ROME (AFP) - Novak Djokovic fought back to stun defending champion and seven-time winner Rafael Nadal to claim the Rome Masters 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 on Sunday.
Serbia’s world number two Djokovic claimed his third title on the red clay of Rome, having won in 2008 and 2011, the latter with victory over his Spanish rival.
Sunday’s win was also Djokovic’s 19th career Masters title and his 19th win against Nadal in 41 meetings.
Djokovic came to Rome having missed out on the Madrid Open as he continued his recovery from a wrist injury that he suffered at the Monte Carlo Masters.
But the Serb showed no signs of pain as he dispatched Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets before battling to three-set victories over Spain’s David Ferrer and hard-hitting Canadian Milos Raonic.
Djokovic, claiming his fourth consecutive win over Nadal on all surfaces – although three of them came on hard court – will now head to the French Open which begins next week with renewed confidence that he can claim a maiden title on the red clay of Roland Garros.
“It’s been a great week considering where I was with the wrist injury,” said Djokovic.
“Luckily I played with no pain and increased my level of tennis as the week went on. I had some tough matches, three setters, that I came back from.
“Knowing that, and winning against Rafa in the final and on his favourite surface of clay is very positive for me.
“He’s the best player ever in the history of this game on clay courts. It was the ultimate challenge. I’m happy with my game so far and hopefully I can carry that into Roland Garros.”
Nadal had been looking to stretch his record of seven titles in the Italian capital.
But despite a dominant first-set display the world number one allowed unforced errors to creep into his game as Djokovic launched a valiant fightback to put himself in pole position to win a first title at the forthcoming French Open.
Nadal admitted three tough matches this week had left his fuel tank empty for the final, but the Spaniard said Djokovic had simply been unbeatable on the day.
“He’s one of the best in the world, he’s playing great,” said the Spaniard, who has now lost three matches in the same claycourt season for the first time since 2004.
“I played well for moments, I had my chances for moments, but I could have done with a little more energy at times. My legs didn’t answer me after a tough week.”
Nadal, who was notably pushed all the way by Andy Murray in a 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 quarter-final win over the British number one on Friday, added: “I was able to find positive things during the tournament but I played three very tough matches this week and it was very hard mentally, as well as physically. I was a little bit tired.”
Nadal had won at the Foro Italico every year since 2005 except in 2008 and 2011.
It certainly seemed it would be Nadal’s day when he broke the Serb twice on his way to a quick 4-1 lead in the opening set, which he went on to win 6-4 as Djokovic made a series of unforced errors.
Djokovic, however, broke Nadal’s serve early in the second set as he “stuck to his gameplan”.
The Serbian added: “I tried to be aggressive from start. In the first set I made a lot of unforced errors, but I kept with my gameplan.“I just found the range and right rhythm on the court, and everything started going in and I felt much more comfortable on the court.”
Although Nadal defiantly broke back to 3-2 in the second, Djokovic went on to level the contest, taking the second set 6-3.
Djokovic had hit eight forehand and four backhand winners to Nadal’s one in the second set, and the Serb carried the momentum into the deciding set, breaking Nadal early for a 2-0 lead.
Nadal was given hope when he broke to 3-3 in the next.
But the 27-year-old crucially hit a forehand return long in the next game to hand Djokovic the break and a 4-3 lead.
Djokovic held on to his service game and with Nadal struggling broke the Spaniard again to seal a memorable win.