'King of Clay' silences critics

Rafael Nadal returning to Novak Djokovic in the Rome Masters final at the Foro Italico on Sunday. The victory edges the Spaniard ahead in Masters titles and he is excited to play in the new centre court at Roland Garros next week.
Rafael Nadal returning to Novak Djokovic in the Rome Masters final at the Foro Italico on Sunday. The victory edges the Spaniard ahead in Masters titles and he is excited to play in the new centre court at Roland Garros next week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Nadal beats Djokovic for ninth Rome Masters title and wants to 'keep going' at French Open

ROME • The contenders had been encircling his French Open crown.

In most years, Rafael Nadal would have at least one title on clay upon arrival at Roland Garros.

But after three straight semi-final exits in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, many had wondered if the "King of Clay" was no longer invincible, with further question marks over his fitness.

However, Nadal vanquished all talk of his standards slipping on his favoured surface after defeating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 in the Italian Open final on Sunday, leaving his opponent to pronounce him as "the No. 1 favourite for Roland Garros".

It was the Spaniard's 34rd Masters title - a record - and his ninth Rome trophy, but more importantly, his first clay-court title this term.

Afterwards, Nadal felt he merely needed more warm-up practice, insisting that "I am going to be there with time enough".

And with confidence gleaned from beating Djokovic in the final, he admitted he was "happy to reach that level in the last tournament before a Grand Slam" as the French Open gets underway this Sunday.

The 32-year-old, who is gunning for a 12th title in Paris, said: "I'm going to repeat my normal routines. For me I don't want to talk about Grand Slams now. I never did in the past. Important title, now's the moment to keep going.

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  • Rafael Nadal served Novak Djokovic just his ninth career bagel during Sunday's Italian Open final.

"The most important thing is to feel myself playing well and feel myself healthy, with the energy that I need. If that happens, experience is that I am going to fight for titles sooner or later."

Of the rebuilt Philippe Chatrier Centre Court, he added: "For sure, I can't wait to be there and have the feeling, see the stadium, watch all the new great things that Roland Garros is doing.

"I saw a picture. Looks great. Still open, still not closed. Is a different stadium, but the feeling probably will not be very different.

"This year, I don't see a big difference. The wind is going to be the same as always. Court is still big."

The 17-time Grand Slam winner had not dropped a set all week before the final, but was helped by an error-strewn display by Djokovic in their 54th career meeting.

Nadal also revealed that despite his previous upsets following the injury-enforced pullout at Indian Wells in March, he "had been (getting) better".

The world No. 2 said: "Here we are finally with this great trophy, an important victory.

"After Indian Wells, there have been some tough moments for me in terms of recovering again. I didn't arrive very well prepared to Monte Carlo.

"There have been some low moments for me. The first round in Barcelona, that was a disaster. Yesterday (Saturday against Stefanos Tsitsipas) was probably was my best match on clay so far this season before today (Sunday), because today, I played better than yesterday."

He has now overtaken Djokovic at the top of the list for Masters wins - the pair were level at 33 each before the final - although the latter still holds a 28-26 career edge.

While the Serb, whose only French Open triumph came in 2016, would love to clinch his fourth successive Grand Slam after Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, the 31-year-old conceded he was below Nadal in the pecking order, though he still felt "it is going to be a good tournament".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2019, with the headline ''King of Clay' silences critics'. Print Edition | Subscribe