Nadal defeats resurgent Djokovic to reach Rome final

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Rafael Nadal quelled a resurgent Novak Djokovic to reach the final of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome for the first time since 2014, where he will face defending champion Alexander Zverev.

But, while Nadal came out on top 7-6 (7/4) 6-3, Djokovic’s performance showed that he is close to finding his best form again after nearly two years of struggle, and there was no mistaking how much the Serbian wanted to win.

Djokovic, one of only two men ever to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, traded with his rival from the baseline and at times outplayed him, even if it was not quite enough in the end to topple him.

Djokovic took a 26-24 lead into their 51st meeting but only second in two years, a sign of how dramatic the 30-year-old’s slump has been.

Nadal claimed an early break and surged into a 5-2 lead but Djokovic fought back, winning three games in a row. But it was Nadal who lifted his level again in the tie-break, clinching it with a return that just caught the line.

The second set followed a similar pattern, although this time Djokovic was unable to reclaim the early break, and Nadal celebrated exuberantly after clinching victory with an hour and 56 minutes on the clock.

The top seed said on “It was a tough battle, I think a good level of tennis. (It was a) combination of tactics, a combination of great shots for both of us. (It’s a) very important victory for me. I’m very happy.”

Djokovic was furious at the scheduling, which gave Nadal several hours longer to recover after his quarter-final, but leaves Rome feeling significantly more positive about his prospects.

The defeat will drop Djokovic to 22nd in the rankings, his lowest since October 2006, but he said: “I don’t think that there was too much of a difference, which is great news for me.

“Because Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay courts. And he’s in great, great form. It’s very difficult to play him on clay anywhere. I can only take positives from this week. Rafa was just better in important moments. He just managed to play (the) right shots and he deserved to win.”

Zverev extended his winning run to 13 matches by overcoming fourth seed Marin Cilic 7-6 (15/13) 7-5. A titanic first-set tie-break was arguably the key to the match, although Cilic will feel he let the second set get away after leading by a break.

The question must now be how much Zverev, who needed treatment to his right shoulder at the end of the first set, has left as he bids for a first win in five meetings with Nadal. Their last encounter on clay in Davis Cup in April saw Nadal win in three sets for the loss of just nine games.

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