Rafael Nadal finally got the monkey off his back by clinching his first title of the season in Rome on Sunday, reinstating his position as the favourite for the Roland-Garros crown.
It had been the first time since 2004 that Nadal had entered the month of May without claiming a title that year. Semi-final exits in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid may not spark any worries for most players on tour but they were uncharacteristic for Nadal, whose ‘King of Clay’ moniker has come with a record 11 Roland-Garros trophies, among a total of 57 titles won on the red dirt.
A knee injury, that forced him to pull the plug early on his 2018 season after the US Open, also interrupted his 2019, leading to his withdrawal ahead of his semi-final in Indian Wells. He also missed Miami before returning to action a month later on the clay in Monaco.
With each defeat he suffered on the surface in the build-up to Roland-Garros, Nadal was met with countless queries about his title-less start to the year but the world No.2 finally silenced all his doubters with a commanding 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over his toughest rival Novak Djokovic in the Rome final on Sunday.
It was their 54th showdown – the most contested men’s rivalry in Open Era history – and it featured the first-ever bagel set between them.
“For me, as I said every day, to win a title is important but for me the most important thing is to feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy, and then with the feeling that I am improving. I know that if I’m able to reach my level, you can win, you can lose, but normally I’m going to have my chances especially on this surface,” said Nadal after his victory in the Italian capital.
“So I’m very happy for the victory, it was a great match, I played well, so just enjoying that moment.”
The Rome final was a rematch of January's Australian Open title decider in which Djokovic eased past Nadal in straight sets to claim a record-extending seventh trophy in Melbourne.
The tables turned at the Foro Italico on Sunday, handing Nadal a welcome confidence boost ahead of his title defence in Paris next week. It is Nadal’s ninth success in Rome and it saw him take sole ownership of the record of most Masters 1000 crowns won – this being his 34th.
“He's been playing some terrific tennis throughout the entire week. He was just too strong today,” Djokovic said of the Spanish 17-time Grand Slam champion.
Djokovic still leads their overall head-to-head record 28-26 but Nadal is 17-7 against the Serb on clay.
“It’s always special to play against Novak, against Roger [Federer], these kind of matches are tradition in this sport for the last 10, 14 years. It’s always special. Novak is doing a great season, winning in Australia, winning 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 and for me personally that’s unbelievable.”
Open field in Paris
Nadal’s victory means that for the first time in five years, the four biggest European clay tournaments in the build-up to Roland-Garros – Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome – were won by four different players.
It poses the question of whether the Roland-Garros men’s field is more open than in previous years, but Djokovic is certain there is still one clear favourite for the Parisian title.