In the previous 15 years, it was all about Rafael Nadal when we talk about clay and the records on the slowest surface. The 12-time Roland Garros champion has been the player to beat on dirt, followed by Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic who were capable of stealing one Roland Garros crown from Rafa each and some Masters 1000 titles as well.
Novak Djokovic's first ATP title came in Amersfoort in 2006 at 19. However, he was already a natural-born hard-courter, preparing to show his talent on the most common tennis surface in 2007 when he would claim two Masters 1000 titles and reach the US Open final.
Over the years, Djokovic remained competitive on clay, beating Nadal numerous times and lifting ten Masters 1000 trophies, the most recent one in Rome on Monday. It was the 26th ATP final on clay for the Serb, matching Roger Federer's tally and standing second among the active players, way behind Rafael Nadal, the lone ranger at the top with 67.
In the title match at Foro Italico, Novak took down Diego Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3 in an hour and 53 minutes, securing the second Masters 1000 crown of the season and the record-breaking 36th. Djokovic gave serve away thrice, twice at the beginning of the encounter when he still hadn't found his strokes, earning five breaks to cross the finish line and score the 31st victory in 32 matches this year.
Novak opened the clash with a service winner, wasting a game point and suffering a break when his backhand found the net. Schwartzman, the first-time Masters 1000 finalist, fired four service winners in game two which kept him alive, securing the game after a wrongly-judged drop shot from Novak to cement the break and open a 2-0 advantage.
Struggling to find the rhythm in the rain, Novak sprayed a backhand error to offer Diego a break chance in game three, netting another one to suffer the second break and push the Argentine 3-0 ahead after quick 18 minutes.
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are tied on 26 ATP finals on clay.
Djokovic started to play better in the fourth game for a wake-up call, creating a break opportunity and converting it after Schwartzman's double fault.
Attacking with more accuracy and depth, Novak held at 15 with an ace in game five to reduce the deficit to 2-3, taking a break chance when the Argentine netted a forehand right after the serve to get back to the positive side of the scoreboard.
Winning 16 of the previous 21 points, Djokovic held at 15 in game seven with a service winner to move in front for the first time, looking much better than in the opening 20 minutes. At 30-15 in game eight, Diego fired a perfect forehand down the line winner, sealing the game with a service winner for 4-4.
Djokovic fended off a break point in the ninth game with a volley winner, landing another for a significant hold and a 5-4 advantage. Serving to stay in the set, Schwartzman erased a set point with a bold forehand winner, bringing the game home after two deuces and a backhand down the line winner to prolong the set.
Novak opened a 6-5 lead with a hold after deuce, forcing the rival to serve for staying in the set for the second time. Creating three more set points, Novak converted the last one to take it 7-5 after 70 minutes, gaining a massive boost ahead of set number two.
Starting all over, Diego kicked off the second set with a break at 15, ready to fight until the end. Bouncing back immediately, Djokovic pulled the break back to level the score at 1-1 when Schwartzman's forehand landed wide.
The Serb placed a winner at the net for a commanding hold in game three and the Argentine fired four winners in game four to level the score at 2-2, surviving the first challenge en route to the second set. Djokovic withstood two break points in game five, staying focused and bringing it home with a service winner for 3-2.
Diego stayed in contention, holding with a reliable drop shot before Djokovic closed the next game at love to open a 4-3 gap. Cracking under pressure, Schwartzman sprayed unforced errors in game eight to lose serve at love following a backhand down the line winner from Djokovic, who held at 30 to seal the deal and celebrate the title.