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Italian Open 2019: Can Rafael Nadal win his first claycourt title of the year in Rome?

ANALYST
Preview
Timeless

The stage is set for the face-off between two of the game's greatest. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will tussle against each other for the 54th time in their career, for the Italian Open title.

Rafael Nadal(Left) and Novak Djokovic(Right)
Rafael Nadal(Left) and Novak Djokovic(Right)

Djokovic defeated the Argentinian Diego Schwartzman in three seats (6-3, 6-7, 6-3) to reach the final. And Nadal defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in two sets (6-3, 6-4), thereby avenging his loss in the semifinals of the Madrid Open last week.

Djokovic, who won the Madrid Open last week, is looking in great form and is one of the prime contenders to win Roland Garros this year. Nadal on the other hand was looking unsure of his game before the start of Rome, especially his forehand, but now seems to have raced into top gear having dropped just 13 games on his way to the final.

So does this mean Nadal is the favorite to win his first title on clay this year?

It's not quite so simple. The opponent on the other side of the net is someone who can make the game turn to his side on a dime, and it would be a a mammoth task for Nadal to consistently dominate the rallies.

These two players tend to push each other to the limit, and it is likely to be a physical battle between them today - just like their previous matches. Djokovic's court coverage has been phenomenal this season, and it will be difficult for the Spaniard to hit through him.

Moreover, while Nadal's forehand is showing signs of its brilliant best this week, it is still a little inconsistent and vulnerable to attack. Djokovic has spent the last decade doing precisely that with his two-handed backhand, repeatedly pummeling Nadal's forehand before getting a short reply that can be put away for a winner.

Let us not forget their last meeting in the final of the Australian Open earlier this year, where Nadal got thrashed by the Serb and was given no chance of a comeback whatsoever.

It is true that the surface will be in Nadal's favor here. The Spaniard loves the slow clay courts of Rome, having won a staggering eight titles here, and would try to use the bounce and the grit to his advantage. But Djokovic has looked practically unstoppable over the last two weeks, and might be difficult to be subdued unless he has an off-day.

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That is a possibility though, as the Serb seemed physically exhausted yesterday after two back-to-back marathon matches against Argentinians Del Potro and Schwartzman. His movement will be tested severely by Nadal, and could play a big role in the outcome of the match.

If Nadal can exploit Djokovic's weariness and low energy levels, he could possibly bag his first claycourt title of the year. But if Djokovic is in top form, he will likely emerge the winner again.

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