Rafael Nadal finally has a title in 2019.
Nadal, the No. 2 player in the world, beat world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, 6-0, 4-6, 6-1, to win the Italian Open on Sunday in Rome for his first win of the season and his ninth title at the event. It was Nadal’s first clay court final win over Djokovic since the 2014 French Open. It was the 54th meeting between the two rivals, and Djokovic now leads 28-26.
This was their eighth meeting in Rome, and their fifth in the final. Nadal now leads Djokovic 5-3 in Rome, and 3-2 in finals there.
The only tournaments Nadal has won more often than the Italian Open are the French Open, Barcelona and Monte Carlo — all of which he has won 11 times.
“Win a title is important but for me the most important thing is feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy, and then with the feeling that I am improving, no?” Nadal told the ATP. “I know if I’m able to reach my level, you can win, you can lose, but normally I am going to have my chances.
“So very happy for the victory, I play well, so just enjoying that moment.”
Djokovic still leads Nadal 15-11 in all finals, while Nadal leads Djokovic 17-7 on clay.
Both players will now head to Paris where more history is at stake in the French Open.
Nadal, 32, will be seeking his 12th title at Roland Garros, while Djokovic, 31, will be seeking to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once for the second time in his career.
After Nadal won his 11th French Open title a year ago, Djokovic rattled off wins at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, where he routed Nadal in straight sets in the final to win his 15th Grand Slam crown
Over a span of five-plus years, Djokovic had been 13-3 against Nadal through that Australian Open final. All three of Nadal’s wins came on clay, including two in Rome, one in last year’s semifinal.
But with Nadal’s win in Rome, he gains a major confidence boost heading into Paris, where he has won 11 of his 17 Grand Slam titles.
“It’s always special playing against Novak, against Roger, these kinds of matches are tradition on this sport for the last 10-14 years, no?” Nadal said. “So it’s always special. Novak is doing great. Wins in Australia, wins last week in Madrid, final here, so it’s an important victory for me. But for me what means a lot is winning again here in Rome. That’s one of the most important events of the year, so for me personally it’s just unbelievable.”
Roger Federer, the all-time men’s leader with 20 major titles and the No. 3 player in the world, will be playing in Paris for the first time since 2015. Federer pulled out of Rome ahead of his quarterfinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas with a foot injury, depriving the world of a potential Federer-Nadal semifinal on Saturday.
Instead, Nadal handled Tsitsipas in straight sets. Coming into the final against Djokovic, Nadal had not dropped a set and won three sets at love.
Djokovic, meantime, has had a tougher road. After winning the Madrid title last week, he played and won two matches in Rome on Thursday. He then required three sets to beat both Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals on Friday, and Diego Schwartzman in the semis on Saturday. (Nadal and Federer also won two matches apiece on Thursday due to weather.)
Nadal played at his peak level in the first set while Djokovic seemed off, and the Spaniard handed the Serb a bagel, the first time either player had ever taken a 6-0 set from the other.
In the second set, Nadal started to make some unforced errors and let the set get away from him. Djokovic regrouped and earned a set point in the 10th game on Nadal’s serve. Nadal sailed a forehand wide on set point.
Nadal then broke Djokovic in the first game of the decisive set. He earned a second break to go up 4-1 when Djokovic sailed a double-handed backhand long.
On match point, Djokovic hit a backhand volley into the net on his serve, giving Nadal the title.
Now both men will head to Paris with so much history on the line.
Should they meet again in three weeks in the Roland Garros final with Nadal leading 17-15 in the majors count, the final could determine whether Nadal takes an 18-15 lead — thus closing to within two of Federer — or Djokovic closes the gap to 17-16.
“I’m aware that making history of the sport I truly love is something special,” Djokovic said at the Australian Open, per Tennis Magazine. “Of course it motivates me. Playing Grand Slams, biggest ATP events, is my utmost priority in this season and in seasons to come.
“I do want to focus myself on continuing to improve my game…so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.”