In the end, however, Djokovic was too good off the ground. He was ultra-aggressive and his propensity to release streams of winners almost at will was more than even the greatest clay court player of all time could find a way to counter on this particular day. Djokovic made a clay court look like a hard court the way he was playing. He refused to allow the Spaniard to become engaged in rhythmic, long rallies too often. He played quick strike tennis to the hilt. He was free-wheeling, fundamentally sound for the most part, unwilling to allow Nadal to dictate with enough frequency off the forehand. Djokovics ball striking was sublime; he hit through the court with staggering authority.
What made it all the more remarkable was this: Nadal gave Djokovic every conceivable opportunity to get worn out around the emotional edges, but the Serbian never lost trust in his game and seldom became flustered. It was an admirable piece of business from a player who has now won three Masters 1000 titles across 2014, and five of the last six he has entered since last autumn. He has closed the gap in his storied rivalry with Nadal to 22-19 for the Spaniard by virtue of his fourth head to head victory in a row over the man who stands only slightly ahead of him at No. 1 in the world. And yet, I maintain that Nadal is still the man to beat at Roland Garros, and I fully expect him to garner a ninth crown in Paris.
Be that as it may, Nadal commenced the Rome contest precisely the way he wanted. He was meticulous from the backcourt, calm and purposeful, totally in control of his surroundings. Djokovic, meanwhile, was in disarray, missing an alarming number of routine two-handed backhands, returning poorly by his lofty standards, beating himself to a large degree. Nadal was cagey and resourceful, realizing he did not need to go for too many big shots or take unnecessary risks, knowing that Djokovic was self-destructing. The evidence of Djokovics vulnerability was apparent immediately.
Down 15-30 in the opening game of the match, Djokovic served his way out of danger and held on by securing three points in a row. Nadal raced to a 40-0 lead in the second game before Djokovic rallied to make it deuce, but the Spaniard took advantage of a pair of errant backhand returns from his opponent to reach 1-1. From that juncture, Nadal seized control of the set. Djokovic was down 0-40 in the third game, made it back to 30-40 but Nadal broke through right then and there, slicing an immaculate approach deep to the Djokovic forehand, anticipating a down the line passing shot, and then angling away a forehand volley crisply for a winner.
Nadal had the early break for 2-1 as Djokovic missed four of six first serves in that game. The Spaniard held at 15 for 3-1, inducing two return errors in a row from Djokovic to close out that game, one with a wide serve to the backhand in the ad court, the other with a well located body serve to the forehand. Djokovic was clearly off key, and Nadal was pouncing. Nadal broke at 15 for a 4-1 lead, reaching break point with a biting, low, short backhand slice drawing an error from Djokovic, following with a deep crosscourt forehand that lured Djokovic into a mistake off his two-hander.
Nadal was comfortably out in front, ahead two breaks, playing an intelligent brand of percentage tennis while Djokovic could not yet find his range. At the changeover after the fifth game, Djokovic vented, smashing his racket. He came back on court more relaxed and swinging more freely, while Nadals intensity and concentration dropped a notch. The Spaniard missed a routine inside out forehand, double faulted for 0-30, and missed a bread and butter backhand crosscourt to fall behind 0-40. He saved one break point but Djokovic converted on the second, lacing a scorching flat backhand crosscourt that was unmanageable for Nadal.
Djokovic had found his bearings. He held at 15 with an ace out wide for 3-4, and soon marched to 0-40 on Nadals serve in the crucial eighth game. Nadal ceded no ground, refused to waver, revealed the depth of his inner security. He swung his first serve wide to the Djokovic backhand and elicited a return error, drove a sparkling forehand up the line for a clean winner behind a stranded Djokovic, and arrived safely at deuce when Djokovic was off the mark with an inside out forehand. Nadal was rewarded for that obstinate stand as Djokovic made two more unprovoked mistakes. On to 5-3 went the Spaniard. Djokovic held at 15 in the ninth game with two more aces, but Nadal was ready and able to close out the set.
