After winning the ninth Australian Open title in February, Novak Djokovic took a well-deserved break from tennis and returned at the season's second Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo. The world's leading player didn't play well in the Principality and at home in Belgrade a week later, failing to reach the final and skipping Madrid to recharge batteries ahead of Rome.
After two solid wins at Foro Italico, Djokovic faced an ultimate test versus Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarters, trailing a set and a break and battling against the Greek over two days. Stefanos served for the victory in the decider before Novak turned the tables around to prevail and advance into the semis.
The five-time winner had to endure another challenging obstacle later that day, staying on the court for almost three hours against Lorenzo Sonego before beating him in three sets to advance into the title clash versus Rafael Nadal.
Nadal spent much less time on the court on Friday and Saturday, and he defeated Novak 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 for the tenth Foro Italico title. Rafa threw everything he had at Novak, firing 37 winners and 23 unforced errors and overpowering the Serb in the more extended rallies to emerge at the top after nearly three hours of a titanic battle.
Rafa took the opener 7-5 after almost 80 minutes thanks to a late break, and Novak took charge in set number two to gain momentum ahead of the decider. Nadal fended off two break chances at 2-2 and closed the game with a powerful forehand down the line winner that Djokovic couldn't reach.
Playing the best return game of the entire clash, Nadal grabbed a break at love with a backhand down the line winner in game six to open a 4-2 lead and move closer to the finish line.
Marion Bartoli spoke about the Rome Open final and Djokovic and Nadal.
Serving to confirm the advantage, Rafa placed a forehand crosscourt winner in game seven and forced Novak to serve for staying in the match.
Djokovic saved a match point in the eighth game before Nadal sealed the deal on his serve to celebrate the tenth Rome Open crown, 16 years after the first one! Marion Bartoli believes that Rome could be a turning point for Novak on clay this year, playing on a high level despite two tough challenges on the previous two days and looking good to challenge Rafa at Roland Garros in the upcoming weeks.
"I think that Novak Djokovic will really hope that he doesn't draw Rafa in Paris. Still, I believe that the Rome final was exciting because even though Djokovic had two matches to play the day before, he was still right there and competing a lot better than what he did in the Roland Garros final a few months back.
I think that was a big signal for him just to see that he has the level, and if he goes to a five-setter, he is right there with Rafa on clay. I think that was Novak's main point after skipping Madrid and not arriving with a lot of confidence on clay.
He didn't do well in Monte Carlo and Belgrade, and Rome was really a big question mark whether he would still play well on clay this year. I believe that Rome was crucial for his confidence ahead of Roland Garros, knowing he can do well in Paris," Marion Bartoli said.