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Nadal finds the final answer for Djokovic in roller coaster Rome final
In the Rome final, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic raised their games and responded to each other’s challenges, until Rafa found the final answer.
Published May 16, 2021
“These kind of matches have a little bit of everything always, no?” Rafael Nadal said after his 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 win over Novak Djokovic in the Rome final on Sunday. “You play against one of the best players and normally you gonna suffer, no?”
Rafa’s right, his 57th match against Djokovic, like so many of the 56 that preceded it, had a little bit of everything. Over the course of two hours and 49 minutes, it had toe-to-toe, corner-to-corner, and cat-and-mouse rallies. It had drop shots. It had stab volleys and powerful smashes. It had returns that landed an inch inside the baseline, and passes that dove below the net-rusher’s racquet. It had heavy topspin forehands and backhands rifled into the corners. It had a chess-like baseline duel, in which patterns were repeated and then suddenly broken. It had big momentum swings from one set to the next, as each man answered the other’s challenge and raised his game accordingly.
It had, in other words, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
These two have met 10 times in Rome, more than at any other event. Despite its length, this match-up of 30-somethings felt more condensed and streamlined than their clay-court epics of old. Both men were proactive, no shots were wasted, and rallies didn’t last any longer than was necessary for one of them to find a way to attack and win it. By now, there’s no need for either of them to guess about their tactics, or the other guy’s capabilities.
You might not have known it from the high level of play, but this final also had something else that proved to be a major factor: wind. It was cascading from one end of the court to the other, which made holding serve on one side much more than difficult—and ultimately crucial.
In the second set, Nadal was unable to hold onto his serve on that side at 1-2; he was broken, and soon trailed 4-1. In the third set, serving into the wind again, Nadal faced break points at 2-2. But this time, after a Djokovic forehand miss and a backhand winner of his own, Rafa survived. Then he crossed to the other side and, with the wind at his back, hit two forehand winners that landed on the sidelines, and a blazing backhand pass to break for 4-2. The match went three sets and lasted nearly three hours, but it was won and lost in those two games.
“Unfortunately decisive moments in the first and third set, you know, just went his way. It was a bit unfortunate,” Djokovic said. “Didn’t capitalize on that break point in 2-All. Next game I played against the wind with used balls. Just tough, you know, to play him from that side. Next game, 4-2, and he broke my serve. He got new balls. So that helps his serve.”
Nadal had taken some of Djokovic’s best tennis in the second set, and found an unplayable level of his own in the third. This was his 10th title in Rome, and it leaves him at 20-7 against Djokovic on clay as they prepare for another, more important, potential showdown in Paris. Each recorded a good win over a Next Gen contender this week—for Nadal, it was Alexander Zverev; for Djokovic, it was Stefanos Tsitsipas. And each seemed pleased with his ramp-up to Roland Garros.
“Very happy,” said Nadal, who hinted that he would fine-tune his down-the-line forehand in practice over the next two weeks. “The trophy means a lot to me. At the same time, it’s the right moment to win an important title.”
“Overall almost three hours of high-quality tennis,” said Djokovic, who has one more warm-up event to play, in Belgrade. “Of course I’m disappointed not to win it, but at the same time I’m very pleased with the level of tennis that I managed to find in the later stages of this tournament…I actually now started to feel like I actually want to feel on clay.”
Afterward, Djokovic was asked about the rise of the Next Gen, which prompted him to put in a good word for his gen, the Big 3 gen.
“Of course the next gen is there, is coming, whatever,” Djokovic said. “But here we are still winning the biggest tournaments and Slams. I don’t know what to tell you other than that.”
Djokovic doesn’t need to tell us anything else. He and Nadal—finalists in Rome, favorites at Roland Garros, both soon to be 35—show us every time they walk on court and give us a match like this.