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Beyond the Baseline

Novak Djokovic rallies to take down Rafael Nadal in the Italian Open final

Novak Djokovic has won five of his last six Masters tournaments. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

ROME -- No. 2 Novak Djokovic scored his fourth-straight win over No. 1 Rafael Nadal, defeating the defending champion 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to win his third Italian Open title and first clay-court title of the season. The win was Djokovic's fourth over Nadal on clay (Nadal has beaten Djokovic 13 times on clay), and it marks the King of Clay's third loss on the surface this season. Djokovic dedicated the win to his people back in Serbia. The country continues to deal with the worst flooding the country has seen in over 120 years.

"Winning against Rafa in the finals of a big tournament on clay, his preferred surface, is definitely a confidence booster," Djokovic said. "It's the ultimate challenge and I'm very happy with my game so far and hopefully I can carry that into Roland Garros."

In their 41st-career meeting, the most of any two ATP players in the Open Era, Djokovic overcame a slow start to dominate the remaining two sets of the match. The precision of his hitting kept Nadal on defense for much of the match, and he finished with 46 winners to just 15 for Nadal. The Spaniard struggled to get enough depth on his shots to push Djokovic back and blamed a week of tough three-set matches for his lack of energy.

"My legs didn't answer after a tough week, not [good enough] to arrive and to produce the power and to hit the ball longer so I let him play in positive positions," Nadal said. His opening three wins were three of the four longest matches in Rome this week, with his first match against Gilles Simon lasting 3 hours and 19 minutes. It was the longest three-set match of the season. " A lot of times when he had the first ball good, for me it was very difficult to arrive to the ball and to change the dynamic of the point. In general I can do a little bit better. But in general I am very proud about this week."

Djokovic has now won five of the last six ATP Masters 1000s that he's played, and the win in Rome sets him up perfectly for a charge at his first French Open title. The players will descend on Roland Garros this week, and the tournament kicks off Sunday.

Game-by-game analysis of Djokovic's comeback win below:

Third Set

12:52 p.m. ET | Novak Djokovic defeats Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to win his third Italian Open title.

Djokovic breaks to win the match, and the final game mirrors the whole match. A few errant shots from Nadal, some precision placement from Djokovic and then an extended rally on match point that ends when Nadal sends a backhand long.

Djokovic had a subdued celebration, and then draws a heart into the court after shaking Nadal's hand.

"This is for Serbia and Bosnia," he writes on the camera.

Djokovic finished with 46 winners to 30 unforced, while Nadal hit 15 winners to 27 unforced. This is just his fourth win over Nadal on clay, having lost 13 matches coming into the match. He put any injury concerns behind him this week and proved he was in form. Against Nadal it looked like the muscle memory from their last 40 encounters kicked in. His offense and ability to control points against Nadal is second to no one. This is another win that will get into Nadal's head.

So we head to Paris with some questions about Rafael Nadal, whose sole European clay title came via retirement at the Madrid Open. He's been thoroughly outplayed by Djokovic twice this season -- first in the Miami final which he lost 6-3, 6-3, and now today, during which Djokovic started slow before finishing with the same two-set scoreline. It's clear that Nadal is having issues with his serve. He's struggled to serve out sets and matches this week, and he was broken at a more frequent rate than ever in a best-of-three tournament. Mentally he's still struggling to assert himself when he gets backed in a corner. Can he fix it all in a week?

12:35 p.m. ET | Djokovic holds, leads 5-3*.

Djokovic stamps out hope for Nadal with a clean love hold. Nadal will serve to stay in the match. This crowd is so pro-Djokovic that you might want to tack a vowel onto his last name.

12:32 p.m. ET | Djokovic breaks back, leads *4-3.

Sure enough, Djokovic gets broken. At 15-0 he sends a backhand well long. At 15-all he hits a backhand pass that should be a winner against everyone else, but Nadal hits a fantastic low volley for the winner. Then at 15-30, Djokovic hits a weak approach and Nadal makes him pay. With break point, Nadal hits a backhand pass off his shoelaces that Djokovic has to pop up, and Nadal goes right at Djokovic for the winner.

