When Novak Djokovic believes he’s playing well, that’s typically a bad omen for any opponent. But in the semi-finals of the 2018 Internazionali BNL d’Italia, that still wasn’t enough.
Rafael Nadal battled past Djokovic 7-6(4), 6-3 in a tight one hour and 56 minutes, moving to 10-0 in Rome semi-finals. The match was full of thrilling points as the legends clawed for control of the rallies. It was so exciting that at one point, commentator Robbie Koenig uttered an iconic line.
“It’s tennis nearer the gods!”
Nadal emerged victorious on Court Centrale to earn his 356th ATP Masters 1000 win, breaking a tie with Roger Federer (355) for the most victories at the elite level in history. The Spaniard is in top spot today with 384 Masters 1000 victories, and Federer is right behind at 381.
“It was a tough battle, I think a good level of tennis,” Nadal said. “[It was a] combination of tactics, a combination of great shots for both of us. [It’s a] very important victory for me. I’m very happy.”
Both Nadal and Djokovic entered the match having never lost in the semi-finals at the Foro Italico, and it was the Serbian who suffered his first defeat at that stage in Rome. However, it was not all bad news for Djokovic, who earned renewed confidence after reaching his first semi-final of the season and digging deep to challenge the Spaniard.
Earlier in the year, Djokovic had undergone a right elbow procedure, which contributed to him losing six of nine matches leading into the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. Yet suddenly, then World No. 18, he was going ball-for-ball with an in-form Nadal.
“Rafa was just better in important moments. He just managed to play [the] right shots and he deserved to win. He was the better player,” Djokovic said. “I don’t think that there was too much of a difference, which is great for me, great news for me. Because Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay courts. And he’s in great, great form. It’s very difficult to play him on clay anywhere. But as I said, I thought the level of my tennis was very high.”
Nadal never doubted that Djokovic would return to form. Although he beat the Serbian in straight sets, he knew it’d take his best to do so.
“I played against one of the best players of the history of this sport, you know. It’s always a challenge to play against him. He has all the shots,” Nadal said. “He’s always a match that when he’s playing well, you’re going to have to play your best if you want to have chances.”
Nadal would go on to beat defending champion Alexander Zverev for his eighth Rome title. In 2019, he retained his crown for a record ninth victory at the Foro Italico.