Rafael Nadal peaks in time for French Open
Rafael Nadal defeated great rival Novak Djokovic 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 to win a ninth Italian Open title and a record 34rd ATP Masters crown on Sunday, leaving his vanquished foe to label the Spaniard as "the No. 1 favourite for Roland Garros".
World No. 1 Djokovic, winner at the previous week's Madrid Open, produced an error-strewn performance in his 54th meeting with second-ranked Nadal.
"It's always an honour for me," said Nadal, after securing his first title of the year and the 81st of his career.
"I remember my first time here in 2005. To still be here with this trophy so many years later means a lot to me."
Djokovic had beaten Nadal in this year's Australian Open final for his third straight Grand Slam win after Wimbledon and the US Open.
But Nadal has overtaken Djokovic at the top of the list for Masters wins - the pair were level at 33 each before Sunday's final - in a timely boost ahead of his title defence at the French Open, which starts on Sunday.
After three semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, Nadal has returned to his best form ahead of Roland Garros.
"Nadal, No. 1 favourite, without a doubt, then everyone else," said Djokovic, who also picked Dominic Thiem and Fabio Fognini as players to watch.
Nadal, 32, dominated early with Djokovic losing a set 6-0 for the first time to a player he describes as his "greatest rival".
But the Spaniard missed four break chances in the second set, dropping his first set this week after losing serve at 4-5, to throw the Serb a lifeline.
The fightback was brief as Djokovic, 31, dropped his serve immediately in the third set, smashing his racket in frustration.
Nadal never looked back to seal a third win over Djokovic in their five Rome finals, although the latter still holds a 28-26 career edge.
'RUNNING OUT OF FUEL'
Djokovic, who had played six hours in his previous two matches, admitted that fatigue had taken a toll on him.
"I was just running out of fuel a little bit today," said the 15-time Grand Slam winner, whose only French Open title came in 2016.
"But I started a bit slower. I wasn't as fresh in my legs. He used it...
"He's been playing some terrific tennis throughout the entire week.
"He was just too strong today."
Nadal, meanwhile, is raring to step on the rebuilt Philippe Chatrier centre court, where he hopes to capture his 12th trophy in Paris.
Said the 17-time Grand Slam champion: "For sure, 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."
- AFP, REUTERS