You saw that coming. Rafa stepped it up. If Djokovic goes on to lose this he will see that missed backhand return winner on break point for a 3-0 lead in his nightmares.

But Nadal can't take advantage of the rapid shift in momentum. He has an easy forehand at 0-15 and misses it badly, then a netcord pops a shot wide to give Djokovic three break points at 0-40. He converts on the second one, as Nadal sends a backhand long.

I saw Nadal's break coming. I didn't see this one coming.

12:23 p.m. ET | Nadal holds, trails *3-2.

Djokovic builds to 40-love, and then Nadal unleashes a monster return. "That's a howitzer!" says Robbie Koenig. But Djokovic holds at 30. Good response after squandering those two break points.

Nadal comes back with a good hold, the best he's had in the last hour. He's been more aggressive, fighting for better court positioning and taking his big cuts at the precisely right time. On game point he fires a backhand pass for a winner and throws up a big fistpump. That's the energy we need to see from him, and that's what he has to send to Djokovic. He's upped his level in the last 10 minutes.

Big service game for Djokovic here.

12:14 p.m. ET | Nadal holds, trails *2-1.

More of the same for Djokovic which is bad news for Nadal. On break point Nadal thinks he's saved it with an ace, but Carlos Bernardes checks the mark and it's called out. Nadal sends a backhand out and Djokovic gets the early break.

I've been surprised by the lack of outward fight from Nadal over the last hour. In his quarterfinal he was fist-pumping and trying to get himself going after standard points when he was down in the scoreline. He's been pretty silent since taking that first set.

Djokovic holds easily for a 2-0 lead.

Nadal has game point to get on the board, but Djokovic saves it with, once again, big aggressive hitting from the baseline to earn a short ball and put it away. The Serb gets another break point but Nadal is able to save it. At deuce Djokovic sends a backhand return long. Nadal is trying to get back to his aggressive stance but he's lost his forehand. He gets a midcourt ball and moves into it, but sprays the forehand wide for not the first time this game.

At deuce he does connect with his forehand to hit just his ninth winner of the match, but we're back to deuce as Novak cracks a casual return winner. Djokovic saves it with a good second serve return that lands deep in the court and then takes control to finish at the net.

This is now a nine-minute game as Djokovic can't convert another break point chance, sending a return just wide. He thought he had that one all lined up.

Nadal finally holds with a nice 1-2 punch off a wide swinging serve. This was a huge hold for him to stay just one break down. Saved two break points to stay alive.

Novak Djokovic forced a deciding third set against Rafael Nadal. (Julian Finney/Getty Images) Novak Djokovic forced a deciding third set against Rafael Nadal. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Second Set

11:52 a.m. ET | Novak Djokovic wins the second set 6-3.

Djokovic is making it looks so easy against Nadal now. As Nadal serves to stay in the set, Djokovic rolls two forehands into the middle of the court before pasting a forehand down the line for a winner. Nadal doesn't even make a move for it. He's lost his read on Novak's game at the moment and the Serb is teeing off.

Nadal does well to hold and force Djokovic to serve it out. He does it with an ace. Going three.

We've got a complete flip on the statsheet in the second set. Nadal went from winning 75 percent of his second serve points to winning just 29 percent of them in the second, while Djokovic went from 33 percent to 69 percent. Djokovic also cleaned up his game, hitting 18 winners to 8 unforced errors. He hit 17 unforced in the first set.

On the whole this is still a concerning stat for Nadal: Through two sets he's hit seven winners. He just can't hit through Djokovic.

11:41 a.m. ET | Djokovic breaks, leads 5-2*.

Nadal can't sustain any momentum from the break and gives it right back with a double-fault on break point. This was a fantastic rebound game for Djokovic after the previous disaster. He's still going for his big shots while playing some great defense. For the last 30 minutes he's been in complete control of the match. Even when he got broken, it was because of his own mistakes.

