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On a stage made for gladiators, Rafael Nadal showed that he is the one true ruler on the European clay by beating world no.1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic in straight sets 7-5, 6-3 to win the Italian Open for a record 6th time, and as a result capture his 21st ATP Tour Masters title.
Nadal's dominance on clay had dwindled last year when Djokovic began the 2011 season with a 43-0 unbeaten run that saw him pick up back to back Masters titles in Madrid and Rome, bastions of Nadal's clay court supremacy. Novak continued to have his way with the Spaniard right through the year and carried that streak forward in this year's Australian Open final, winning 7 straight matches against Rafa, establishing his supremacy as the best player in the world at present.
Rafa though began his resurgence in Monaco hammering Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 in the final at the Monte-Carlo Masters, but most pundits were keen to dismiss the result as an aberration due to a recent bereavement in the Djokovic family, leaving Novak in no state of mind to really complete.
The final in Rome was supposed to serve as the indicator as to which of these two powerhouses would head to Roland Garros next week as the real favourite, and the Nadal answered that question emphatically with a clinical performance against his arch rival.
Nadal started the match well, racing to 15-40 in Djokovic's opening service game, but the Serb managed to battle his way out of trouble. He was not quite as fortunate in the 5th game though as an ill advised drop shot was poorly executed, allowing Rafa to rip a backhand winner into the open court to nudge ahead.
The legendary coach Nick Bollettieri always used to say that a break is never really in the bag till you hold serve, and the old adage came true as Djokovic stormed out of the change of ends and broke right back to bring the set back on serve. It continued as such till the 10th game when an umpiring blunder gave Rafa some respite at 4-5, 30-30 as the players were asked to replay the point after Djokovic had hit a clean winner. Rafa went on to win the next two points much to the disappointment of an enraged Novak.
With his focus temporarily lost, Djokovic also dropped serve in the following game and instead of having a set point in his favour now found himself needing to break back to stay in the set. There was no holding back Rafa though as the former champion raced to 40-0 on the back of some excellent serving, and sealed the opening set on his second set point.
The early exchanges in the second set were always going to be crucial, and Rafa made it four games in a row by breaking Djokovic's serve straight off the bat. In the following game, Novak had 0-40 on the Rafa serve, but the Spaniard dug himself out of a hole and held on for 2-0. Djokovic finally ended the run of games against him by holding serve and gave the Spaniard a gruesome fourth game but Rafa refused to let go of his vice like grip on the match and saved two more break points for 3-1.
By then the writing was well and truly on the wall as a deflated Djokovic offered little resistance as Rafa closed out the match in 2 hours and 20 minutes, with Novak presenting him with a second break in the final game with his fourth double fault.
Novak had his chances in the match, and will look back at that point at 4-5, 30 all as perhaps a decisive moment in the contest, but a trademark of his successful run last season was his ability to put such moments behind him and concentrate on the now. That air of invincibility that the Serb had last season appears to have dissipated, as has his consistency. 41 unforced errors today was never really going to cut it against a player of Rafa's calibre.
It's off to Paris now for the best two players in the world, and it would come as no surprise to anyone to see them engage in perhaps a more epic battle come the 10th of June.
File Photograph Copyright: Madrid Masters
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