Rafael Nadal went some way to redressing the hurt caused by world No.1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic on clay last year with a straight sets victory in the Rome decider, marking the first time in three years he has won consecutive finals matches against his Serbian rival.
Nadal’s 7-5, 6-4 ledger also meant he would avoid meeting Djokovic any earlier than the final of the French Open, his sixth Italian crown allowing him to reclaim the world No.2 ranking from Roger Federer after only a week.
Women’s defending champion Maria Sharapova had better luck in her Rome title defence, the No.2 seed storming back from a 4-6, 0-4 deficit and staving off a match point deep in the third set to deny China’s reigning French Open champion Li Na, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5).
Rain suspended the women’s final for two hours and pushed the men’s final back to Monday, before Nadal was able to respond to his early exit in Madrid last week with his third clay court title of the season.
“I am happy that I won in Rome without losing a set against the best players in the world like [Tomas] Berdych and [David] Ferrer and Djokovic,” Nadal said. “I will have this trophy in my bedroom. It is a dream. [I have] the confidence I am playing well and this comes when I play at the right level. Hopefully I will keep playing like this.”
Djokovic will next bid to complete a career Grand Slam in Paris, but Nadal will carry the psychological advantage – a 16-1 clay-court record for the year placing him in the box seat to land a record-breaking seventh French Open crown.
“He is always the favourite, even if I win against him seven times; he is the best player in the world on this surface,” Djokovic said.
“I think that the match today was quite close, even if he won in straight sets. If you don’t use the opportunities against Rafa he gets momentum. I made a lot of errors, which should not happen when you play against Nadal. I will go to Paris with confidence and I played a great week.”
Among Sharapova’s 26 WTA titles, her victory in Rome marked the first time she has defended a title on clay – traditionally her weakest surface – and was also her second crown of the year, both somewhat surprisingly on the red dirt.
“This is a great win for me going into Roland Garros,” Sharapova said. “I know the level she [Li Na] played there last year and the level she can play on clay, the way she defends and moves around and gets herself back into position, she’s just a great player on any surface really. So this gives me a lot of confidence.
“It will be nice to have a week off now, after playing three tournaments in the last four weeks. I’ll have time to recover, mentally and physically.”
The final marked a disappointing end to a confidence-boosting week for Li, having gone without a title since becoming Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion at Roland Garros nearly a year ago.
“Obviously it's tough to rest for two hours and then play again, but I still have many positive things from this match,” Li said.
“Playing a tough match like that showed me I’m strong, and physically I felt great. I can take a lot of positive things away from this week and I think I’m ready for the French Open.
“We both had our chances today, but in the end she was just better.”
For all the reports and results from Rome, visit the official Internazional BNL d'Italia site