RG champs Nadal, Swiatek conquer Rome

 - Reem Abulleil

Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek in great form ahead of title defence in Paris.

Rafael Nadal Rome 2021©Ray Giubilo

Reigning Roland-Garros champions Rafael Nadal and Iga Swiatek made sure they will arrive to Paris with sky-high confidence after completing impressive title runs at the Foro Italico in Rome on Sunday.

Nadal, who will be seeking a record-extending 14th trophy in the French capital when the tournament kicks off in two weeks’ time, took down his long-time nemesis Novak Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 to scoop a 10th Rome title and improve his head-to-head against the Serb to 28-29.

Sunday’s affair was a rematch of the Roland-Garros final the duo contested less than eight months ago and it saw Nadal extend his clay winning streak against Djokovic to five consecutive matches.

A perfect 10

The Spaniard has not lost to Djokovic on the red dirt since Rome 2016 and has now claimed 10 or more titles at four different tournaments – 13 at Roland-Garros, 12 at Barcelona, 11 at Monte-Carlo and now 10 in the Italian capital.

“It's amazing to have the trophy with me again one more time here in Rome. The 10th, I really wanted this 10th here in Rome, no? It was one of the first important titles that I won in my career,” said Nadal, who hoisted his first trophy in Rome while making his tournament debut as an 18-year-old back in 2005.

“After achieving 10 in Roland-Garros, 10 in Monte-Carlo, 10 in Barcelona, I really wanted this one, no? Yeah, super important tournament for me.”

Back from the brink

Nadal was on the brink of defeat earlier in the week when he trailed Denis Shapovalov by a set and 0-3 in the third round, and had to save two match points before overcoming the Canadian. Fifteen years ago, Nadal saved two match points against Federer in the Rome final en route to winning the title.

“I went through a lot of things during the week. Some positive, some great moments, some lucky moments, suffering moments. At the end I think I played a very solid week of tennis, no?” stated Nadal, who has now equalled Djokovic’s record of 36 Masters 1000 tournaments won.

“I’m very happy. The trophy means a lot to me. At the same time, it's the right moment to win an important title.”

Great boost

Indeed it was a timely triumph for Nadal, whose clay-court campaign this year has had its ups and downs. Quarter-final exits at the hands of Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev in Madrid and Monte-Carlo, respectively, were offset by a title run in Barcelona and the 34-year-old admits his exploits in Rome provided a great boost ahead of Roland-Garros.

“Before this tournament, my clay-court season was not bad, nor was it very good. So the victory here improves things drastically,” Nadal told Spanish press in Rome.

Looking ahead to Roland-Garros, the world No.3 added: “I just need to keep going. I know what I need to work for the next couple of weeks, and I’m going to do it. That's it, no? Work, relax mentally, and work the right way.”

‘Ready to rock 'n roll’

On his part, Djokovic was proud of his efforts in Rome, particularly his come-from-behind victory over Monte-Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals. The match was played across two days due to rain and Djokovic has to contest two matches on Saturday before making it to the final.

“Going into Paris brings me good sensation. I now started to feel like I actually want to feel on clay,” said the world No.1, whose sole Roland-Garros crown came in 2016.

“So I think if I manage to play the way I played last night and today, I think I have a good chance to go all the way in Paris.

“Of course it's a long shot, but I'm going play a tournament in Belgrade the week before Roland-Garros, so that's going to give me another set of matches. Don't know how many but hopefully can have a few coming into Paris ready to rock 'n roll.”

Ruthless Iga

Earlier in the day, Swiatek produced a stunning 46-minute performance to crush world No.9 Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 and grab her third trophy since last October.

The Polish teenager, who marched to the 2020 Roland-Garros title without dropping a set eight months ago, made her top-10 debut on Monday, rising to No.9 in the world.

Swiatek is just the second Polish woman to enter the top-10, following in the footsteps of her compatriot Agnieszka Radwanska.

Like Nadal, Swiatek also had to save match points en route to the title in Rome, pulling off a great escape against Dubai runner-up Barbora Krejcikova in the third round.

Her list of victims at the Foro Italico was an impressive one that includes two-time Rome champion Elina Svitolina, former Roland-Garros semi-finalist Madison Keys, and an in-form Coco Gauff.

Finding consistency

After clinching a maiden career title in Paris last fall, Swiatek boldly stated her intention to become a consistent force on the tour and the soon-to-be 20-year-old has done well to deliver on that promise so far.

She has won three of her last eight tournaments, has reached the last-16 stage or better at every competition since Roland-Garros, except one, and now holds two of the three biggest clay-court titles on the women’s tour.

“It is pretty crazy and I'm really proud of myself that I'm actually starting to be more consistent, because that was my goal from the beginning. Actually, I feel right now that I am doing huge progress in that matter,” said an elated Swiatek on Sunday.