Djokovic vs Nadal: The Eternal Duo In The Eternal City

Once again, the eternal duo is left standing in the Eternal City.

After a week of twists and turns, upsets and epics at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, it will be top seed Novak Djokovic facing second seed Rafael Nadal in their sixth championship clash on Sunday.

Djokovic and Nadal have faced off a total of eight times before at the Foro Italico, dating back to their first meeting in the 2007 quarter-finals. Nadal won that match comfortably, but as their rivalry grew over the years so did the level of competition. The Spaniard owns a 5-3 lead in their Rome matchups, while Djokovic now boasts the overall ATP Head2Head edge in their legendary rivalry (29-27).

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Their combined dominance of this ATP Masters 1000 event has been something to behold: Djokovic and Nadal have won 14 of the past 16 editions, and at least one player has been in every Rome final dating back to 2005. Nadal has lifted a record nine trophies, while Djokovic has claimed five.

“It’s great to play him again in the final. He’s the guy that I have encountered the most in my career,” Djokovic said after his semi-final match. “[He is] definitely my biggest rival of all time. Playing him on clay in the finals of one of the biggest tournaments in the world is always extra motivating for me.

“Even after all we have been through in our careers there’s still this excitement when we have to face each other.”

Sunday’s meeting will be a rematch of the 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2019 finals. Taking a look at how those previous championship matches went can give fans a clue at what to expect when these two meet for a record-extending 57th time.

Djokovic vs Nadal: Rome Finals

Edition   Champion Runner-up   Score
 2009   Nadal  Djokovic  7-6(2), 6-2
 2011   Djokovic  Nadal  6-4, 6-4
 2012   Nadal  Djokovic  7-5, 6-3
 2014   Djokovic  Nadal  4-6, 6-3, 6-3
 2019   Nadal  Djokovic  6-0, 4-6, 6-1

Each match in the Italian capital has been a highly competitive affair, with Nadal and Djokovic locked into lengthy battles, tie-breaks or deciding sets in each of their previous five finals.

This spells bad news for Djokovic, who reached the final after having to contest two matches on Saturday due to heavy rain interrupting his quarter-final against Stefanos Tsitsipas.

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The final two sets alone of his 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over the Greek each clocked in at over an hour (1hr 5min and 1hr 22min, respectively), but the job wasn’t done yet. Djokovic took the court a few hours later against Lorenzo Sonego, and needed nearly three hours to move past the Italian (2hr 44mins) after he saved match points in the second set, 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2. 

“I’m very proud of what I have achieved today,” Djokovic said. “It was a very long day. [I] spent five hours almost on the court. [I] dug myself out of a very difficult situation versus Tsitsipas. He was so close to winning it. Somehow I managed to turn it around… I thought I played even on a higher level against Sonego.”

Djokovic will be aiming for a strong start and an early lead against Nadal on Sunday, as he knows better than anyone how dangerous it can be to give the Spaniard any kind of an advantage on the red clay.

By contrast, Nadal spent just over an hour and a half on court on Saturday in his semi-final against big-serving Reilly Opelka, breaking once in each set of his 6-4, 6-4 victory.

“I think I played the match that I had to play… I had two breaks, two sets. That’s a positive thing for me,” Nadal acknowledged in his post-match press conference. “[To] be in the final again here means a lot to me.

“I have been playing better, worse, but always [trending] in a positive line. I am playing better when the weeks are coming. Here, I had a very tough draw and I was able to find a way to be in the final.”

Although their experiences on semi-final Saturday could not have been more different, 34-year-old Nadal and 33-year-old Djokovic’s paths to becoming the oldest Rome finalists in the Open Era have been eerily parallel.

Both players were tested by #NextGenATP stars and talented young players in the early rounds, with Nadal taking down 19-year-old Jannik Sinner 7-5, 6-4 in his opener and having to save match points to move past Denis Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3). Djokovic overcame a stern test against Taylor Fritz 6-3, 7-6(5) before cruising past 21-year-old Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-2, 6-1. 

They then had to contend against established stars and Masters 1000 champions in the quarter-finals – Djokovic against Tsitsipas, and Nadal against Alexander Zverev – before finding a way past surprise semi-finalists Sonego and Opelka.

But whether rain or shine, #NextGenATP stars or Top 10 heavyweights – no matter what Rome threw their way, Djokovic and Nadal were once again left standing at the end of it all in the Eternal City.

“Rafa and I had a little laugh today in the locker room after I won against Tsitsipas,” Djokovic revealed. “We kind of joked around that the old guys are still not giving up. I saw [that] he said somewhere a few days ago that Roger, him and I are old, but I disagree with him. I think we’re showing some different, fresh energy.

“We had a laugh about it… I’m really glad that we are showing we’re not backing off from the #NextGenATP attacks.”

ORDER OF PLAY – SUNDAY, MAY 16, 2021
CENTER COURT start 2:30 pm

WTA – [15] I. Swiatek (POL) vs [9] K. Pliskova (CZE)

Not Before 5:00 pm
[1] N. Djokovic (SRB) vs [2] R. Nadal (ESP)

GRAND STAND ARENA start 12:30 pm
WTA – [ALT] S. Fichman (CAN) / G. Olmos (MEX) vs [4] S. Aoyama (JPN) / E. Shibahara (JPN)

Not Before 3:00 pm
[5] R. Ram (USA) / J. Salisbury (GBR) vs [2] N. Mektic (CRO) / M. Pavic (CRO)

Not Before 5:30 pm
WTA Doubles Final

Did You Know? 
Novak Djokovic (36) and Rafael Nadal (35) lead all players in ATP Masters 1000 championships. They also boast the most on clay courts, with Nadal owning 25 titles and Djokovic 10. They are both seeking their first Masters 1000 title of the year in Rome.