ROME     -    Rafael Nadal made a clear statement on Sunday: if he is not back in top form, he is very close to it. The World No. 2 won his ninth Internazionali BNL d’Italia title, overcoming a stern challenge from top seed Novak Djokovic to triumph at the Foro Italico 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 after two hours and 25 minutes. Nadal also broke a tie with Djokovic by claiming a record 34th ATP Masters 1000 crown.

Nadal entered his 50th Masters 1000 final pursuing his first trophy of any kind this season. It was the first time the 32-year-old entered Rome without a victory since 2004, the year he claimed his maiden tour-level crown. And the second seed’s hunger showed, moving to 9-2 in Rome finals to earn a title for the 16th consecutive year.

Djokovic, who still leads the pair’s epic FedEx ATP Head2Head series 28-26, did well to overcome the first ‘bagel’ set he has lost since the 2017 Roland Garros quarter-finals against Dominic Thiem. But it appeared that the two tough three-setters he had to go through in the quarter-finals and semi-finals against Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman, respectively, wore on the Serbian’s legs towards the end of this clash.

The last time they had played, in the Australian Open final, Djokovic faced only one break point. Nadal earned 17 break points in this battle, though, and that proved the difference. Djokovic had won nine of the pair’s previous 11 matches, but Nadal wasted no time taking the lead at the Foro Italico. The Serbian dropped balls shorter than usual early on, allowing Nadal to pounce and step into the court to dictate play. It appeared Nadal, who won three 6-0 sets and did not drop a set en route to the final, was the fresher man compared to Djokovic, who was throwing in poor drop shots that gave Nadal easy finishes.

In recent years, Djokovic has thrived in crosscourt rallies between his backhand and Nadal’s forehand, but the Spaniard did well to avoid those battles from the back foot, only engaging in those rallies from an offensive position. Nadal broke serve three times in the first set, earning 59 per cent of his return points in the opener.

Although Djokovic did not win a game in the first set, the two sharp crosscourt backhand winners he hit near the end of the first set showed a change of intent, which carried into the second. The Serbian began to play more aggressively, and there was more intensity in his movement on the court. After escaping a 0/40 deficit on his serve, he would break to force a decider when Nadal missed wide.

This was the sixth tournament in Nadal’s career in which he won three or more ‘bagel’ sets and in the previous five, he went on to win the title. That did not change in Rome. The second seed bounced back immediately at the start of the decider. Djokovic went for a forehand down the line facing break point, but left the ball too close to the middle of the court, allowing Nadal to seize control of the rally and eventually break with an aggressive crosscourt backhand to the Serbian’s forehand, giving him a 1-0 lead, and he never looked back.

Nadal was broken just twice all week, holding in 41 of his 43 service games and saving 13 of the 15 break points he faced.