Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal will be aiming to win a record eighth Italian Open title in Sunday's final with Novak Djokovic. Reuters

A week of dramatic matches at the Rome Masters will end with the world’s top two players continuing their epic rivalry to decide who claims the title. Neither Rafael Nadal nor Novak Djokovic have had an easy time of things in the Italian capital, having each been pushed the distance on three occasions en route to what will be their 41st meeting on Sunday, a record in the Open era.

Nadal survived three-setters against Gilles Simon and Mikhail Youzhny before recovering after losing the first set 6-1 to Wimbledon champion Andy Murray in a high-quality quarterfinal. The Spaniard will have been grateful then for enjoying far smoother progress in his semifinal match on Saturday. Nadal overcame rising Bulgarian star Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2.

“I think I started the match in a perfect way, in the 2nd set he made more mistakes than usual,” Nadal said. “But, talking about myself, I played a solid match with my backhand. I feel a lot of times that I had the control of the ball and of the point, more often than in the first two days. Yesterday [against Murray] I played a great match and today was a good confirmation that I play better, that the forehand starts to fly again, the top spins as well. A lot of positive things.”

Winner of a record eight French Opens, Nadal has not had the same air of invincibility on clay this season as in previous years. The man from Mallorca lost in the quarterfinals of two tournaments he has previously dominated in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But he is now on the verge of heading to Roland Garros fresh from back-to-back Masters Series win, having already taken the title in Madrid. To do so, though, Nadal knows he will have to be at his best against Djokovic.

“Djokovic always play unbelievable, he’s a complete player and has all the shots,” he explained. “If I want to have chances to win I have to play my best tennis, be aggressive, it will be a very tough match. That’s the only way, I have to be ready for the competition, for the action.”

Djokovic, the second seed, had a relatively straightforward opening to the Italian Open, beating Radek Stepanek in straight sets. Since then he has had to battle through a trio of three-setters, beating Philipp Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer and, on Saturday, Milos Raonic. It took Djokovic more than three hours to battle past the big-serving young Canadian in the semifinals, eventually prevailing 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-3.

“It is a big win and it gives me a lot of strength and belief that I can hopefully carry into the final and the rest of the season,” he said afterward. “His serve is the best in the world with Isner’s. I can’t recall the last time I felt so helpless in the return games.”

His clash with Nadal will be the 16th time the pair have met on clay, with Nadal triumphing on 13 occasions. It will also be their fourth meeting in the final in Rome, with Djokovic coming out on top in 2011, but Nadal claiming victory and the title in 2009 and 2012.

When and where to watch: The men’s final of the Italian Open is scheduled to get underway not before 10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by The Tennis Channel, with a live stream available on ESPN3.