Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dominated tennis for five years but today's Rome Masters final will emphasise how a new duopoly rules the sport. When it comes to fighting over the major spoils Nadal and Novak Djokovic are usually the last two men left standing and the Spaniard and the Serb will meet this afternoon in a final for the ninth time in the last 14 months.
Djokovic, who crushed Federer 6-2 7-6 last night, has come out on top in all but one of those meetings, but Nadal won the most recent and demonstrated again in his 7-6 6-0 victory over David Ferrer in the other semi-final that he is at the top of his game.
With the start of the French Open only seven days away, the final offers a chance for both players to strike a major psychological blow. Nadal, who has lost to Djokovic in the last three Grand Slam finals, will be aiming to win at Roland Garros for the seventh time in the last eight years, while the world No 1 has the chance in Paris to become the first man for 43 years to hold all four of the game's greatest prizes.
Although Nadal beat Djokovic in last month's final in Monte Carlo, the Serb was in emotional turmoil at the time, following the death of his grandfather. He pays more heed to the fact that he beat Nadal on clay for the first time in successive finals last year in Madrid and here.
"Those results give me confidence that I can beat him," Djokovic said. "I believe I have a chance if I am as focused and determined as I was today."
Djokovic said his performance against Federer was his best on clay this year. The Serb put the Swiss under relentless pressure and broke him twice to take the first set in just 35 minutes. Federer rallied briefly in the second set, breaking Djokovic for the only time when he served for the match at 5-4, but the world No 1 never trailed in the tie-break, which he won 7-4.
Nadal's victory over Ferrer was his 39th win in a row in clay-court semi-finals and his 25th in succession on red clay, his last defeat having been against Djokovic in last year's final here.
Nadal's only clay-court defeat in the last 12 months was on the controversial blue surface in Madrid earlier this month. If he wins the title here for the sixth time in the last eight years – Djokovic won it on the two other occasions – he will reclaim the world No 2 ranking from Federer.
Ferrer has now lost to Nadal 12 times in a row on clay, but he made a real fight of it in the first set. The world No 6 led 3-1, but Nadal broke back immediately, won the tie-break 8-6 and then ran away with the second set.
Today's women's final will see Maria Sharapova, the title holder, take on Li Na, last year's French Open champion. Sharapova beat Germany's Angelique Kerber 6-3 6-4, while Li had a walkover after Serena Williams pulled out of their semi-final with a lower back injury. However, Williams said it was only precautionary and should not affect her chances at the French Open.
Elena Baltacha's run at the Prague Open ended when the British No 1 was beaten 6-1 6-3 by the No 2 seed and world No 42, Klara Zakopalova, of the Czech Republic.