Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer set to renew old rivalry in Rome
For the last 10 months the talk has been of a new order at the top of men's tennis, but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will aim to show here today that their time at the summit is far from over.
The 31-year-old Swiss and the 26-year-old Spaniard, who have taken the sport to new heights and brought it renewed popularity during their remarkable years of domination, will play their first final since the 2011 French Open when they meet this afternoon at the Rome Masters.
After Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray contested the last two Grand Slam finals there were suggestions that the Serb and the Briton were forming a new duopoly, but Federer and Nadal clearly believe it is too early to consign their own rivalry to history. This will be the 30th meeting of their careers, Nadal having come out on top 19 times, including their most recent confrontation in the quarter-finals at Indian Wells two months ago.
While Federer finds his best form only intermittently these days, there have been times in the last year when it seemed that Nadal might never rescale his former heights. However, his return after a seven-month absence with knee trouble has been remarkable. He has now reached the final of all eight tournaments he has played since starting his comeback, winning five titles.
Although he almost invariably finds a way to win, there have been days since Nadal returned in February when he has looked well below his best, but in yesterday's semi-finals he gave the sort of display which explains why he is odds-on to retain the French Open title next month.
In completing a 6-2 6-4 victory over Tomas Berdych, who had knocked out Djokovic 24 hours earlier, Nadal gave one of his most impressive performances since his return. Despite feeling tired after gruelling three-set matches the two previous days, he pummelled Berdych into the red dust on centre court at the Foro Italico in just 77 minutes with a stunning array of big ground strokes to record his 47th consecutive victory in clay-court semi-finals on the ATP tour.
Nadal said his form in the first set in particular had been "fantastic". He added: "I played at a very high level. I did almost everything well."
Federer, meanwhile, has come good here after making an indifferent start to his 2013 clay-court campaign in Madrid. He reached his first Rome final since 2006 and the 111th final of his career with a 7-6 6-4 victory over France's Benoît Paire, who was playing in his first Masters semi-final.
If Nadal wins today he will return to No 4 in the world rankings tomorrow. That would be an extraordinary achievement considering his lengthy time away from the court, but an even greater triumph would be an eighth title at Roland Garros.
The Spaniard has to limit his practice sessions in order to protect his knees and it remains to be seen how he would cope with seven best-of-five-set matches over a fortnight at the French Open, which starts in seven days' time. On this evidence, however, he is still the man to beat.
Serena Williams will take on the player she replaced as world No 1 earlier this year, Victoria Azarenka, in today's women's final. Simona Halep had the audacity to make an early break against Williams in yesterday's semi-final but eventually lost 6-3 6-0.
In extending her career-best unbeaten run to 23 matches Williams has dropped just 10 games in her four matches here. Laura Robson, who lost 6-2 6-2, took more games off the American than any of her other opponents.
Azarenka appeared to be heading for a similarly emphatic victory when she took the first set against the 26-year-old Italian Sara Errani for the loss of just seven points.
But her opponent fought back well and served for the second set at 5-4, only to falter in the next three games and lose the match 6-0 7-5.
Andy Murray holds off decision
Andy Murray is expecting to make a decision on whether to play in the French Open later this week, writes Paul Newman. The world No 2 had a scan on his troublesome lower back on Friday and will see specialists before deciding whether to compete at Roland Garros, with the Grand Slam starting in seven days.
Murray, who has been resting since he had to retire mid-match in Rome last week, could wait until shortly before his first match in Paris, which could be as late as next Tuesday, but he is expecting to make a decision around the middle of this week. Being fit for Wimbledon is a priority and Murray is likely to miss Roland Garros if he is told there is a danger of aggravating the injury.
The Scot has had a problem with his lower back for the past 18 months and needed eight pain-killing injections before last year's French Open. He managed the injury so he could keep competing, but playing on clay has aggravated the problem.
At least taking a break enabled Murray to watch yesterday's tennis from Rome on Sky, though he was not impressed by what he heard during the first semi-final.
"Barry Cowan's commentating has killed match five games in," Murray said on Twitter. "Poor guy has no idea what's happening – clueless."
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