“Tomorrow is not at all preparation for nothing,” Rafael Nadal said on Saturday, as he looked ahead to a potential final against Novak Djokovic in Rome. “Is a final, an important one, and I want to be competitive.”

Nadal has always been a believer that you play for today, not a week from today, or in this case three weeks from today. Yes, Roland Garros is the tournament that he and Djokovic want to win the most, and the one that will help determine their places in the sport’s history. But Rome, like the city itself, is an event with its own deep history, and any victory there should be savored for its own sake.

Nadal and Djokovic have their own deep history in Rome. They’ve played each other here more than at any other event. This will be their ninth meeting at the Foro Italico dating back to 2007, and one or the other of them has reached the final there every year since 2005. Nadal leads their head-to-head in Rome 5-3, and he won the most recent encounter, in the 2019 final, in three sets. If I could rewatch any of their 56 matches, I might choose their 2016 quarterfinal in Rome. It wasn’t a final, or even a semi, and Djokovic won in straight sets, but it was Rafa-Nole tennis of the highest order, which is saying something.

Will we get anything approaching that this Sunday, when they play their sixth Italian Open final? Most people would say: Probably not. Because of rain on Friday, Djokovic was forced to win two arduous three-set matches on Saturday, against one very talented opponent in Stefanos Tsitsipas and one very stubborn and popular one in Lorenzo Sonego. While Nadal was on and off with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Reilly Opelka that was over by mid-afternoon, Djokovic played nearly five sets, the last of which ended after 9 P.M. His reward for running all of those miles and tracking down all of those drop shots is a date with Rafa less than 24 hours later.

“First of all I need to recover,” Djokovic said in a two-question press conference after his semifinal. “That's what I’m focused on honestly. I don’t have much time, I played a lot of tennis. Hopefully I’ll have fresh legs because that’s what I definitely will need. It’s necessary in order to have a chance against Rafa.”


Djokovic and Nadal prepare for another final clash in Rome

Djokovic and Nadal prepare for another final clash in Rome

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic following their 2019 Rome final clash.

While Nadal will be focused on winning this match alone, Djokovic may have one eye already on Paris when he takes the court. He said earlier this year that the Grand Slams will be his focus from now on, and beating Nadal in the Roland Garros final would be a major coup. Will that make Djokovic more determined to win this match, to try to gain an edge for their next meeting? Or will he be satisfied just to win a set and plant a seed of doubt in Nadal’s mind? Either way, Djokovic is not going to want to cede the confidence battle to Rafa by letting him get a one-sided win on Sunday.

As Djokovic pointed out in his presser, Nadal has “also had some tough matches” this week. Rafa made his own difficult turnaround, beating Jannik Sinner late Wednesday evening, then coming back the next afternoon to save two match points against Denis Shapovalov. At this point, Rafa says, he has played enough to be Slam ready.

“I spent plenty of hours on court,” he said. “In terms of preparation for Roland Garros, I consider the job done. Then I have to adjust a couple more things, but I have two weeks to prepare.”

On Sunday, Nadal should have an advantage. He’ll know if that he can keep the match close, make the rallies long, and grab a set, it will be hard for Djokovic to last, and even harder for him to raise his game late. But Djokovic may have his own counterintuitive advantages. He’ll be the underdog, which should allow him to swing freely, and he’ll probably feel as if he has to end points early. That should help him play aggressively, which is what he’s going to have to do to win anyway.

Nadal-Djokovic LVII could throw a surprise or two our way. Even if it doesn’t, it has been good to see these two old warriors and rivals finding their best tennis, and reasserting their mastery over their younger challengers, when it matters.

As Rafa says, “In terms of Roland Garros, is not the moment to talk. Is about Rome.”

Winner: Nadal

Djokovic and Nadal prepare for another final clash in Rome

Djokovic and Nadal prepare for another final clash in Rome