THE latest instalment in the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic met expectations for one tight set.
Then Nadal pulled away for a 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 win to reach the Italian Open final.
In their 51st meeting but first in more than a year, Nadal’s court coverage eventually proved too much to handle for Djokovic, who is still regaining his form after returning from a persistent right elbow injury.
“That was a tough battle, a good level of tennis, a combination of good tactics and great shots from both of us,” Nadal, who has had injury trouble of his own over the past year, said.
Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be defending champion Alexander Zverev, who recovered from an early break in the second set to beat Marin Cilic 7-6 (13-11) 6-4.
Zverev destroyed his racket near the end of the tiebreak in which he saved five set points.
The German second seed is aiming for his third title in three weeks after lifting trophies in Munich and Madrid — but he is 0-4 against Nadal. “On this surface (Nadal) is almost unbeatable,” Zverev said. “I’ll have to play my best.” If Nadal wins his record-extending eighth Rome title, he will replace Roger Federer at No. 1 and head to the French Open, which starts next weekend, full of confidence.
Federer is sitting out the clay season to prepare for Wimbledon. The first set alone of Nadal-Djokovic made the Open era’s most prolific men’s rivalry worth watching.
Djokovic recovered from an early break with excellent shot making and Nadal converted his first set point with a return winner on the line after Djokovic followed his serve to the net.
“It was a really good quality match,” Djokovic said.
“I enjoyed it.” Nadal got an early break in the second set and never looked back. Djokovic noted that at 3-3 in the tiebreak he had to go play against the wind, “which is a huge difference” when playing Nadal.
“Those are the little details in tennis that only players and people who were on the court know,” Djokovic said.
Still, this was Djokovic’s best performance of the year.
“I played four matches here and I didn’t expect anything coming into this tournament,” he said.
“I’m pleased with how I played the last three days, very pleased, and hopefully Roland Garros can be a continuation of this run.”
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