Novak Djokovic had taken the lead in his historic FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry with Rafael Nadal, in large part, thanks to his backhand getting the better of Nadal’s forehand. The crosscourt matchup carried the Serbian to his 28th win in their rivalry in January during the Australian Open final.
But on Sunday at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, Djokovic couldn’t replicate the tactic, and Nadal, with flicks of the wrist, added a new storyline to their growing rivalry, which Djokovic still leads 28-26.
“In the second set, it was better. Just overall, I was lacking a little bit more of a dynamic movement, kind of attacking the ball. He’s got a very difficult, heavy topspin. He can change directions so easily. He’s got a great flick of the wrist. He’s so talented on any surface, but clay especially. He covers the court so well,” Djokovic said.
“The shots that you can win the rally or a point against 99 per cent of players, with him, it doesn’t work. It takes an extra shot more. Yeah, sometimes you just have to position yourself well, whether you step into the court or you back up.
“My kind of backhand is maybe not as Dominic Thiem’s or someone else’s who can produce a lot of spin. I step in and try to take the ball early. It works, sometimes it doesn’t. Today he just managed to get the best out of that exchange.”
Nadal Beats Djokovic To Win Ninth Rome Title
Djokovic now trails Nadal on the all-time ATP Masters 1000 titles leaderboard, 33 to 34. But the Serbian should be pleased with his overall body of work at the season’s three clay-court Masters 1000 events.
Djokovic, after an early exit at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, won the Mutua Madrid Open title last week (d. Tsitsipas) and made his ninth final in Rome (4-5) before falling 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 to Nadal.
“I’m really glad that I managed to get into the third set, considering the first set where I was blown away from the court. Obviously third set was not much different from the first. Actually, first three, four games of the third set were quite close. Maybe that’s where I had a slight chance to build on the momentum that I had from winning the second set,” Djokovic said.
“I was just running out of fuel a little bit today. Just missed that half a step, especially on the backhand side. He used it very well. He’s been playing some terrific tennis throughout the entire week. He was just too strong today.”
Djokovic easily could have been headed home before the weekend. He saved two match points against Juan Martin del Potro on Friday evening before making the semi-finals. Djokovic was pushed to three sets again Saturday evening during his semi-final against Diego Schwartzman.
“I think it was a great week, considering I was one shot away [from losing in the] quarter-finals against Del Potro. To get to the finals is really a great result,” Djokovic said. “I haven’t played my best today, I haven’t felt my best. At the same time I managed to fight. That’s the positive I take from it.”