In the span of 11 seasons (2005-2015), Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were the players to beat at Rome Masters, sharing all the titles and facing in the finals four times, including 2009 when Rafa claimed his fourth Rome crown in the last five years on May 3.
Novak dethroned him from the top spot in 2008 when he defeated Stan Wawrinka in the title match but he couldn't go all the way a year later, as Rafa toppled him 7-6, 6-2 in two hours and three minutes to regain his crown.
The Spaniard had a fantastic start of the season, winning his first and only Australian Open crown and adding Indian Wells, Monte Carlo and Barcelona to his tally before another thrilling run in Rome, overpowering all five rivals in straight sets to restore the order and bring back the trophy he lost a year earlier.
Rafa lost just 18 games in four encounters against Seppi, Soderling, Verdasco and Gonzalez before the final clash where he had to beat much harder opponent for that finishing touch. Nadal was forced to give his best in the opening set, shifting into a higher gear after that to claim the second set more comfortably, although it was again far from easy.
This was already their 17th meeting in the last four years and ninth in the Masters 1000 series, with Nadal scoring his 13th win over the Serb and eighth on clay in as many encounters on the slowest surface. He won 14 points more than Novak but it was another extraordinary battle between two finest clay courters in the world who pushed each other to the limits for more than two hours and kept the crowd on the edge of their seats all the time.
Nadal served at 71% and had better percentages on both the first and second serve, facing four break points and suffering two breaks of serve. Novak gave his best to stay in touch with his great rival but made too many unforced errors in the end, getting broken four times from five break chances Nadal created to finish the match empty-handed.
The Spaniard had the edge in the shortest and longest points and forged the main difference in the mid-range exchanges, outplaying Novak with his brutal pace from the baseline although it has to be said once again that Djokovic did a marvelous job in the opening set that lasted for 74 minutes.
It was a shaky start from Novak who lost serve in the very first game of the match, which is never a good sign, with Rafa holding at 15 in game two with a forehand winner to cement his lead. Both players served well in the next five games and it was Nadal who created a set point at 5-3, netting a backhand and wasting a huge opportunity to make the opening set almost half an hour shorter!
Novak couldn't create a break point so far in the match but he had to at 4-5 if he wanted to prolong the set, converting his second chance when Nadal missed an easy forehand to gain the sudden momentum. That didn't last for long, though, as Nadal broke again in game 11 after a loose forehand from Novak who ruined everything he did right in the previous game.
Nonetheless, Djokovic was there to compete and he saved another set point with a great volley that Rafa barely reached, breaking back thanks to a terrible forehand from Nadal to set up a tie break after grueling 65 minutes.
The Spaniard got broken twice while serving for the set but that failed to break his spirit, serving great in the tie break and earning a mini-break in the fourth point when Novak's backhand landed long. The Serb sprayed another error on serve in the eighth point and Rafa clinched it with the third mini-break for a 7-2 and one step closer to another title in Rome.
Novak missed a break point in the opening game of set number two and he finally started to slow down at 2-3 when Nadal broke him thanks to a costly double fault from the Serb who was now in a very tough position. A service winner sent the Spaniard 5-2 in front, putting one hand on that beautiful trophy that he lost a year ago.
Rafa delivered another break in game eight with a stunning forehand winner to break Novak's resistance and prevail after more than two hours of dynamic and powerful tennis on both sides.