Serving at 5-4, Nadal received a time violation warning at 0-15 but remained implacable. He got a good break when his second serve kicker took a bad bounce and stymied Djokovic on the return. Nadal defended brilliantly on the following point before driving a sparkling forehand down the line that was too much for Djokovic. From 30-15, Nadal took the first set with two effective swings of the racket. A service winner up the T made it 40-15 and a fine first serve to the forehand drew another return error from Djokovic. Set to a resolute Nadal, 6-4.
And yet, despite his predicament, although he was in a serious bind, Djokovic seemed undismayed. He was now back on song, opening the second set with a love game on serve which he closed with an ace out wide. The second game of that set loomed large. Nadal rallied from 0-30 to 30-30. He sent a low forehand crosscourt deliberately short, and Djokovic did not blink, driving a backhand into the clear for an outright winner. At break point down, Nadal used the slice serve wide to open up the court for a forehand down the line approach, but an inspired Djokovic raced laterally with swiftness and whipped a dazzling forehand winning passing shot crosscourt.
Serving at 2-0, Djokovic opened that game with a superb backhand crosscourt winner, and closed it with a backhand drop shot winner down the line, holding at love. He had charged into a 3-0 lead in no time flat, sweeping 12 of 14 points in the process. Nadal was deeply under siege, and he knew it. Serving at 30-30 in the fourth game, Nadal went inside-out off the forehand, coaxing a forehand down the line error from Djokovic. He held at 30 for 1-3 with an inside out forehand winner off a short return, and the Spaniard was back in business.
The following game was fascinating. Djokovic threw in a surprising serve-and-volley combination to reach 40-0, punching his first volley into a wide open court. Ahead triple game point, he seemed certain to hold. But Nadal is ever the opportunist, never willing to concede a point. He swept five points in a row to break back for 2-3 as Djokovic misfired on the last two points with his normally impeccable inside out forehand.
Nadal had worked his way admirably into the set, and was back on serve. He went to 30-15 in the sixth game but miss-hit a backhand long. At 30-30, Djokovic displayed his growing sureness in the forecourt. He approached the net and made a difficult half volley drop shot. Nadal scampered forward for a forehand passing shot crosscourt, but Djokovic read that play acutely, punching a backhand volley past Nadal into a vacant court. Down break point, Nadal released one of his two double faults in the matchat the worst possible moment. He went for a lot of depth on that second serve and missed it long, a mistake he would regret deeply in retrospect.
Djokovic was back in control, holding at love for 5-2, boosted by two winners in that game. Nadal gamely held from 0-30 for 3-5. When Djokovic served for the set in the ninth game, he was behind 15-30, but once more his net game was outstanding. A deep backhand volley down the line set up by a remarkably good sliced backhand approach from the Serbian gave Nadal no opening. The volley was so deep Nadal had no way to answer it. A clean forehand winner from Djokovic made it 40-30 and that set the stage for a service winner out wide. He had held confidently at 30 to win the set 6-3.
The outset of the final set was strikingly similar to the early stages of the second. Djokovic broke Nadal at 15 for 1-0, applying pressure throughout that game. Djokovic held at love for 2-0, serving another ace for 40-0. Again, Djokovic was off and running. The third game featured both players performing magnificently. Djokovic was determined to gain the insurance break that would make him almost unbeatable, while Nadal fought valiantly to prevent that from happening. There were five deuces in that gripping game. The shotmaking from both men was extraordinary. Neither man was wavering. Both competitors fully understood what was at stake.
Djokovic had two break points. Nadal erased the first with a first serve setting up a penetrating forehand, and wiped away the second when Djokovic sent a backhand down the line return wide. Nadal ultimately held on with a vintage forehand winner off a short return. He had made another unambiguous statement, telling Djokovic in essence, I am not going anywhere, and you better be clear about that.