Nadal is starting to put too much air under the ball, and he's still stuck way too far behind the baseline. Djokovic consolidates at love.

11:34 a.m. ET | Nadal breaks, trails 3-2*.

Nadal stops the bleeding and gets on the board with a hold at 30. Djokovic looks on his way to an easy love hold but it all falls apart. The errors come flying off his racket -- either by shank or tightness -- and he loses five straight points to give back the break. What a shocking string of points from the Serb. He sails a forehand well long on break point and stares angrily at his box with hands on hips. Nadal was steady, but that was a pure gift of a game.

I should also mention that as Djokovic stepped to the line on break point a baby started crying. He backed off the line, exasperated. Better get used to it, Novak. Your finacee is expecting!

11:22 a.m. ET | Djokovic breaks, leads 3-0*.

The first six points go to Djokovic as he holds at love and earns 0-30 on Nadal's first service game of the set. A fantastic flick angled backhand from the baseline earns him a break point at 30-40 and he breaks with a lunging forehand passing shot. Like I said, Djokovic finished the first set playing the right way, he just spotted Nadal too big of a lead. Now starting to reap the rewards of his offensive adjustment.

Djokovic consolidates with love, punctuating it all with a feathered drop shot that Nadal doesn't bother to chase down. The tables have turned. By my count, that's 12 of the first 14 points of the set to Djokovic.

Rafael Nadal (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images) Rafael Nadal won 75 percent of his second-serve points in the first set. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

First Set

11:08 a.m. ET | Rafael Nadal wins the first set 6-4. 

Incredible get from Nadal at 15-all! Djokovic looks to have hit a winner into Nadal's forehand corner and the Spaniard tracks it down and not only gets it back but curls it down the line to earn the point. That was Nadal's trademark defense-to-offense on full display.

Rafa holds easily at 15 to close it out for a one set lead. The winner of the first set has won their last 10 matches. That's the first set Nadal has won off Djokovic in the last four matches.

A quick look at the stats shows Nadal hit 4 winners to 8 unforced while Djokovic hit 11 winners to 17 unforced. Nadal was also more efficient on break points, going 2 for 4 compared to Djokovic's 1 for 5. But the most glaring statistic? Nadal is winning 75 percent of his second serve points (Djokovic is winning 33 percent). That's astronomical for Nadal particularly against such a good returner.

11:02 a.m. ET | Djokovic holds, trails *5-4. 

A continued charge from Djokovic, who seems to have snapped out of his funk after falling behind 1-4. He's standing on the baseline now and  Nadal is sliding around and playing defense six feet behind the baseline. Djokovic earns triple break point again for the second straight game, but this time Nadal saves all three. Djokovic pulling a trick out of the Serena Williams handbook and motions for himself to calm down. He overhits three-straight shots to let Nadal off the hook. The Spaniard holds to 5-3.

Tennis commentator Robbie Koenig with a great statistic:

Djokovic holds at love and Nadal will serve for the set. He may not be able to claw himself back in this set but Djokovic has made the right adjustments. He's basically standing on the baseline or inside the court for most of the rallies now.

10:52 a.m. ET | Djokovic breaks, trails *4-3. 

Djokovic mounts a comeback. Another lucky netcord and Djokovic has three break points. On the first he unwisely pulls the ripcord on a bad drop shot that lands softly in the net. Had a chance to take a big forehand down the line there but opted to let Nadal off the hook and go cross court. But he converts his second break point of the match as a good deep backhand lands in Nadal's corner and Rafa can only put it in the net.

Djokovic calmly consolidates his break with an easy hold. See kids? Sometimes breaking a racket is a good thing.

10:45 a.m. ET | Nadal breaks again, leads *4-1.

Crazy stat: This is the 10th year in a row that either Nadal or Djokovic will win the Italian Open. The Kings of Clay, clearly.

