By Seth Gellman
After underwhelming clay seasons, both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic entered the Italian Open in Rome with the hopes of gaining confidence before the upcoming grand slam, Roland Garros. Nadal entered the Italian Open with a 9-2 record on clay this season, suffering losses in the quarter-finals of both the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters and Mutua Madrid Open to Russian Andrey Rublev and German Alexander Zverev. Nadal lifted the trophy in Barcelona after overcoming Greek youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4 6-7 (6) 7-5 in a battle that lasted over three and a half hours. Djokovic, the World No. 1, entered the tournament with worse results. The Serb lost in straight sets to Brit Daniel Evans in Monte-Carlo and lost in the semi-finals of his home tournament, the Serbia Open, to the story of the season, Aslan Karatsev, coming to Italy with a 3-2 record on clay this year.
Djokovic skipped the Mutua Madrid Open, which saw Alexander Zverev defeat big-hitting Italian Matteo Berrettini to earn his fourth Masters title, including his second in Madrid.
There was no easing into the tournament. Some highly anticipated matchups included Aslan Karatsev vs. Daniil Medvedev, the lanky Russian who admittedly dislikes clay, and Rafael Nadal vs. teenager phenom Jannik Sinner in the second round. Others pointed toward a potential rematch between Andrey Rublev and Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round after their close Monte-Carlo match, a potential repeat of last week’s match between Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals, or a duel between red-hot Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and Djokovic.
Nadal knew that he faced a challenging draw from the start. The nine-time champion knew that he potentially faced Jannik Sinner, explosive Canadian Denis Shapovalov, and Madrid champion Zverev en route to the final. Nadal played well under pressure to defeat Sinner in two close sets before facing off against Shapovalov in the third round. Shapovalov was in a slump, having lost three of his last five matches. Shapovalov showed no sign of this slump against Nadal. The Canadian raced to a 4-0 lead in the first before taking the set 6-3. He went up a break in the second as well, but couldn’t hold the lead, eventually succumbing to the pressure and Nadal took the set 6-4. The third set saw a dramatic turn, as Shapovalov found himself with two match points with Nadal serving at 5-6. Nadal saved both, however, and won the tiebreak decisively 7-3 to win 3-6 6-4 7-6 (3). Nadal found familiar foe Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals. After losing 6-4 6-4 the week prior, the World No. 2 turned it around to claim the victory 6-3 6-4. He faced off against big-serving Reilly Opelka in the semi-finals. Opelka seemed a little tentative throughout the match, and Nadal took his chances to beat the American 6-4 6-4.
Djokovic saw a slightly less difficult draw, facing off against American No. 1 Taylor Fritz in the second round. The two most recently met in the third round of the Australian Open, where Djokovic dramatically fought through a muscle tear to beat Fritz in five sets. This matchup was more straightforward, as Djokovic stayed solid throughout the match to win 6-3 7-6 (5). He next faced qualifier Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who he dismantled 6-1 6-2 in an hour and ten minutes. The World No. 1 then faced the hottest player of the clay season, Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek claimed the Monte-Carlo title (d. Rublev) and made the Barcelona final (l. Nadal). Tsitsipas took the first set 6-4 and was up a break in the second before a rain delay forced the match to be postponed a day. Djokovic broke back in the second and broke at 5-6 to steal the second set. The third set appeared on track to reach a tiebreaker until Djokovic fired a forehand deep on break point at 4-4, giving Tsitsipas the opportunity to serve for the match. Djokovic raised his level, though, and won the next three games to take the set and win the match. He next faced Lorenzo Sonego, a 26 year old Italian who had already taken out third seed Dominic Thiem and seventh seed Andrey Rublev. Despite likely being fatigued from his match earlier in the day, Djokovic showed no signs of it, cruising to win the first set 6-3. After breaking Sonego at 5-5 in the second, many thought it would be a straightforward win for the Serb. It couldn’t have been farther from that, however. Sonego, goaded on by the home crowd, saved two match points to break back. Djokovic then regrouped to go up 3-0 in the tiebreak. Sonego showed no fear, giving it his all and winning six out of the next seven points. He claimed the tiebreak 7-5. Djokovic once again showed why he is the World No. 1, however, and played a nearly flawless set to win the match 6-3 6-7 (5) 6-2.
The Rome final saw the 57th clash between two titans of the sport: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Djokovic had not beaten Nadal on clay since 2016, and lost in straight sets to the Spaniard at last year’s French Open. Tensions were high, and both men traded breaks at the beginning of the match. After trading breaks, both held serve until 5-5 when Nadal broke and held serve to take the first set 7-5. Nadal complained several times about the lines after tripping over one. Djokovic rebounded, breaking Nadal twice to win the second 6-1. The decisive moment in the third set came at 2-3 with Djokovic serving. Nadal broke with a backhand pass down the line to put himself in control of the set. He raced to hold and put Djokovic under pressure to stay in the match. Nadal held set point at 30-40 on the Djokovic serve, but shanked a backhand and Djokovic won the game to stay in the match. Nadal showed no hesitation, though, and held to win his tenth Rome title, and fourth “decima.”
This tournament once again showed the promise of the young talents against the hardened veterans of the tour, but they all fell short. Djokovic and Nadal both proved that they were still the guys to beat. As the NextGen climb the rankings, they are still told time and time again that there are two guys on tour right now who hold the rite of passage.