A sense of order was undeniably restored as Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic to claim his ninth Italian Open title, and record 34th ATP Masters 1000 victory.
The King of Clay hadn’t lifted a 2019 trophy until then – even more shocking, he hadn’t contested a claycourt final for the season. Semifinals were the stumbling block as Nadal fell to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo, Dominic Thiem in Barcelona and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid.
But with a 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over Djokovic in Rome, Nadal insisted a challenging period of his career – the Spaniard earlier withdrawing from Indian Wells and sitting out Miami due to injury – was behind him.
“During the whole week, you were asking for titles. Finally, I have a title,” he told reporters. “For me, the most important thing is I feel myself playing well and feel myself healthy, with the energy that I need. If that happens, experience is that I going to fight for titles sooner or later.”
But will that be at Roland Garros, where Nadal is vying for a record 12th title from 15 appearances?
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) May 23, 2019
In an intriguing season in which only four men – Djokovic, Thiem, Tsitsipas and Roger Federer – have claimed multiple titles, the potential for change can’t be ignored.
Former champions are the most obvious threat, and Djokovic especially. In 2016, the world No.1 defeated Andy Murray in the final to complete his major collection and become only the third man in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.
Also the reigning champion of the most recent three majors, Djokovic is once again eyeing a rare piece of tennis history. And while there was a glaring statistic in the Rome final – the only time in their 54 matches that Nadal won a set without conceding a game – the Serb will take confidence from having earlier lifted his third trophy in Madrid.
Federer, too, is naturally in the conversation in his long-awaited return to the claycourt major. Last competing at Roland Garros in 2015 and the winner of his lone title there 10 years ago, Federer warmed up with a Madrid quarterfinal, but withdrew ahead of the Rome quarters with a right leg injury.
Thiem, the 2018 runner-up, has built a compelling case for favouritism. A two-time titlist in 2019, the world No.4 Austrian is gaining important ground against his most difficult opponents. Twice a winner over Federer this season (most notably in the Indian Wells final for his first ATP Masters 1000 title), Thiem also turned the tables on Nadal – who denied him in the 2018 French Open final – on his way to the Barcelona title.
At age 25, Thiem represents a new generation of champions, but an even younger group is coming. Since his first major semifinal at the Australian Open, Tsitsipas has lifted trophies in Marseilles and Estoril, further finals in Dubai and Madrid elevating the Greek to his current peak No.6 ranking.
With a first win over Nadal in four career meetings in Madrid, the exciting young star took an epic step in his career. “Players like Rafa are very difficult to face and I would record it as my best victory and the toughest match I had up to this day,” Tsitsipas said.
While he’s yet to win a main-draw match at Roland Garros, Daniil Medvedev is another young player on the move. Entering the 2019 European clay season with a 2-11 record on the surface, the 23-year-old Russian underwent a stunning transformation as a Monte Carlo semifinalist (where he defeated Tsitsipas and Djokovic for his first consecutive wins over top-10 opponents) and Barcelona finalist.
Other young players to watch include Borna Coric, age 22 and ranked No.15, as well as Felix Auger-Aliassime, who has surged from outside the top 100 to No.28 this year. At 18 years old, a bright future clearly beckons for the Canadian.
Which is not to say that enduring competitors won’t challenge. The 31-year-old Fognini underlined as much when he defeated Alexander Zverev, Coric and Nadal on his way to claiming the most prestigious of his nine career titles in Monte Carlo.
The 34-year-old Stan Wawrinka, who has rebuilt his ranking to No.27 after a serious knee injury contributed to a brief drop outside the top 200 last year, will also welcome a return to the venue that delivered the 2015 title, and a runner-up performance in 2017.
None of those players, of course, will step on to the Parisian clay with quite the credentials of Nadal. “I can’t wait to be there and have the feeling, see the stadium, watch all the new great things that Roland Garros is doing,” he said.
There are arguably only positives for the Spaniard.
Given the depth of competition and the years since he first lifted the trophy as a teenager, an unparalleled 12th Roland Garros title would reasonably be considered. And if he doesn’t reach that milestone in 2019, there remains no challenging Nadal’s hold as the greatest claycourter of all time.
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