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Nadal and Williams cement positions as French favourites

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in Rome
by Stuart Appleby
Monday 20 May 2013

Just as it was seven days ago in Madrid, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams were once again back on the winners' podium on Sunday and celebrating title success in the Italian capital, Rome. Nadal made light work of his old adversary Roger Federer in the final at the Foro Italico.

The Spaniard lost only four games in a routine, but superb 6-1 6-3 victory. Meanwhile five-time Wimbledon champion Williams produced a dominant performance to claim her fourth consecutive WTA title and defeat Victoria Azarenka by the same scoreline, extending her unbeaten run to a career-best 24 matches. Both players have been in relentless form and head to Paris for the French Open, which begins on Sunday, as favourites.

Sporting statistics sometimes don't always tell the full story, but in Nadal's case, they underline how devastating he has been on a tennis court since his long-awaited return from chronic knee problems in February. The 26-year-old has won 36 out of the 38 matches he has played in 2013, winning six titles from eight consecutive finals. Nadal's superiority over Federer, particularly on clay, is also remarkable. He has triumphed in 12 of their 14 meetings on the red dirt, and leads the Swiss by 20 wins to 10 in their overall head-to-head. It is clear to see why the Majorcan has been such a thorn in the seven-time Wimbledon champion's side.

However, in typically modest fashion, Nadal played down his phenomenal run: "If you'd told me that (I would have been playing like this) four or five months ago I would have said you are crazy," he joked. "So after eight tournaments, six victories and two finals, it's a dream for me."

Playing in his first ATP World Tour final of the year, Federer was unable to exert the kind of pressure he would have liked on the Spaniard from the start, making a wave of unforced errors, especially on his favoured forehand wing. He was broken in the third game of the match and Nadal wasted little time in seeing out the first set. The spectators in the stadium got behind the Swiss and were no doubt in search of a repeat of their classic 2006 Rome Masters final, which Nadal won 6-7 (0-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5) in over five hours. Federer did improve in the second, notably moving into net more and more to shorten the points, but Nadal produced a spectacular backhand winner to break after a gruelling rally. Nadal then put the match out of sight by securing a second break, and while Federer won two games on the bounce late on to take the match time beyond one hour, Nadal served their encounter out at the second attempt to win his seventh Italian Open crown.

The clay court king travels to Paris in tremendous form as he looks to win an Open-era record eighth title at Roland Garros. However, if there is to be one sticking point for Nadal, it is that he is likely to be seeded fourth and could potentially meet Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, the man who ran him close last year.

Earlier in the afternoon, Williams had displayed her power, experience and ability to hit winners at will to claim her fifth title of the year in Italy. Her opponent, Azarenka, who ceded the No.1 ranking to the American earlier this year, competed well in the early stages of their match but the final winners count of 41 to 12 in Williams' favour told much of the story of their encounter. Both players exchanged breaks of serve in the opener but that only seemed to spur on Williams, who broke to love in the next game to round-up the set in 45 minutes.

Yet another tournament victory for Williams, following wins in Miami, Charleston and Madrid, never looked in doubt as she took control of the match in the second set against the incumbent Australian Open champion. Azarenka did secure her second break of the match at 4-2 but failed to hold serve in the next game, double-faulting to allow Williams to move closer to the finishing line. The 31-year-old, who won 70 per cent of the points on her first serve, hit her eighth ace of the match and then closed out in all too familiar fashion.

"The first three games took about 20 minutes - it wasn't easy, nothing is ever easy," Williams said. "I think the difference was I took the opportunities when I had them and came up with some really good shots. And this was the best I've moved all week - I feel fit, and hopefully it'll stay like this. The world No.1 is in formidable form and quietly confident that she can win her second title at the French Open, with her first coming 11 years ago in 2002. "Last year I was feeling excellent on clay but didn't do that great at Roland Garros - this year I'm cautious and I want to work hard and stay focused and win every point I play, and not slack at all."

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