Nadal Survives Battle Against Djokovic
Rafael Nadal won 50 sets in a row on clay, a record for consecutive sets on a single surface, before falling in last week’s Madrid quarter-finals. Nevertheless, the Spaniard entered Saturday's semi-finals in Rome with a 17-1 record on the surface in 2018. It was clear that the top seed was in form.
But longtime rival Novak Djokovic, who had won three of their past four FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings on clay, stood across the net. And the four-time Rome champion played arguably the best match of his comeback from a right elbow injury, channeling the level and intensity that helped him to four year-end No. 1 finishes in the ATP Rankings. It still was not enough.
Nadal outdueled Djokovic 7-6(4), 6-3 in a tight battle over one hour, 56 minutes on Court Centrale at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia to earn his 356th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 match win, breaking a tie with Roger Federer (355) for the most victories at the elite level in history.
"It was a tough battle, I think a good level of tennis," Nadal said. "[It was a] combination of tactics, a combination of great shots for both of us. [It's a] very important victory for me. I'm very happy."
Nadal is now one win — against last week’s Madrid champion Alexander Zverev or first-time clay-court Masters 1000 semi-finalist Marin Cilic — from regaining the No. 1 spot in the ATP Rankings after his Madrid loss sent him to No. 2 behind Federer this week.
"It will be a tough one. Sascha is playing great, winning a lot of matches in a row. Playing against Marin, he's having a great year," Nadal said. "Tomorrow I need to be ready to keep playing my best and that's what I'm going to try."
Both players entered the match having never lost in the semi-finals at the Foro Italico, but Nadal (10-0 in Rome SF) moves within one victory of lifting an eighth trophy in the Italian capital, while Djokovic (8-1 in Rome SF) bows out with renewed confidence after reaching his first semi-final of the season and digging deep to challenge the Spaniard. The left-handed 31-year-old now trails 26-25 in the pair’s record FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry.
Djokovic made it clear in the first game of the match that he was there to compete, earning two immediate break points. And while Nadal held on and later broke the Serbian for 4-2 in the opening set and consolidated for 5-2, the No. 11 seed was by no means getting dominated. Djokovic was directing the ball away from the middle of the court and keeping Nadal off the offensive, creating impressive backhand angles to gain control of points.
And those patterns helped the Serbian battle back into the set, as he began to dictate play regardless of how much the Spaniard peppered Djokovic's backhand wing. But in the tie-break, Nadal was finally able to change the pace of the rallies with multiple missile-like forehands down the line to put his rival on the back foot.
That trend continued in the second set, as Nadal broke in Djokovic's second service game. Suddenly the Spaniard was in charge on the baseline, and Djokovic was no longer in what appeared to be a comfort zone in the backhand corner. And while Djokovic maintained his intensity and battled to Deuce on three occasions at 3-4, challenging for a break, he could not get past the Nadal hurdle. Whereas in the first set it was Djokovic prevailing in the longer baseline rallies, Nadal's court positioning was too strong as he stepped in and pushed the Serbian back.
"Rafa was just better in important moments. He just managed to play [the] right shots and he deserved to win. He was the better player," Djokovic said. "I don't think that there was too much of a difference, which is great for me, great news for me. Because Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay courts. And he's in great, great form. It's very difficult to play him on clay anywhere. But as I said, I thought the level of my tennis was very high."
Djokovic will fall to No. 22 in the ATP Rankings on Monday, dropping 240 points after reaching last year's final. That standing is the Serbian's first time dropping outside the Top 20 since 2 October 2006. At that point, Nadal and Djokovic had only played one of their 51 matches against one another. But he is more optimistic after his performance in Rome.
"All in all, really, really good quality match," Djokovic said. "I enjoyed it. I hope the crowd did, too. And I can only take positives from this week."