Djokovic knew what he was up against, and responded in kind, holding at 30 for 3-1 with another timely service winner out wide in the ad court. Serving at 1-3, 40-30, Nadal made his most spectacular passing shot of the match, drilling a two-hander crosscourt for a winner off a very good approach. Now, once more, Nadal made his move. With Djokovic serving at 3-2, 15-15, Nadal approached behind a low, well struck crosscourt forehand, and Djokovic replied with a low backhand passing shot crosscourt. Nadal handled that beautifully, making a delicate forehand drop volley winner. Then Djokovic made one of his few bad plays at the net, missing a routine forehand volley, and just like that it was 15-40. Another nifty backhand passing shot from Nadal at the feet of Djokovic gave Nadal the break, and improbably the score was locked at 3-3.
The momentum had shifted decidedly back to Nadal, but not for long. Djokovic has almost inarguably the best return of serve in tennis, which becomes an even larger strength when he is not holding back and he is going after it at full force. Such was the case on this occasion against Nadal, who never was allowed to breathe by an adversary who was striking the return with clarity, conviction, pace, and supreme accuracy. On the first point of the seventh game of that final set, Djokovic got on top of the rally immediately and kept control, finishing things off with an inside out forehand winner. Nadal went for a forehand inside out winner of his own on the following point, but missed it aggressively. The Spaniard then missed a two-hander off the net cord wide, and it was 0-40. He saved one break point but Djokovic was unrelenting. He broke at 15 for 4-3 as Nadal drove a crosscourt backhand long. Knowing how deep he had to keep his shots. He pressed, ever so slightly.
Djokovic was unstoppable now. He held at love for 5-3 with absolutely no hesitation. Djokovic took a reasonably deep return from Nadal and drove a flat forehand down the line for a winner and a 15-0 lead. He then crushed a two-hander crosscourt to set up that same shot for another dazzling winner. Then he connected with another forehand down the line winner, followed by an ace down the T. That was nothing short of stupendous. Serving to stay in the match in the ninth game, Nadal had run out of responses. Djokovic ripped a backhand return winner for 15-40 before Nadal saved one match point with a body serve to the forehand that Djokovic mishandled. On the second match point, however, Djokovic would not be denied, peppering away at the Nadal backhand until he provoked an error.
Nadal was beaten for only the seventh time in 51 career clay court finals, and Djokovic alone has accounted for four of those losses. The Serbian is only the third player ever to halt Nadal in a clay court final, joining Roger Federer (Hamburg 2007), and Horacio Zeballos ( Vina Del Mar 2013) in that exclusive category. Moreover, this was the first time Djokovic had ever battled back from a set down to beat Nadal in either a clay court final— or any match on the dirt for that matter; Djokovics three previous clay court victories over Nadal had all been carved out in straight sets. Both Djokovic and Nadal are unassailable front runners; in their last ten head to head meetings, the winner of the first set had always gone on to victory.
In any case, for both players, Rome was a week that will serve them well heading into Roland Garros. Djokovic was returning from a wrist injury and had not competed since losing to Roger Federer in the semifinals of Monte Carlo. He struggled before halting Radek Stepanek 6-3, 7-5, rallied from a set down against Philip Kohlschreiber, broke free from David Ferrer only after they were locked at 3-3 in the final set, and then found himself three points from defeat against the big serving Milos Raonic before escaping 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-3 in a hard fought, three hour contest. For all of that hard workculminating with his triumph over NadalDjokovic came away with his third Italian Open tournament victory, stopping the seven time champion in the title round. These two icons have owned the tournament for a decade. Meanwhile, it was the third time in four years that they had clashed in the Rome final, with Djokovic breaking a 1-1 deadlock.
As for Nadal, he struggled inordinately in the early rounds. Facing Giles Simon in his opening assignment in the second round after a bye, Nadal was given a stern test by a wily opponent who once resided among the top ten in the world. Simon is masterful at taking his opponents pace, absorbing it, and using it to his own advantage. He sparred brilliantly with Nadal from the baseline and kept him on court for three hours and 19 minutes. To be sure, Simon was wily and strategically sound. He was a major league pest for Nadal. But Nadal was squandering too many opportunities. He served for the first set at both 5-4 and 6-5 but did not press his advantage home. After easily winning a tie-breaker he moved out in front 3-1, 40-15 in the second set but was broken with a cluster of errors. Later, at 5-6 in the second set, he had a match point but totally miss-hit a run around forehand return into the bottom of the net.
