Novak Djokovic has a lot to avenge, and many records to set right, when he takes on the GOAT Rafael Nadal on the Foro Italico in the final of the Italian Open today. Amid all the talks of Grand Slams, Masters, head-to-head records and weeks as Number One, one ignominious data point is often overlooked- the bagels. The last time the Serb and the Spaniard had met at Rome in 2019, the former had been bagelled in the first set. The last time the duo had met on clay, that is at the Roland Garros in 2020, Rafa had yet again fed Nole the proverbial bagel. This is quite an ominous trend- in their last two matches on clay, Rafa has blanked Djokovic in the first sets of both, and then has then gone on to win the titles at Rome and Paris. Can Rafa hand Novak a third bagel in their third consecutive clay contest? It must rile Novak that he has never been able to reciprocate the kind gesture. Rafa remains unfed by him so far. In fact, Novak was handed a bagel by Roger Federer in the Cincinnati Final in 2012, but the Serb has never returned that favour either. (Roger also leads the bagel head-to-head versus Rafael Nadal by 3-1).
Arguably, Djokovic was quite tired on the day of the first bagel (2019). He had not properly recovered after long and difficult quarter and semi-final matches against Del Potro and Schwartzman on Friday and Saturday nights respectively. His legs felt heavy, and he was half-a-yard too slow against a relentless Rafa. The Spaniard did not give provide a whiff of chance on his own serves, and Novak found neither accuracy nor power in his own serves and ground shots. He was late for his backhands and could not dictate the cross-court exchanges. The Serb was completely outplayed, barring in the fifth game with himself serving, which saw four deuces before Rafa hammered a down-the-line forehand and then crushed a lob to lead the first set by 5-0. Nadal then emphatically served out the sixth game to win the first set. This was the first bagel score in the Nadalovics after 53 matches and 142 sets had already been played.
But in the French Open final, the bagel came as a huge anti-climax. All the talk in the build-up to the final had been about how the cold and humid conditions of the French October did not particularly suit Rafa’s style of play, and that Djokovic might upset the Spaniard’s rhythm using his drop shots and claim his second French Open. Sure enough, Novak showed his intent by using the drop shot as many as four times in his first service game itself, and yet ended up frittering a 40-15 lead, to eventually get broken. At deuce in the second game with Rafa serving, Novak again tried a drop shot but could not finish the point. What had worked against every goose, failed to work against the gander. In the third game, Djokovic made a double fault and hit too long to be able to hold his own. The Serb then had three break points in the fourth game, but failed to capitalize even as Rafa came back from the dead. On his own serve in the fifth game, Novak again wasted a 40-0 advantage to be broken for the third straight time. 4 of the first 5 games had gone to Deuce, but while Rafa had played the key points like a man possessed, Djokovic looked quite lost. Rafa did not allow the Number One to make much impact in the sixth game either, and sealed the set with an ace to win the first set by 6-0. Novak’s first serves had completely deserted him, and he also made 13 enforced errors to Rafa’s mere 2. The balloon of drop shots had also been burst. Whether this was a meltdown or a humiliation for Djokovic, it was certainly the most powerful display of intent and domination on Rafa’s part.
Their head-to-head record stands at 29-27 in Novak’s favour, but Rafa leads by 18-7 on clay: 5-3 at Rome, 3-2 in Rome finals, 7-1 at Roland Garros, 3-1 at Madrid/German Open, 2-2 at Monte Carlo. Rafa has 9 Italian Open titles to his credit, Novak has 5. The Serb had beaten Diego Schwartman to win it in 2020. There is a lot of history, silverware and records between the two, but two bagels on clay in two recent clay matches are the most relevant and powerful stats for me. This quite demonstrates how Novak is just a challenger on red clay, whereas Rafa is the Imperial Overlord. Djokovic has had to struggle against Taylor Fritz, Tsitsipas and Sonego to reach the final. Having played five tough sets versus Tsitsipas and Sonego on Saturday might not leave much gas in his tank. Nadal overcame Sinner, Shapovlov and Sascha Zverev in hard-fought battles. Form and fitness do not count for much when Rafa is the mountain you have to climb; he is always going to be the overwhelming favourite to win on Clay.
Is another bagel in the offing for Novak Djokovic? Or can he overcome Rafa on clay after five years, the last time being at Rome in the QF of 2016?
Note- Rafa beat Novak in the Italian Open final in 2009, but lost in 2011.
Rafa again beat Novak in the final in 2012, but lost in 2014.
Rafa defeated Novak in the final in 2019. Going by this pattern, he should be losing in 2021.
This is the only straw for the Friends of Novak to latch on to. Grab it, howsoever juvenile it might appear.
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