(Photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)
In the 51st instalment of one of tennis’ greatest rivalries, world #2 and defending champion Rafael Nadal takes on Novak Djokovic for a place in the final of the Italian Masters. Nadal is looking for an eighth crown in Rome, one that would take him back to the top of the rankings. Djokovic, who was long the only serious challenger to Nadal on clay, would surely truly set the cat amongst the pigeons with victory here, so close to the French Open. But who will reach Sunday’s final?
With 50 previous meetings no two players have met as often as Nadal and Djokovic in the Open Era. It is the Serb who has a narrow advantage having won 26 of those matches. That included seven consecutive victories in 2011, including in the finals in Madrid and Rome. Djokovic also put together another seven match winning run to take the lead in the head-to-head series between 2015 and 2016, during which time he didn’t drop a single set and finally defeated Nadal at Roland Garros.
The Serb has also inflicted one in every five of Nadal’s clay court defeats. In Rome, where they have met six times previously, they are tied at three wins apiece. But Nadal leads on clay overall, having won 15 out of 22 on the surface. That includes their last match on the ‘terre battue’ in the Madrid semifinals. There Nadal comfortably dismissed an out of form Djokovic in straight sets 6-2 6-4, going on to defeat Dominic Thiem in the final.
Path to the semifinals
Nadal began his Italian Open campaign in the second round after a bye in the first. There he thrashed Damir Dzumhur 6-1 6-0. That earned him the chance for revenge against Denis Shapovalov who beat him in a memorable clash last year in Montreal. Nadal took his opportunity, knocking out the Canadian teenager 6-4 6-1. He next faced the last Italian standing, Fabio Fognini. The Italian played excellently to recover an early break and then go on to win the opener. But thereafter it was all Nadal who won 4-6 6-1 6-2.
Djokovic was without a first round bye in Rome for the first time in his career. He thus opened his tournament against Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov, who has been ranked as high as world #13. However, he is currently ranked outside the top 50 and has never been at his best on the clay. He was swiftly accounted for by Djokovic, who won 6-2 6-3. He was similarly ruthless against Nikoloz Basilashvili and Albert Ramos Vinolas, defeating the former 6-4 6-2 and the latter 6-1 7-5.
Standing between Djokovic and the last four was Kei Nishikori of Japan, who he had defeated the week before in Madrid. He was able to do so again, emerging victorious from their quarterfinal a 2-6 6-1 6-3 winner. He had to withstand an early Nishikori storm in the first set, before breaking the Japanese every time he served in the second. In the decider they exchanged early breaks in what swiftly turned into a punishing affair. But Djokovic stood up to be counted, delivering a performance reminiscent of him at his best to win through.
How do they match up?
Djokovic, at the peak of his powers, was the only man able to go toe-to-toe with Nadal on a clay court and walk away the victor with any sort of regularity. The Serbian’s rock-solid backhand withstood the worst of what Nadal could throw at it and about half the time emerged with enough venom left in it to knock Nadal down. The Serbian’s impressive court coverage and deep and penetrating groundstrokes made him the only player fit to hold a candle to Nadal on a clay court.
But the Spaniard was still often able to grind Djokovic down or hit through him. The Spaniard not only has better offence than anyone on a clay court, he also defends better. He also has typically immaculate feel and impressive volleys. Nor can many, if any, outlast him. The reason, in short, that Nadal has had so much success on clay courts throughout his career, is that he effectively does everything better than everybody else.
Djokovic has played impressively all week and his win over Nishikori was monumental. It’s still too soon to say he’s back, but it’s permissible to whisper it quietly. But this renaissance will end at the hands of Nadal. Though the world #18 played the sort of tennis against Nishikori that would have troubled even Nadal, at this stage it seems unrealistic to expect him to put in two performances of that quality in back-to-back matches. He and Nishikori took chunks out of each other, and Nadal will be the ultimate beneficiary.