Imitating Gustavo Kuerten’s tribute to the crowd at Roland Garros a few years ago, Novak Djokovic used his racquet to draw a giant heart in the clay at the end of his 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over rival Rafael Nadal in the two-hour and 18-minute final of the Rome Masters—the final important tune-up before the French Open begins next Sunday.
Djokovic was paying tribute to the crowd*, but he might just as well have been making a statement about his character. In the last 10 matches these two have played, the winner of the first set eventually emerged triumphant. But even those odds were unable to keep Djokovic from playing two astonishing sets and finishing this match with a degree of ferocity and skill that we rarely see.
Some will see this match as a sneak preview of the French Open final, in three weeks’ time. Others, though, will see it as a kind of reprise of their meeting at Roland Garros last year, a semifinal marked by unexpected and sometimes baffling swings of momentum. Perhaps it was both. But keep in mind that this was a best-of-three match, whereas the game is best-of-five in Paris—and thus more friendly to the dogged, determined Nadal, as he showed in that 2013 clash.
This was the 41st meeting between these men, making it, already, the most prolific rivalry in the history of the Open era. It’s a close one, too, with Nadal leading 22-18 going in. With so many matches under their belts, these men know each other inside and out, a factor that is abundantly evident when they play. If you didn’t know better, you might regard those swings of momentum and wild plot twists with a skeptical eye and wonder if the two of them hadn’t choreographed the match beforehand.
Take the first set today. Djokovic went off his feed at 1-all in the first set and fell behind while serving, 0-40. He then hit a winner, and ended a terrific rally with a high, sharply-angled backhand volley to erase the second break point. But then it was Nadal’s turn: After a spirited, explosive rally, He advanced and buried a cross-court forehand volley to secure the break and the lead, 2-1.
Nadal held with ease, losing just one point in the next game, and then broke Djokovic again. This time, he reeled off three straight points from 15-all to break. By that time, Djokovic had made a dozen unforced errors and he expressed his disapproval as they changed ends at 1-4, smashing his racquet against his bench seat.
But this being Nadal-Djokovic, it was unsurprising to see Djokovic roar right back—with a lot of help from Nadal. He broke Nadal with puzzling ease and then powered through a service game of his own to close within 3-4, albeit still a break down.
The next game was critical—and barely credible. Nadal fell behind 0-40 (by which time Djokovic had won 11 of the last 13 points), but then Djokovic collapsed in a heap. He made unforced errors on four of the next five points—all of them won by Nadal. The top seed and world No. 1 won the game when Djokovic made a rally error with his forehand.
At 5-3, Nadal’s break was safe, and he went on to serve out the set with no trouble, mainly because of Djokovic’s inability to return adequately.
The second set continued this still-evolving trend of predictable unpredictability. Djokovic caught his second—or was it his third, or fourth?—wind and broke through a Nadal serve, then held for 3-0. He seemed in total control when he bolted to a 40-0 lead in the next game, and then the momentum shifted again.
Two netted groundstrokes and a wild forehand shank later, it was deuce. Djokovic then netted another forehand to give Nadal a break point and finished off his season of charitable giving when he ended a long rally with a forehand error.
At 2-3 and serving, Nadal seemed to have wrested back control. But Djokovic hung in there to 30-all in the next game, then used an artful drop-shot/volley combination to force a break point. Nadal hit a double fault and Djokovic was back in charge, serving with a 4-2 lead.
With that cushion, Djokovic dialed up his offense and clubbed his way to a 5-2 lead. Nadal held the following game, but it was too little, too late. Although Nadal took advantage of two puzzling errors by Djokovic to creep ahead 30-15, Djokovic slammed the door on the set with a terrific backhand volley, a massive forehand approach winner, and a set-ending ace.
Djokovic also started the third set with a fresh surge of energy that translated to impeccable tennis. He broke Nadal to start things off, held, and by the time Nadal was at 0-30, in the third game Djokovic had won 13 of the 14 points played in the set. More ominous, he won all eight of the baseline points.
In that third game, though, Nadal fought desperately to stay in Djokovic’s rearview mirror. He warded off a break point with a service winner, but found himself facing a second one after the fourth deuce of the game. Nadal missed his first serve, but Djokovic made a mess of his ensuing return—a so-so serve right in his wheelhouse, on the backhand side—and allowed Rafa to escape and ultimately hold for 1-2.
It seemed that the missed return in that third game would haunt Djokovic when, two holds later, Nadal reached triple break point. He converted his first chance when he ripped a backhand that Djokovic barely speared on the backhand side, leaving Nadal with an easy forehand putaway. We were back on serve at 3-all.
But that would be the last game Nadal was destined to win. This match was thick with 0-40 and 40-0 games that became knock-down, drag-out affairs, but the seventh game of the fins set wasn’t one of them. Djokovic parlayed a placement and two Nadal errors into a triple break point situation. Nadal slipped the noose of the first one but made a backhand error to give up the break on the next one. In truth, the quality of the rallies was so high by this time that it seems deceptive to label any of the near-misses “errors.”
With a 4-3 lead, Djokovic ripped off four straight winners, including a game-ending ace. Nadal found himself served to stay in it too quickly, and he fell behind 15-40 on a Djokovic backhand service return winner. Clearly over-eager, Djokovic mangled a forehand serve return to waste his first match point. But he outlasted Nadal in a tense and not particularly artful rally to end the match.
Djokovic showed plenty of heart in this one, and his ambition for 2014—to complete a career Grand Slam with a French Open title—seems much more realistic than it did two weeks ago.
*Correction: Djokovic drew the heart in the clay mainly to express solidarity with, and concern for, the victims of the terrible flooding in the Balkans last week.—PB