For all the classics they've contested around the world, on every surface and at every Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic managed to set the bar pretty low for Sunday's Rome final. Their last meeting, this year's Australian Open final, was a rout, though Djokovic fans surely had no qualms with the 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 scoreline. Yes, their match-up prior to the dud Down Under was one of those classics—a 10-8 fifth-set win for Djokovic, in the Wimbledon semis—but did you know that their seven prior meetings ended in straight sets?
So when Nadal broke Djokovic in the very first game at the Foro Italico, and proceeded to hold his serve at love, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Were we about to witness another rout? Or was this just the first undulation of their latest classic, given Djokovic's recent superiority in the head-to-head? (Since losing the 2013 US Open final to Nadal, Djokovic was 13-3 against the Spaniard.)
When Nadal went on to break Djokovic and consolidate for a 4-0 lead—and then did it again—I thought we had our answer. For the first time in the 142 sets of this legendary rivalry, a set ended 6-0. It was only the ninth time in Djokovic's career he'd been bageled. There isn't much Nadal and Djokovic haven't done together, but even after 53 matches, they managed to come up with something new.
And then, suddenly, new became old again. Djokovic's hold to open the second set could have been seen as a symbolic message that he had arrived, but it quickly became evident that his game had awoken. There were all-court rallies and technically flawless groundstrokes, along with some shots that bent the rules of tennis. There were seeming winners bested by actual winners in a battle between two of the game's all-time greats. Like a band after testing its new material at a sold-out show, Nadal and Djokovic played the hits in a second set that made you wonder how a bagel set could have possibly preceded it.
Despite the improved quality of play, Nadal had ample opportunities to add another straight-sets win to the record books. But he was unable to break from 0-40 at 3-3, and again couldn't convert a break opportunity at 4-4. At these moments, Djokovic's serve and Nadal's nerves came to the forefront. The world No. 1 took full advantage of the combination, winning the set with some of his most confident shotmaking of the day, a wonderful mixture of powerful, angles drives and peerless parries.
But if Djokovic had made further inroads on Nadal's mental game, you wouldn't have known it from Rafa's physicality in the third set. In a match with extended stretches of homogenous play but no consistent narrative, Nadal reverted back to his opening-set form in the decider, breaking Djokovic from the onset and doubling his lead in short order. The eventual win inched Nadal closer to Djokovic in their head-to-head record (now 28-26 Djokovic) and pushed the Spaniard just ahead of the Serb in ATP Masters 1000 titles (now 34-33 Nadal).
It wasn't a rout, and it wasn't a classic, but Nadal fans surely had no qualms with the 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 scoreline.