Djokovic in no way resembles the current incarnation of Nadal, although Federer claimed he was referring to the Rafa of clay legend, and the Serb’s 6-4, 6-3 win confirmed there is only one clear favourite for the French Open next week – and it is not the Spaniard who has won there nine times but lost four times on European clay this summer.
“It’s been a wonderful week, a busy year – a good year so far,” Federer said. “Novak was too strong today.”
Djokovic, speaking to the crowd in Italian, said: “Today I played my best match of the week. It’s always a great challenge to play Federer. It feels like home here, one of my favourite tournaments. Along with 2011 this is the best year of my career, although I don’t know what will happen at Roland Garros. I feel very strong.”
Platitudes aside, if Federer, the world No2, cannot beat Djokovic, the world No1, over three sets, his chances of doing so over five are minimal. It is becoming increasingly clear the player closest to Djokovic now is the Scot born a week before him 27 years ago and Andy Murray’s decision to leave the fray here to rest for Paris looks a smart move.
It took Djokovic only an hour and a quarter to win his fourth Internazionali BNL d’Italia title – variously known as the Italian Open, the Rome Masters or the worst run ATP 1000 event on the circuit – although the organisers did well to repair Campo Centrale overnight after it had turned into a bomb crater in the semi-finals. Federer, who is still to add the trophy to his collection of 23 Masters titles, clings to a 20-19 career record against Djokovic – but, at 33, for how long?
The Swiss played superbly for the first half-hour, his ball-striking a delight. The turning point arrived in the ninth game, a slapped Djokovic forehand off his second serve (vaguely reminiscent of the winning shot which so angered Federer on match point in the semi-final of the US Open four years ago) licking the chalk for break point. When Federer’s backhand banged the net, the first set was gone in 40 minutes.
The Serb held and broke at the start of the second – Federer shaking his head when his forehand smashed into the net in the second game – and, from that point, the deficit grew as if overseen by George Osborne.
Djokovic, hitting crosscourt, steadily worked over Federer on his backhand –much as a prime Nadal might have done. Getting only a quarter of his first serves in at one point, Federer could not make a dent in his opponent’s fabled defence. A pair of aces cancelled out a double fault for a hold in the fourth game but he was only hanging on. His last shot was a crosscourt forehand that drilled the tramlines.
Popping the celebratory champagne (Federer’s sponsor Moët & Chandon, as it happens), Djokovic took a flying cork just above his eye. Now that would have been some sort of accident before Paris.
Maria Sharapova heads for Paris weary but happy to be weighed down by the 32nd trophy of her career, her third in Rome, the result of a hot afternoon’s slog over three sets against the determined, fast-improving Spaniard Carla Suárez Navarro in a final of generally high quality.
Sharapova won 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 in two hours and 35 minutes, about half of the rest of her tournament commitment in time, while Suárez Navarro was on court for twice as long, and one match extra. She had beaten Heather Watson and Petra Kvitova in two quick sets but the rest of her week was tough – especially carving through the field on clay with one of the few remaining one-handed backhands in the women’s game (Roberta Vinci and Francesca Schiavone are the only others in the top 100).
When Serena Williams pulled out after one match with a sore right elbow Sharapova’s path to the final was certainly eased but she still had to stay sharp.
Her gift for ignoring troughs – of which there were dangerously too many – helped her to the finish line.
Suárez Navarro must have imagined she had this final won at least a couple of times in the first two sets, as her steadiness drained the Russian of her best shots. But Sharapova, two years older than her opponent at 28, has been here many times. When she finished the fight with a classic crosscourt forehand, the Spaniard was marooned yards away, midcourt behind the line, a helpless onlooker.
Sharapova mixed power (six double faults cancelling out four aces) and subtlety, tormenting Suárez Navarro with five drop-shot winners. She is looking in good shape for Roland Garros.
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