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Rafael Nadal battles past Novak Djokovic to win Rome for 10th time
The Spaniard has now won four events 10 or more times, having won Monte Carlo 11 times, Barcelona 12 times and Roland Garros 13 times.
Published May 16, 2021
In a dream final between two of the greatest players in tennis history, 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal battled past 18-time major winner Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 1-6, 6-3, to not only win Rome for the 10th time in his career, but to tie Djokovic's record of 36 career Masters 1000 crowns.
Rome is now the fourth separate event that Nadal has won 10 or more times, having previously conquered Monte Carlo 11 times, Barcelona 12 times and Roland Garros an incredible 13 times.
“It’s amazing. To have this trophy in my hands for the 10th time, it’s just something impossible to imagine,” the 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2018, 2019 and 2021 Rome champion said.
“I’m super happy. I can’t thank my team enough, and life for all these opportunities, and everybody’s support has been huge during all these years. To have the trophy on this day, this year, it’s amazing.”
Sunday’s final was a battle from start to finish. After holding to start the match, Djokovic drew first blood, breaking Nadal right away for a 2-0 lead—but Nadal broke right back, and after seven straight holds, the Spaniard broke again for 6-5 and blasted a huge inside-out forehand to clinch the set.
Things could have easily gotten away from Djokovic from there. He’d spent nearly five hours on court the day before—four hours and 56 minutes, to be exact—to complete a 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 quarterfinal win over Stefanos Tsitsipas and hold off an inspired Lorenzo Sonego in the semis, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2.
And after dropping that first set to Nadal, Djokovic faced a break point serving at 1-all in the second set. But he fought it off and eventually reeled off five games in a row to send the final to a third set.
The Serb had his chances early in the decider—he brought up two break points with Nadal serving at 2-all—but Nadal hung tough and held for 3-2, then broke at love for 4-2 and never really looked back, eventually riding that break to victory, closing it out after two hours and 49 minutes on court.
Nadal finished with 37 winners to 23 unforced errors. That entire differential came from what turned out to be the shot of the match, his forehand, which produced 26 winners to just 12 unforced errors.
“Well, I think I have been playing better and better with my forehand the last couple of weeks, getting to the confidence point,” Nadal said. “Yes, today has been a positive day, but I think I could change more times down the line than what I did, something I can’t keep doing, and I can keep improving.
“But the positive thing is the winner, and the solution with my forehand has been much better. So that’s a huge improvement for me, very important shot. Especially on clay it gives me confidence.”
Unlike Djokovic, Nadal wasn’t coming off a marathon day of play—he spent an hour and 32 minutes on court on Saturday for a 6-4, 6-4 semifinal win over American Reilly Opelka. But the Spaniard had his fair share of battles to reach the final, most notably a third-round thriller against Denis Shapovalov, where he came from 6-3, 3-0 down and fought off two match points to survive, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3).
“Well, I was lucky at some moments this week, especially against Shapo,” Nadal said after the final.
“I think I played a good tournament here in Rome this week. I think I’ve been playing better and better, finding my rhythm on clay, and I think I had a very positive week, and I’m very happy.”
Nadal didn't just win his 10th Rome title and 36th Masters 1000 crown, it was also his 88th career ATP title, fourth-most in the Open Era after Jimmy Connors (109), Roger Federer (103) and Ivan Lendl (94).
After quarterfinal losses at the other two clay-court Masters 1000s of the year in Monte Carlo and Madrid, the Rome title is a major boost for Nadal with his favorite major right around the corner.
But it was also a fantastic week for Djokovic, who reached his first final since winning his favorite major at the Australian Open. And he set a few milestones along the way, too—his win over Sonego was the 950th tour-level win of his career, and it sent him into a record 53rd Masters 1000 final.
When asked how he felt about his week in Rome, Djokovic most definitely saw the positives.
“I was happy to play him because of fine-tuning for Roland Garros. It doesn’t get bigger of a challenge on clay than playing Rafa in finals," Djokovic said. "I could have easily gone out of this tournament in quarters. I’m very pleased with my fighting spirit. The level of tennis was higher and higher, actually. Yesterday I played great. Today I thought I also played a high level. Unfortunately the decisive moments in the first and third set, you know, just went his way. It was a bit unfortunate.
“But overall almost three hours of high-quality tennis. I’m disappointed not to win it, but at the same time I’m very pleased with the level of tennis I managed to find in the later stages of this tournament.”
The Serb was also asked whether fatigue from the day before could have been an issue in the final.
“Not at all. I did not feel any fatigue. He managed to break my serve and played better. That’s it,” he said. “Till the last shot it was quite close. I had my shot to win it, but wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t feel fatigue. Actually, I was very happy with how I felt on the court. I could have gone another few hours.”
Djokovic is scheduled to play the ATP 250 event in his hometown of Belgrade in a week’s time.