With six French Open titles already under his belt you would have thought that Rafael Nadal hardly needed a morale-booster going into Roland Garros, but the 25-year-old Spaniard struck a significant psychological blow with his 7-5, 6-3 victory over Novak Djokovic in the delayed final of the Rome Masters yesterday.
Nadal, who in winning his sixth title in the Foro Italico reclaimed the world No 2 ranking from Roger Federer, had lost to Djokovic in seven successive finals – including three Grand Slam tournaments – between March 2011 and January 2012, but this was his second victory in a row over the Serb, who celebrates his 25th birthday today.
If Djokovic's below-par performance in losing to Nadal in Monte Carlo last month could be explained by his emotional turmoil following the death of his grandfather, the latest of their 32 meetings (of which the Spaniard has now won 18) was contested on an even playing field, even if the world No 1 had the worst of some bad bounces in the closing stages.
Rome's red clay, as opposed to the controversial blue surface in Madrid on which Nadal and Djokovic have vowed not to return next year, is the perfect preparation for the French Open, where the scene could hardly be better set for another showdown between the world's top players.
When the tournament starts on Sunday, Djokovic will be aiming to become the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles for 43 years, Nadal will be going for his seventh Roland Garros triumph in eight years and Federer – who has not won a Grand Slam tournament for 28 months – will continue his quest to regain the world No 1 ranking.
Djokovic and Nadal will be the top two seeds, meaning that Federer, and Andy Murray for that matter, would probably have to beat the world's top two players to win the title.
The Rome final had been held over by a day because of rain and when the two men finally got on court it was bathed in glorious sunshine. The pattern of the match was quickly established. Nadal defended with all his usual athleticism and willpower, forcing his opponent to hit the extra shot, and struck the ball consistently well, even if he did not quite match the heights he had scaled in his previous two matches.
Djokovic always tried to be aggressive and kept putting himself into positions of strength, but the Serb made too many mistakes – 41 unforced errors, compared with Nadal's 21 – in trying to force the issue. When Nadal broke to lead 6-5, Djokovic smashed his racket on a net post in frustration.
In the 202 clay-court matches in which Nadal has won the first set, he has gone on to lose the match only twice. The Spaniard quickly took control of the second set, winning his fifth game in a row to lead 2-0.
Djokovic had six break points in the second set but took none of them and Nadal clinched the match when the Serb hit a double fault. It was Nadal's 35th clay-court title and his 49th in total. He has now won 21 Masters Series finals, more than any other player.
Nadal refused afterwards to read any long-term significance into the victory. "The important thing is that I won my sixth title here," he said. "That's something that for me is totally unexpected, a real dream.
"The confidence is because I am playing well. The confidence comes when you are playing at the right level, which I think I am doing. Hopefully I will keep playing like this, being aggressive, and hopefully I will be competitive in the next tournaments too."
The former world No 4, Robin Soderling, who has been suffering from glandular fever, said yesterday that he would miss the French Open, Wimbledon and Olympics but hoped to resume his career eventually. The Swede has not played competitively since last July.