The French Open has become a virtual procession for Rafael Nadal in recent years but the king of clay will head to Paris this week with increasing doubts about his ability to hold on to his crown.
Nadal’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 defeat by Novak Djokovic in the final of the Rome Masters here yesterday means that for the first time in 10 years he will go to Roland Garros having failed to win at least two European clay-court titles.
It is also the first time since 2004 that Nadal has lost three clay-court matches in a single year, the Spaniard having also lost to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona respectively.
Nadal will still be world No 1 when the French Open starts in six days’ time, but Djokovic, who lost the top spot to the Spaniard in the autumn, is gradually hunting him down.
This was the world No 2’s fourth successive victory over his great rival since he lost to him in last year’s US Open final. Nadal leads their head-to-head record by 22 wins to 19.
Djokovic, who has won five of the last six Masters Series tournaments he has contested, has had his own problems during the current clay-court season, having had to pull out of the Madrid Masters because of a wrist injury, but this victory will put him in good heart as he prepares for his latest attempt to win the one Grand Slam title that has so far eluded him.
Nadal and Djokovic have dominated this event for the last 10 years, the Spaniard having won the title seven times and the Serb three times. The meeting of the world’s two outstanding players in the final – the 21st they have contested around the world – was no surprise. Nor was the fact that the contest went to three sets, both men having featured in lengthy matches en route to the showdown.
What was unusual, however, was the speed of the match, which lasted only two hours and 18 minutes. By the standards of these two men that is little more than a gentle workout. We are used to seeing them play out marathon rallies, but many of the points here were much shorter. Perhaps both men felt the need to go for an early kill and avoid punching each other to a standstill, though the high error count was also a factor.
Djokovic made a slow start and hurled his racket to the floor in disgust after dropping serve for the second time in a row to go 4-1 down. An angry Djokovic, however, can be a dangerous one. The world No 2 suddenly upped his game and flew around the court as if his life depended on it, hurling himself into his shots.
When Djokovic reduced the arrears to 4-3 and then had Nadal at 15-40 on the Spaniard’s serve it seemed that he might even turn the opening set around, but the world No 1 hung on to draw first blood.
By now, however, Djokovic had the wind in his sails and he tore through the second set in 44 minutes. Djokovic broke in the second game with a stunning forehand cross-court winner and made up for a loose game at 3-1 by breaking back immediately thanks to Nadal’s double-fault.
Having served out for the second set, Djokovic quickly took control of the decider, breaking to 15 in the opening game. The Serb failed to take two break points for a 3-0 lead and might have been regretting it when Nadal levelled at 3-3, but he broke back immediately.
Nadal, whose serve has generally been much more effective in recent times, did not hit an ace all match. The Spaniard won just 54 per cent of the points when his first serve found the target and was broken for the sixth and final time when he hit a backhand long at 3-5. For the first time in many a year, the world No 1 will go into his favourite Grand Slam tournament with serious doubts over his chances.
Djokovic, not surprisingly was upbeat afterwards: “It’s a special moment to win this tournament. I want to thank my team, who are always close to me and give me tons of support throughout my career. None of this would be possible without them.”