Rafael Nadal beat his long-standing rival Novak Djokovic to win the Rome Masters for a record 10th time. After a few wobbles along the way, Nadal now sets his eyes on that elusive 14th Roland Garros title.
The clay-court season kicked off with the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters on 11 April 2021. Nadal breezed past the first two rounds with ease, beating Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-1, 6-2 in the first round. Similarly, in the second round he squared off against the No. 14 seed, Grigor Dimitrov, whom he disposed of 6-1, 6-1, quite comfortably.
His quarter-final encounter was drawn against Russian big server Andrey Rublev. The sixth seed came into this match on the back of two previous defeats against the Spaniard, both of which he lost in straight sets. The match started off quite evenly, before the Russian took the initiative and broke Nadal’s serve in the fifth game to draw first blood. Rublev went on to win the next three games dominantly as he took his first-ever set win against Rafael Nadal 6-2.
The second set started off the same way as the first one ended. Nadal held on to dear life before Rublev brought out his big forehand returns, which Nadal had no answer to. The Russian broke as early as the fourth game to take cruise control of the set at 3-1. But Nadal still had a fight left in him as he rallied back from 4-2 down to break Rublev’s service game twice. Nadal took the set 6-4 to force the match into a decider.
Rublev again took the initiative in the deciding set as Nadal failed to answer the Russian’s big forehand return near the baseline. Rublev broke the second seed’s service game twice before registering his first-ever win against Rafael Nadal. Nadal said after the match- “It’s been such an important tournament during my career. I’m always sad to lose here because it’s an important one for me. I missed an opportunity to start the clay season in the right way.”
“The only thing that I can do is to go to Barcelona and keep practising, try to fix the things that didn’t work well (his unforced errors) … Lots of mistakes…A few things that make a big difference on the result and on my game that I wasn’t able to make today.”
And boy, did he respond in Barcelona. After initially struggling in the first two rounds, Nadal found his groove as the Quarter-finals approached. He breezed past Cameron Norrie and Pablo Carreño Busta, before setting up a clash with the number two seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas. After a titanic tussle against the Greek, Nadal won the final 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 to win his first clay tournament of the season.
With his recent victory in Barcelona, Nadal moved onto the next big tournament, the Mutua Madrid Open. After his 12th Barcelona Open title, confidence was high, as Nadal cruised through the initial rounds, and set up a quarter-final clash against the big German, Alexander Zverev. Rafa had an initial advantage at 4-2 before Zverev fought back with his big forehanders down Nadal’s backhand side. Zverev hit 68% of his forehand return on Nadal’s backhand, as the Spaniard failed to counter his opponent.
Zverev won four consecutive games to win the first set 6-4, before resuming proceedings for the second set. Zverev, just like Rublev, pushed Rafa back in his court that allowed the German to dictate the pace of the game. Rafa found himself on the back foot for almost every point, as the No. 2 seed toyed with him in the final set. Zverev took the final set – and the match – at 6-4, 6-4 to register his third consecutive victory against the Spaniard, and his first-ever in clay court.
After two defeats in three tournaments, that too in a similar fashion, questions began to arise whether Nadal still had it left in him. Not known for his serve, but Nadal’s all-rounded play is matched only by the likes of World No. 1, Novak Djokovic. With age on the wrong side of the argument, Nadal’s sudden fall from grace was hotly debated. More so than the physical aspect, it was the tactical part of the game where he was getting out-smarted.
The Rome Masters was his last opportunity to stake a claim and head into this year’s Roland Garros with a positive frame of mind. The tournament kicked off with a few surprises, as some of the seeded players took an early exit from the competition. Nadal had a scare of his own in the Round of 16 tie against 13th seed Denis Shapovalov, as he narrowly escaped with a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory in the final set tie-breaker. His quarter-final clash was no less easy, as he faced a familiar foe in Alexander Zverev, who recently knocked him out of the Madrid Open.
Unlike their previous match, where Nadal held back for Zverev to make a mistake, this time around he forced the issue against the big German. Zverev, struggling with his serve and the ferocity of Nadal’s forehand return, failed to build any momentum. Rafa stormed into a lead of 4-0 inside the first 15 minutes of the opening set. Zverev found some rhythm and clawed back to 5-3, but despite falling while sprinting for a drop shot volley, Nadal managed to see out the game and took the first set 6-3.
Zverev started the second set brightly, as he hurried and questioned Nadal from the first game itself. At 2-1, and 0:40 upon Nadal’s serve, Zverev had three break points to claw back into the contest, but Nadal held on to his serve in a game that lasted over eight minutes. Nadal sensed Zverev’s building frustration and went for the kill in the next game as he broke the German one more time to take a 3-2 lead in the second set. Both players held on to their serves for the next four games, as Zverev tried to use his big forehand, but Rafa was not going to fall for the same trap like he did in Madrid. The Spaniard saved two break points in his final game to close out the match 6-3, 6-4 and broke the hoodoo.
Rafa then went on to beat unseeded Reilly Opelka in straight sets to set another mouth-watering clash with Djokovic – their ninth in the Rome Masters. The top two players in the world battled it out as the first set looked like going into a tie-breaker before Nadal broke Djokovic’s service game for the second time in the 11th game, then held onto his serve in the following game to take the first set 7-5.
It was more of a tactical battle than a battle of skill-sets. Djokovic found a loophole in Nadal’s game that he exploited repeatedly for the entirety of the second set. Djokovic pushed him back with his long and accurate returns down the baseline and mixed it with drop shots that Nadal had no answer for. Djokovic took the second set 6-1 as he broke Nadal’s serve three times consecutively. All the momentum looked to be on the World No. 1’s side, as both players returned on the court to start the deciding set.
The final set started quite evenly as both men looked to find an opening. At 2-2, Djokovic had the chance to break Nadal’s serve twice, but failed on both occasions as Nadal found a spring in his steps and fought hard to hold onto his serve. It looked like Nadal had all the momentum now. The Spaniard hit three backhand winners down the line as he broke Djokovic’s serve without a reply. He marched on from there and never looked back, as the World No. 1 had no answer to his ruthless shot-making. He closed out the final set 6-3 to win his record 10th Rome Masters and drew level with Novak Djokovic’s 36 ATP 1000 titles.
With a fortnight remaining before the French Open kicks off on 30th May, Nadal’s win against the World No. 1, and the manner of the victory, will be a huge confidence booster for him. Nadal conquered his demons on the backhand and rose above it. There are many players out there who could easily trouble Nadal with their big forehand winners, but with five-sets, on the clay of France, against the King of Clay, I won’t bet against Rafael Nadal winning his 14th Roland Garros and his record 21st major title, going clear of Roger Federer, who also has 20.