How sweet it must be now to be Rafael Nadal. Some had thought it likely, and probably more thought it certain—the Spaniard has clinched his sixth title at the Italian Open in Rome with a straight-sets defeat of close rival Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 6-3.
The King of Clay clinched another record, too—not merely the fact of having won six clay-court tournaments three times each at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, but also a record 21st Masters 1000 shield (edging Federer, who stands at 20). He marches into the French Open having enjoyed yet again an unbelievable clay-court season.
There was that blemish at Madrid, some will say. It meant nothing to Nadal, however, being as it was on that fiendish blue clay. At Rome, events transpired as we had expected; his rebound and return to winning ways swift and decisive. Nadal never so much as even lost a set all week and looked utterly dominant in the final.
He might have said many typically self-effacing things about his focus being on winning Rome, not beating Djokovic; the truth, one suspects, probably lies in his desire for both. He played for two crucial things leading into Paris today: regaining the No 2 ranking and earning some valuable kudos points over his recent nemesis, Djokovic.
For Federer to retain his recent position at No 2, he needed Nadal to lose in the final. Now that he didn't, he will regain it this week and be seeded second at the French Open, with the obvious implication being that he won't have to face Djokovic until the final. Conversely, that poses unexpected new hurdles for Federer, who will have to repeat his heroics of last year—beating both Nadal and Djokovic in a row—to win the title in Paris.
The dream match between Nadal and Djokovic, who have played at every other Grand Slam final, will now have to be fulfilled in yet another title match. Their head-to-head series presently stands at a whopping 18-14 in Nadal's favour (more than Nadal-Federer), and Nadal will be anxious to perform as well as he did today.
Questions loomed over Nadal's victory at Monte Carlo, which was only more lopsided because Djokovic had enjoyed a seven-match winning streak against the Spaniard before that. This time around, there were similar conditions, and both were playing at the level we have come to expect of them. Perhaps the midday heat aided Nadal's lasso, top-spun forehands, but the match, in many ways, was a return to the classic encounters from before Djokovic's surge in 2011.
We had almost forgotten how effective Nadal could be on this surface over the course of Djokovic's aberrant seven-match winning streak; such doubts the King of Clay laid to rest very assuredly. Forehands stretched Djokovic and his double-hander in ways that had been second nature to Nadal from 2007-10; the plays that had worked then worked again. His defense was incredible, his mental fortitude in bigger moments highly significant.
It isn't, of course, that Nadal dominated Djokovic. It was certainly a tighter match than at Monte Carlo, but Djokovic showed at many moments why he is the top-ranked player, and he had his chances. He didn't seize them. For this one day, at least, Nadal could make him remember his days as the eternal challenger to the rarefied territory of Federer and Nadal; he frustrated him and elicited the despondent, jaded looks from a younger Djokovic we thought had disappeared.
In a sense, Nadal seemed to return, at least for a day, to a mentality he used to have every clay-court season before 2011. It was one of do-or-die, when every match was a match he could lose, and yet a precious opportunity to make that big break (against his archrival Roger Federer, in those days). One recalls his epic semifinal matches against Djokovic at Hamburg in 2007 and 2008 and Madrid in 2009. The Rome final of 2012 was of a similar calibre. It was Rafael Nadal back to his best, with his back to the wall and keeping alive many happy prospects as his inspiration to succeed.
He has many happy prospects now, one being crucial in that he will feel absolutely ready to win the next time he faces Novak Djokovic. That may come in Paris. Nadal would probably desire such a meeting in three-weeks time, although he will certainly only speak publicly about his desire to do what amounts to the same thing: win the French Open yet again, for a record-breaking seventh time.
It would be "incredible, no?" to Nadal, and at the same time, a very Nadal thing to do.