Nadal dropped the second set, moved to 2-0 in the third, only to be caught at 2-2 by the stubborn Frenchman. Thereafter, Nadal raised his game down the stretch to win 7-6 (1), 6-7 (4), 6-2. A day later, he confronted Mikhail Youzhny, and that turned into an unnecessarily difficult tussle. Serving for the first set against the Russian, Nadal led 15-0 but double faulted two straight points away, losing his serve before dropping the set. He fought back from 0-2 in the second set to capture 12 of the last 13 games but he had wasted an excessive amount of emotional and physical energy by spending another two hours and 45 minutes on the court.
The match that changed things significantly for Nadal was his duel with Andy Murray, their first since the autumn of 2011. Nadal dropped the first set decisively to a highly charged and strikingly sharp Murray, but rallied to win an exhilarating contest 1-6, 6-3, 7-5. Nadal was behind 2-4 in the third set but played an excellent game to break back. After Murray saved two break points to hold on for 5-4, Nadal rose to the challenge with poise, precision and gusto, securing three games in a row and 12 of 13 points to raise his record against the Wimbledon champion to 14-5. Murray undoubtedly played his best sustained tennis since he won at the All England Club last July, and his defense and offense off the forehand were superb. That contest lasted two hours and 41 minutes.
But Nadal knew he had turned a corner emphatically with that victory. His level of play was considerably higher than what he had displayed against either Simon or Youzhny. Nadal proceeded to take apart Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2 without losing his serve in the semifinals. He was disciplined, unerring and assertive in that win, and then he played a good final against Djokovic. Perhaps the Spaniard was slightly fatigued in the end after so many long struggles during the week, but had he held at either 2-3 in the second set or 3-3 in the third against Djokovic, there might well have been a different outcome.
The view here is that Nadal will win a ninth French Open title on June 8th. I base that prediction on a few central points. Beating this man in a best of five set showdown on clay is next to impossible. To be sure, Djokovic is capable of doing so. A year ago, he was serving at 4-3, deuce in the fifth set of the semifinals before Nadal overcame him 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. Djokovic lost to Nadal in a hard fought, four set final a year earlier at Roland Garros in his lone final round appearance. Although he has beaten Nadal only four times in seventeen career clay court meetings, all of those victories have occurred since 2011.
He has the stamina and the stability to beat Nadal if he is at his very best in a Roland Garros final, but the five set format still favors the Spaniard. Moreover, I cant see Nadal losing to anyone else in Paris other than Djokovic, but conversely Djokovic might be beaten by a number of other competitors on any given day. If he were to make it to the final and take on Nadal, they would inevitably stage another classic showdown on the red clay. If that happens, I would make Nadal a slight favorite to prevail on that auspicious occasion.
I would be very surprised if Nadal does not go through at least to the Roland Garros final, while Djokovic just might be caught off guard by the right kind of opponent on the wrong type of day. The fact remains that the Serbian got an immeasurable boost from his Italian Open exploits, particularly with the way he stopped Nadal in a high quality encounter. That will serve him well, carry him into Paris on a high note, and make him like his chances of ruling at the only Grand Slam championship he has never captured. Rome clearly did Djokovic a lot of good.
The fact remains that Rafael Nadal has lost only once in nine appearances at Roland Garros, and he, too, takes a lot of positives out of Rome into the French Open. He is the games quintessential competitor, heading back onto his favorite court in the world, ready to make amends for a 2014 clay court campaign that has not been up to his usual standards. In the ultimate analysis, I envision Nadal standing alone as the 2014 French Open champion, emerging victorious with a 14th Grand Slam championship, reminding the world that there is nothing tougher in tennis than defeating him at the capitol of the clay court game.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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