The last major clay court event ahead of the French Open ended with titles for Serena Williams, over Sara Errani, and Novak Djokovic, over Rafael Nadal. Wimbledon.com reports...
When in Rome, normal service tends to resume. And it was no different in 2014.
After seven weeks of sliding and grinding on the clay of Europe, the duo heading to Paris with one last big win behind them are two who are well accustomed to the sight of their own gleeful faces staring back at them through silverware: Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.
At times, the road to Roland Garros had threatened to be a bumpy one for those at the top, with upsets and injuries showing no prejudice in where and when they struck. But when all was said and done in Rome – the last outing for many of the big names ahead of the French Open – the headlines were hogged by familiar names.
Djokovic, playing in his first event since a right wrist injury hampered his progress in Monte-Carlo and ruled him out of Madrid, kept alive his hopes of regaining top spot in the world rankings when he defeated world No. 1 Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final to move to within 650 ranking points of the Spaniard.
Djokovic’s journey to the final wasn't exactly turbulence free. After seeing off Radek Stepanek in the first round, he needed three sets to get past Philipp Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer and Milos Raonic.
Nadal’s path was a similar one. For the first time since Rome in 2005 the Spaniard won three consecutive three-set matches on clay at the same tournament, defeating Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray in deciding sets before easing past Grigor Dimitrov for the loss of just four games in the semi-final.
With both Nadal and Djokovic reaching the final, their nine-year reign in The Eternal City was set to become a full decade, with the Spaniard being crowned champion seven times and the Serb twice from 2005-13.
In the 41st meeting between the pair – the most frequent match-up in the Open Era – Djokovic improved his record against Nadal to 19-22 with the win, his fourth in succession against his long-time rival.
Just like he had done on the hard courts of Miami, Djokovic dominated his Spanish opponent from the baseline, hitting 46 winners to Nadal’s 15 during the contest, which lasted two hours and 20 minutes.
"It's been a great week considering where I've been a few weeks ago with the wrist injury," said Djokovic after the match. “Luckily for me, I played with no pain and increased the level of tennis as the week went on.
“Winning against Rafa in the final of a big tournament on clay, his preferred surface, is definitely a confidence booster. Experience helped me stay calm and play the right shots at the right time."
Djokovic’s win, his fifth in the last six Masters 1000s he has contested, puts the No. 1 spot in his own hands at the French Open. A maiden triumph on the Parisian clay will see him hit the summit.
On the women’s side, Williams, like Djokovic, shook off an injury to lift her third title in Rome. Players who have been ranked No. 1 at some stage during their careers have now won 15 of the last 17 titles there.
After injury forced her out of Madrid at the quarter-final stage, Williams arrived in Rome eager for her first clay-court victory of the year and a boost of confidence ahead of her title defence in Paris. She left with both.
The build-up to the title match was all about Williams’ Italian opponent, however. Sara Errani had the hosts dreaming of a first homegrown champion at the Foro Italico since Raffaella Reggi in 1985 when she defeated top 10 players Li Na and Jelena Jankovic to reach the final. It was just the second time the world No. 11 had posted two top 10 wins at the same event and she would need to register a third if she was to create history.
For all her spirit, agility and ability to make opponents hit one final ball, Errani tends to struggle against Williams’ raw power and she went into the final with an 0-6 record against the American, who was bidding for her 60th career title.
The last time the two had met, Williams ran out a 6-0, 6-1 winner in a lopsided semi-final at last year’s French Open, and a similar scenario played out in the Italian capital. At 5-3 to Williams in the first set, a tearful Errani was treated for a leg injury and from there she failed to win another game as the top seed prevailed 6-3, 6-0.
“She was doing everything right and I could tell she had obviously improved since our meeting in Paris last year," Williams said. "It was unfortunate she got injured in the last game of the set, but overall I thought she was playing really well out there.
"Today gave me a great opportunity to understand the atmosphere I'll have in Paris, too. It was a great opportunity for me."
Williams’ celebrations were subdued in front of the partisan home crowd, but the 32 year old will know all too well the historic relevance of winning Rome. The last two times she emerged victorious there – in 2002 and 2013 – she went on to win the Roland Garros title.
An omen? Only time will tell.
20:24...But boy, it was a barrow-load of fun. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as we did. Thank you for all your messages throughout, you've been the glue holding us together as the edges frayed amid the madness. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for us Brits to raise a toast to Andy Murray and Fred Perry. British sporting legends both.
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