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Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic to win ninth Rome title: First title in nine months for the King of Clay

Leye Aduloju in ATP Tour 19 May 2019
  • Rafael Nadal claimed his first title since last August with a 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over Novak Djokovic in Rome on Sunday
  • Spaniard hitting top form ahead of Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal (PA Sport)

Rafael Nadal claimed his ninth Rome Masters title with a 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over Novak Djokovic on Sunday.

Nadal's victory over Djokovic gave him his first title since last year's Rogers Cup in Toronto, ending a nine-month title drought.

The Spaniard also claimed his 34th Masters 1000 title, breaking his tie with Djokovic on top of the list, and moves up to 81 career titles, 58 of which have been on his favourite clay.

Nadal's clay-court form had been under scrutiny heading into Rome, as he had arrived the Italian capital without a clay-court title all season, having suffered consecutive semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo (to Fabio Fognini), Barcelona (to Dominic Thiem), and Madrid (to Stefanos Tsitsipas), but the King of Clay provided an emphatic response to all his doubters at the Foro Italico, and must now surely be considered as the favourite to win a 12th French Open title in Paris.

The great Spaniard did not begin his Rome campaign until Thursday, after rain washed out play on Wednesday, but he breezed through his two matches on Thursday, dropping a combined two games in ruthless performances against Jeremy Chardy and Nikoloz Basilashvili. He recorded his third bagel in as many matches in a 6-4 6-0 quarter final victory over Fernando Verdasco in the quarter finals, while he avenged his Madrid Masters loss to Tsitsipas with a 6-3 6-4 victory in the semi-finals. 

While Nadal cruised through the draw, Djokovic had to work harder in the top half, surviving consecutive late night three-setters against Juan Martin del Potro, against whom he saved two match points, and Diego Schwartzman in the quarter and semi-finals to wriggle into the final.

Given their respective paths into the final, there was a very good reason to think Djokovic's challenging route could take its toll on the Serbian physically, and so it proved at the start of the match, with the world No. 1 looking lethargic through the opening set.

Nothing can be taken away from Nadal though. The French Open champion flew out of the blocks, immediately settling into a nice rhythm with his vaunted forehand. The world No. 2 got plenty of purchase off his cross-court forehand into the Djokovic backhand, and wasn't afraid to change direction down the line- usually a measure of how confident he's feeling. 

Nadal carved out two break points in the opening game of the match, bringing up the second with short backhand winner off a Djokovic drop shot, and he got the break when the Serbian sent a forehand into the net. A punishing inside-in forehand winner gave him another break for the 3-0 lead. Djokovic fought hard to get on the board in his next service game, fending off four more break points, but Nadal was relentless in his pursuit of perfection, and converted a fifth opportunity in the game with a sumptuous backhand passing shot to open up a 5-0 lead. The left-hander served out the set in the next game to record the first ever 'bagel' in this storied rivalry. It took all of 142 sets, and 54 matches.

“I don't care winning 6-0 or 6-4, being honest. That is just a fact. I don't care much," Nadal said. "I played a great first set in all aspects. No mistakes. Playing so aggressive, changing directions. These kind of days happens. It's not usual and probably will not happen again... the first set is just an important part of the match. What helps the first set is [that it] shows that I was able to play at that level."

Djokovic showed signs of improvement towards the back end of that first set, and he continued on that trajectory at the start of the second, holding to love in the opening game to loud cheers and applause from the Roman crowd, who obviously wanted to see a contest. The world No. 1 was starting to ask more questions of Nadal, and brought up his first break point of the match at 2-1, but Nadal erased that chance with another forehand winner, and went on to hold for 2-2. 

The Spaniard looked the more likely to break in the latter half of that set, holding a 0-40 lead at 3-3, and another break point at 4-4, but Djokovic dug deep to hang in there, and the world No. 1 was rewarded for his diligence when Nadal donated a couple of nervous forehand errors to give up his serve, and with it, the set in the tenth game.

Considering Djokovic's draining path to the final, and his first-set lethargy, it must have required a monumental physical and mental effort to rouse himself for that second set fightback, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he fell away in the deciding as Nadal ran away with the rest of the match. Djokovic coughed up plenty of untidy shot selection and baffling misses, all symptomatic of a tiring man. The drop shot that had worked so well all tournament failed spectacularly on Sunday, as most of them did not even make it half way up the net.

Nadal never truly reached the heights of the first set, but he still produced a pretty good level in final set. He set the tone with a break in the opening game of the set, and never looked back, racing away to a 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory after almost two and a half hours.

“What means most to me is this trophy," Nadal said. "Rome is one of the most important tournaments of the year. [It's a big] part of the history of our sport. To be able to win here again is the main thing."

Speaking of important tournaments, the great Spaniard now turns his attention to Roland Garros- arguably the most important tournament of his career- where he will seek a record-extending 12th title.

The French Open begins on Sunday, 26 May.

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Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic to win ninth Rome title: First title in nine months for the King of Clay

Rafael Nadal claimed his first title since last August with a 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over Novak Djokovic in Rome on Sunday.

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