Rafael Nadal laid down a forceful marker ahead of next week's French Open with a straight sets victory over Novak Djokovic to win the Internazionali BNL d'Italia for the sixth time. In the final, held over because of rain on Sunday, Nadal overcame the World No. 1, 7-5, 6-3.
The victory is Nadal's second consecutive over Djokovic, following a run of seven defeats, all in finals. And after also winning in straight sets in the final of Monte Carlo last month, the six-time French Open champion will now be favorite to defend his title at Roland Garros.
Nadal had his opponent under pressure from early on Monday as Djokovic was forced to save two break points in his opening service game. The reprieve did not last long, though, as Nadal got the break in the fifth game, pouncing on a poorly struck drop shot. It was to be a short-held advantage, with Djokovic breaking straight back as Nadal put an inside-out forehand into the middle of the net.
Then came a pivotal moment in both the set and the match. With Nadal serving at 4-5, 3-0-30, Djokovic hit a forehand that Hawk-Eye showed caught the outside of the line. The ball was called out by the line judge, only to be overruled by the umpire, meaning that the point had to be replayed.
Nadal won the point and the game and went onto break Djokovic to lead 6-5 and leave him serving for the first set. Such was Djokovic's frustration that he smashed his racket into the net post as he walked back to his chair, leading to a warning from the umpire. Nadal made no mistake this time to comfortably hold out and take the opening set.
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Two unforced errors from Djokovic, to add to an eventual total of 41, in the opening game of the second set would prove costly as Nadal broke to put the hammer down on his advantage.
Djokovic did have a number of break points to get back on level terms in the set, but was unable to capitalize. The victory wrapped up for the Spaniard after the Serbian hit a double fault to squander a second break and the match.
Nadal's third title of the clay-court season took him back above Roger Federer to No. 2 in the ATP rankings and also saw the 25-year-old surpass his Swiss rival for the record number of ATP Masters 1000 titles, with 21. Yet, Nadal believes that he can do better.
I didn't consider myself that good, Nadal said, according to the tournament website. I can do better. When you are not serving 100 percent perfect then you are in trouble because he returns hard.
I am trying to play more aggressive and I am touching the ball better and my forehand is more painful than last year and that is why I am able to go more to the side.
Djokovic, who beat Nadal in the final last year, said Nadal remains the top dog on clay, although he conceded that he didn't maximize his chances for victory in Rome.
He is always the favorite, even if I win against him seven times. He is the best player in the world on this surface, said Djokovic.
I think that the match today was quite close, even if he won in straight sets. If you don't use the opportunities against Rafa he gets momentum. I made unforced errors and I don't think he played extremely well. I will go to Paris with confidence and I played a great week.