Rafael Nadal had to dig deep to beat Novak Djokovic in the final of the Rome Masters and claim his first title of the season, winning 6-0 4-6 6-1 after more than two hours of intense battle.
It was a thrilling precursor to what could well be the same lineup in the French Open final at Roland Garros next month.
After a patchy start to the clay court season, Nadal looked near his unstoppable best at times against Djokovic who had no answer to his opponent’s thundering ground strokes in the opening set, as Nadal secured the first ever bagel in the pair’s rivalry — 54 matches and 142 sets.
Djokovic provided a sterner test for the Spaniard in the second set, impressively saving three break points at 3-3 before going on to break Nadal to win the set.
But momentum swung immediately back in Nadal’s favor at the start of the deciding set as he broke Djokovic’s serve at the first time of asking, prompting the furious world No. 1 to repeatedly smash his racquet into the clay.
Djokovic may well have been feeling the physical and mental strain from his brutal three-set semifinal against Diego Schwartzman that finished late Saturday night, giving him little time to recover for the final.
From there it was a relatively one-sided affair as Nadal lost just one more game to secure his 81st tournament win.
“For me, as I said every day, winning titles is important but the most important thing is feeling competitive and feeling healthy,” Nadal told ATP. “I’m very happy for the victory, I played well.
“It’s always a special match against Novak, he’s having a great season, winning in Australia, Madrid and in the final here.”
With question marks over Nadal’s fitness this season and Roland Garros just a week away, his ninth title in the Italian capital — and the accompanying performance — sends a message to the rest of the field.
The world No. 2 was comfortably beaten by Djokovic in the Australian Open final at the start of the year and had only made it to the semifinal stage of his last four tournaments.
It also means the three favorites for the French Open title — Nadal, Djokovic and Dominic Thiem — have all won big clay court tournaments in the lead up.
Victory sees Nadal overtake Djokovic to take the outright lead in most Masters 1000 titles won with 34.