10sBalls.com • TennisBalls.com

Well-rested Nadal Aiming to Take Advantage of Djokovic’s Grueling Saturday at the Rome ATP Tennis Masters

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his men’s singles semi final match against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Italy, 15 May 2021. EPA-EFE/ETTORE FERRARI

By Ricky Dimon

Both men took the circuitous route to get there, but Sunday’s final of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia will feature the top two seeds: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

It will be the 57th installment of one of the great rivalries in tennis history, with Djokovic currently leading the head-to-head series 29-27. Such a close margin hardly means anything, but there is a statistic that is especially telling as the Rome title match looms. Nadal is 4-0 in their last four clay-court encounters, while Djokovic 10-0 in their last 10 meetings on all other surfaces.

For Nadal, that isn’t exactly unique to his matchup with Djokovic. After all, the King of Clay generally dominates all opponents on his favorite surface while sometimes struggling–relatively speaking, at least–elsewhere. Although he has not been his dominant self on clay this spring, Nadal managed to triumph in Barcelona and he is picking up even more momentum in Rome as he prepares for an upcoming bid for a 14th French Open title. So far this week the world No. 3 has knocked off Jannik Sinner, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev, and Reilly Opelka. Nadal needed to save two match points against Shapovalov, but with new life he raised his level to erase both Zverev and Opelka in straight sets.

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during his men’s singles semifinal match against Reilly Opelka of the US at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Italy, 15 May 2021. EPA-EFE/ETTORE FERRARI

“I [have done] a lot of things well [and played with a] good spirit during all the week,” the 34-year-old assessed. “[There are] a lot of positive things I [have done] on court this week and it is important for my confidence to be back in such an important final like this one.”

Djokovic has gone in the other direction in Rome. The top-seeded Serb opened with straight-set wins over Taylor Fritz and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, but Saturday was a grueling day. Djokovic outlasted Stefanos Tsitsipas 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 in a rain-delayed quarterfinal and then withstood a spirited charge by Lorenzo Sonego to prevail 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2 in the semis.

The world No. 1 spent more than five hours on the court in one day alone and now has to face Nadal without any rest. Nadal, on the other hand, finished off Zverev before the rain came on Friday and he required only one hour and 32 minutes in the semis against Opelka.

“I don’t have much time [to recover]; I played a lot of tennis,” Djokovic admitted. “Hopefully I’ll have fresh legs, because that’s what I definitely will need. It’s necessary in order to have a chance against Rafa. He (has) also had some tough matches…. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be fresh and I’ll give it all.”

Even though Djokovic is one of the fittest and all-around toughest players in tennis history, both the physical and mental toll of Saturday’s effort cannot be overstated. Plus, on clay Nadal would be a considerable favorite even if you don’t take what happened in the quarterfinals and semis into account.

This Masters 1000 tournament means more to Nadal, too, so you have to like his chances to get the job done.

Pick: Nadal in 2

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.