Djokovic motions to his box, which includes both Marian Vajda and Boris Becker this week, that the wind is swirling. Both guys are hitting cleanly so far but it's Nadal who is holding his position on the baseline and taking control of the point. Nadal consolidates his break easily. He hasn't lost a point on his second serve yet.

More trouble for Djokovic. He's broken at 15. This set is going away from him quickly. Just too many errors and letting Nadal maintain control.  He slams his racket against the bench in anger.

10:36 a.m. ET | Nadal breaks, leads *2-1.

Djokovic holds at 30. The wind is swirling more than expected given how still it is around the grounds, and the two are throwing in a few surprising shanks to start. Nadal showing some good aggression at 30-love on his service game, pulling Djokovic wide to his backhand side to earn a cross-court reply, and then he steps into the court to cut off the angle and slam it down the line. That's a good sign of his positive mindset.

Nadal builds to 40-love but Djokovic gets it back to deuce thanks to a lucky netcord. He puts a backhand return into the middle of the net though and Nadal eventually holds.

Trouble for Djokovic though, as he falls behind 0-40 quickly. He saves two break points, one with some fantastic defense and a leaping backhand overhead smash. Watch it below:

But at 30-40 Djokovic can't save another break point. Nadal is pounding his forehand down the line with confidence and he earns the first break of the match.

10:19 a.m. ET | Warm-up

It's a beautiful day in Rome, the nicest one we've had this week. Slight wind swirling as it usually does inside the Foro Italico's Court Centrale, but nothing as bad as what these two have had to deal with throughout the week. The men are on court -- Nadal in his Superman blue and Djokovic in his familiar Uniqlo monochrome -- and you can feel the anticipation for this match.

Nadal needs this win to erase the memory of their last match, a 6-3, 6-3 shellacking by Djokovic in the Sony Open final this spring. The poor performance from Nadal came out of nowhere given how dominant he looked throughout the tournament and both he and Djokovic came in rested after getting walkovers in the semifinals. I think that loss, more than his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final, set Nadal's confidence into a tailspin. He looked scratchy through his first two matches here but his three-set comeback win over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals seems to have set him back on the right path.

Djokovic meanwhile has had his struggles through the clay season mainly due to injury, and he too hasn't been his dominant form this week. He needed three sets to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer, and Milos Raonic. But Djokovic is playing for a bigger cause this week. With the disastrous flooding back home in Serbia, Djokovic is doing everything in his power to bring attention to the crisis and to give his countrymen something small to cheer about. Few player better under such circumstances than Djokovic.

It's a tough one to call but I'm giving the edge to Nadal. I think Murray woke the beast two nights ago and he wants desperately to put his stamp down before going into the French Open.

Djokovic won the toss and elected to serve. Ready? Play.

Pre-match

No. 1 Rafael Nadal will play No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the final of the Italian Open. This is the second time the top two men's players have met this season -- Djokovic beat Nadal in the final of the Sony Open in Miami -- and the 41st time they've played in their careers, an Open Era record. The match will be televised by Tennis Channel and on ESPN3, and will not start before 10 a.m. ET.

To reach the finals, Nadal overcame a 6-1 loss in the first set of the quarterfinals to beat Andy Murray 1-6, 6-3, 7-5, and then had little trouble dropping Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals. He goes into this final looking to win his third-straight title, and his eighth title overall at the Italian Open. Nadal has only lost in the finals in Rome once -- to Djokovic in 2011.

Djokovic faced tough opposition from No. 5-seed David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and No. 8-seed Milos Raonic in the semifinals. Both Ferrer and Raonic pushed the Serb to three sets, and Djokovic needed over three hours to drop Raonic 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-3 on Saturday. This is Djokovic's first tournament back from taking time off to heal a wrist injury, which hasn't appeared to affect him at all this tournament.

Nadal leads their career head-to-head record 22-18, and while Djokovic has won their last three meetings, Nadal most recently beat Djokovic on clay -- a five-set thriller in the semifinals of the 2013 French Open.

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