider.
The world number 3 raised his game again, but it was the Serb to have a break point first: in the fifth game, the third seed had to save two, but if on the first he did the job with his famous forehand, the second one was cleared by a bad miss from Djokovic. The momentum changed rapidly, and the missed chance transformed in an occasion for Nadal, who broke his rival to love with an astonishing backhand passing shot. The Spaniard fought his way to a first match point on the next return game, but Djokovic forced his second serve and saved it before holding for 5-3.
Nadal did not get this chance get past him and kept playing his game, finally forcing the Serb to miss on the second match point and with his backhand flying out, the Spaniard reclaimed the title in Rome. His 10th.
“When we are both on court it is always a fight”, explained Djokovic in his fluent Italian during the trophy ceremony: “Today we played for almost three hours and I believe we both played well. He deserves this title, and my compliments, for closing it so nicely in the third. This week was fundamental for me to find my game on clay and go to Paris with high motivation”.
Nadal also showed his Italian skills, especially to thank the local crowd, whom he will always have a special place in his heart for: “For me it is just incredible. I remember the first time I played a final in Rome in 2005 against Coria… today 16 years later I am back in the final and I am super happy about this. I want to thank all people here in Rome, not just the organizers, because playing on this court in front of this crowd is special and this will always be a special place for my career”.
Today’s match in Rome was the ‘oldest’ final in the history of the ATP Masters 1000, a sign that even though the younger generations are closing in, these champions are not giving up yet.
“Nadal and I, and maybe Roger, are reinventing the NextGen term, because we still are the NextGen”, concluded Djokovic with a smile. The young-guns have been warned, they will have to work hard to dethrone them.