May 16, 2021

Déjà vu

There was something very familiar about championship Sunday this weekend in Rome, wasn't there? Like we'd seen these two champions sharing the stage somewhere before.

But the return to the winner's podium for Iga Swiatek and Rafael Nadal was far from a sure thing, and the fight they showed to get there proves they both know how to bring their best when it really counts.

The Ladies

Let's start with the ladies, whose clay court season has given us a varried array of champions all pulling off big wins. But with perennial favorite Simona Halep struggling with injury, and hardcourt powerhouse Naomi Osaka still struggling to get her footing on the dirt, it's been Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka that have been most consistent, with the two splitting the last two big titles on the surface. But the former pulled out of Rome with an arm injury and the latter was stunned by Coco Gauff in the third round, allowing last year's breakout star Iga Swiatek a pass to the final.

That's not to say the 19-year-old Pole had an easy time of it this week. Swiatek, who crashed out of Madrid just last week in a battle of two women who'd both won their last seven matches at Roland Garros, had to fend off two match points against Barbora Krejcikova, a very talented doubles player whose really upping her solo game too the last few months. Krejcikova had already beaten French Open runner-up Sofia Kenin, and came a whisker away from doing it to Swiatek too before the fifteenth seed was able to rally.

Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw, where one favorite after another was summarily eliminated, it was Karolina Pliskova who fought through to her third straight Rome final -- she won the title back in 2019. But Swiatek was way too much for her to handle on Sunday. The on-paper underdog didn't drop a game in the 46-minute match, barely even lost a point, double-bagelling her opponent in the most lopsided Premier-level final since 1988.

The win, the third of Swiatek's still-nascent career, is her first truly big statement of the season -- she picked up a title in Adelaide back in February -- and should push her into the top ten for the first time in her career -- an honor that seems a long time coming thanks to the revised ranking system. But more importantly it should put her back on track as she looks to defend her big title in Paris. And if she plays at the level she did today, she has a pretty good shot at doing it.

The Men

Things were a little less cut and dry in the men's final, but that's what you'd expect when you have the two best clay court players, arguably of all time, facing off in their 57th career meeting with another Masters title on the line. But despite their years-long dominance, here too, the road to the final was not easy for either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.

The top seed and world #1 has proved himself surprisingly fallible in recent months. After his record ninth trophy at the Australian Open, he lay a little low, skipping Miami and not surfacing again until Monte Carlo, where he was stunned by Dan Evans in the third round. A week later in his homeland event in Belgrade, he lost to 2021 standout Aslan Karatsev, and he then pulled out of Madrid.

Returning to Rome to defend his title he played well early, but was caught off guard by Monte Carlo champ Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals, getting down a set and a break before rain suspended the match. He somehow found it in him to regroup on Saturday, get the win, and survive a nearly-three hour slugfest against Lorenzo Sonego -- who, you remember, beat him last year in Vienna -- in the semis. After more than five hours on court, he'd have to get right back to it on Sunday.

Nadal may have had an easier few days recently -- he avenged a loss to Madrid champ Alexander Zverev on Friday and saved all four break points he faced against Reilly Opelka in the semis -- but that doesn't mean he hasn't been tested. He's been surprisingly unprolific during his usually breezy clay court season, with losses not just to Zverev, but to Andrey Rublev too, and he even faced match points against Denis Shapovalov in the third round here, before rebounding.

But in spite of all the drama and hard work these two had already put in this week, they showed up to Sunday's final to give us more. What else should we expect? In their 29th meeting with a title on the line, Djokovic came out swinging first, getting the early break before Rafa came barreling back. He captured the first set, but got in a bit of trouble when Nole took the second 6-1. It appeared his long Saturday had little effect on his game today and he was back to top shape. But Nadal was able to get a stave off a couple of threats early in the decider and broke deep in the third, holding on to capture the win and get within one match of even in their all-time head-to-head.

So what will all this mean as we get ready for Paris? Well it certainly calms the nerves of any Rafa fans who was starting to get nervous. And it certainly bolsters the case for Swiatek to repeat her own breakout success. But there are a lot of other players in the wings ready to take the crowns themselves. And maybe this year, more than any in recent memory, there's a shot for a couple of them to do it.

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