Rafael Nadal won his ninth Italian Open, commonly called the Rome Masters, on Sunday, with a convincing demolition of Novak Djokovic. Demolition may sound inflationary, with even a whiff of hype, but the fact is that despite conceding the second set, the Spaniard was dominant.
At 6-0, 4-6, 6-1, it was one of the least competitive of the 54 matches the two giants of the sport have played. And yet, it was one of the most thrilling, replete with feats of acrobatic athleticism and sensational shot making. In the end, the lopsided score was a reflection of the superior game plan that Nadal brought to the court, which is to say, his smarter strategy.
Throughout the clay court season, the man of Manacor (the town on Mallorca where Rafa Nadal has lived all his life) has been falling short, by his standards. Normally, he wins one, two, even three of the main events leading up to the clay finale at the French Open, which begins next week in Paris, no matter what happens in the European parliamentary elections that will have just concluded. Sports and politics are separate and unequal.
But this year, Nadal was beaten in the semis at Monte Carlo by eventual winner Fabio Fognini (it could not have happened to a nicer guy), in the finals at Barcelona (on the court named for him) by eventual winner Dominic Thiem (it could not have happened to a more deserving guy, one who is Austrian, as I keep reminding Mr. Pleszczynski, not Vietnamese); and then in Madrid he was beaten in the semis by Stefanos Tsitsipas, who eventually lost in the finals to Djokovic, who had beaten Thiem in the other semis.
Rome was his last chance to give himself some élan before the grueling ordeal of the fortnight of five-setters on the east side of Paris. He undoubtedly has a big fan base there, but he also has the pressure of having won eleven times, a fantastic record. For Nadal, Paris is like the World Series for the New York Yankees; if he does not win it all he flops.
This is unjust and a perverse side effect of big time sports marketing, but it gets into the heads of players, fans, and of course sports marketers, who anyway are all head no soul. The fact is, Nadal felt the pressure. It will come back to him next week. But for now, the triumph in Rome must be as balm in Gilead, or at least in Manacor.
The truth is, though, this clay season has been interesting and with no need of market hype. Nadal’s travails, following his loss to Djokovic in straight sets at the Australian Open and his failure to reach any other finals until Rome, weighed on the minds of his fans, while he maintained an “improving ever day” attitude and refused all negative talk. This is to be expected in a champion and former world No. 1 (and indeed current No. 2), but with hip problems forcing him to withdraw from the Masters at Indian Wells and Miami (won respectively by Thiem, over Roger Federer, and Federer, over John Isner), doubts had to seep in, among fans if not inside his own head.
In this regard, the possible decline of one of the still-young century’s great champions was only one of the factors rendering the season interesting. The somewhat belated rise of Fabio Fognini has been a pleasure for admirers of his vivacious and artistic shot making, marred too often by trouble closing, or reaching the last lines of the draw. He has been having a good year and his second win over Nadal (his first was in an early round in a U.S. Open) augurs well for the rest of the year.
By contrast, the emergence of Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas confirms that there really is a rising young generation, notwithstanding the silliness of the “Next Gen” hype that started when they were teens. The sport is bringing out new contenders and champions — it is even more of a free for all on the women’s side of the Tour — which means it is producing new contenders and champions. In the short term this may cause box office problems, as celebrity gawkers lose interest, but it is good for the long term.
So much for background. Nadal gave his great rival a seminar in aggressive tennis, if you want to be nice, a beating if you want to hype it, a revenge for Melbourne if you want to personalize it. In sports terms, he played more intelligently, taking advantage of one of the more slow clays amongst the various compositions that are used, to fend off Djokovic’s superb returns of serve. He did not hit an ace in three sets. But he got a lopsided number of points on the old serve-plus-one. He was in position, and had enough time, to not be knocked on his heels by the Serb’s deep, fast returns of serve, notably his fearsome backhand return. Nadal whammed them back with breathtaking accuracy, repeatedly passing a Djokovic who had not yet moved to the center of the court.
To be sure, with players of this highest level, there were many long rallies and I lost track of the number of games that went to deuce. One game in the second set lasted nearly a quarter hour before Djokovic finally held serve. As often happens, on serve Djokovic reached deuce but could not close; put another way, Nadal repeatedly converted break points with his own deep cross-court shots that kept Djokovic scrambling. Nadal had time, again and again, to circle Djokovic’s defensive groundstrokes and position himself for his mighty forehand, allowing him to take control of the point and set up a winner, i.e., an unreachable shot. A key stat: they had almost the same number of winners, 35 or so if memory serves, but Nadal’s came on the more important points.
Federer was having a rather good run at Rome, beating another of the rising generation, Borna Coric, in a close three-set match in the quarterfinals; but he withdrew with a leg injury. The question then is whether he will play in Paris, as announced, or save himself for Wimbledon, a tournament he owns rather as Nadal owns Roland-Garros. You never know in this game, so there is no point guessing. But if you must guess — well, Rafa Nadal will be on the court on the last day of the French Open.