Rafael Nadal (right) and Novak Djokovic have played in nine finals since the start of 2011, with Nadal winning the latest at the Italian Open. (Getty Images)
ROME -- Assorted thoughts from the Italian Open finals, where rain kept us on our toes for an extra day as the final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was pushed back after the Maria Sharapova-Li Na slug-fest was delayed several times.
Nadal doesn't have a Djokovic problem: Nadal finally got off the schneid of seven straight losses to the Serb in Monte Carlo when he beat Djokovic in straight sets at the year’s first clay Masters event. But the true test came in Rome, where the two came into the final healthy (mentally and physically) and in fine form. Nadal looked lethal against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, playing his best match on clay all year, and Djokovic had just dismantled Roger Federer 6-2, 7-6 (4) in the semifinals. Despite a bad serving day (Nadal landed a meager 56 percent of his first serves), Rafa was noticeably more aggressive on the ground, hitting his forehand with brutal force.
He looked clear in both plan and purpose this afternoon as he notched his second straight win over the No. 1, 7-5, 6-3 to earn his sixth title in Rome. Of course, this doesn't mean he's completely solved Djokovic's game. The Serb threw in some horrendous errors at key points in the match (finishing with 41 total unforced errors), and the first set really could have gone either way. But so much of the dialogue surrounding their rivalry in 2011 centered on the mental aspect of Nadal's losing streak and he's shaken those doubts and frustrations away in 2012. With those distractions out of the way, Rafa seems more able to just focus on forehands and backhands now and shift the pressure back to Djokovic.
Sharapova will need some help: Sharapova and Serena Williams have split the big clay titles this season, with Sharapova winning Stuttgart and Rome and Serena taking Charleston and Madrid. Azarenka, meanwhile, made it to two finals (Stuttgart, Madrid) and lost each one to one of the WTA's Queen Bees. But one thing sets Sharapova apart: She won the title that's played in conditions similar to Roland Garros. So that should make her the front-runner for Roland Garros, right? Not so much. Sharapova eked out the title here after Li collapsed, and she was able to win without facing a top five player.
Her fighting spirit is still firmly intact. Another thing we learned this week: Sharapova is the single best competitor out there -- and yes, I think she's more competitive than Serena -- but that's not going to be enough against a top-heavy field that’s finally showing some consistency. Sharapova is in a great position to finally complete her career Slam in Paris, but she's going to need some help from the draw and the field to win the French Open.
Li needs to get out of her own way: Li can still play exhilarating tennis. This was a welcome reminder. We've spent months practically ignoring Li as she failed to challenge for titles after her memorable collapse in Melbourne to Kim Clijsters, where she blew four match points to lose. While her early round matches weren't particularly impressive, her form for 90 percent of the final against Sharapova was. As Li whipped cross-court winners from the corners and changed the direction on the ball with ease, she made Sharapova revert to the "Cow on Ice" she famously proclaimed herself to be.
But then, two games from what would be a statement win and her first title since Roland Garros last year, Li suddenly and inexplicably lost her way, spraying balls as effortlessly as she had been hitting winners. These mental lapses have plagued her all year, almost in every single match where even a straight set win is an adventure. She's aware of it and she's trying to fight it, but as she told me in Rome, there's no drill or exercise to help you fix your brain. Forehands and backhands aren't the problem for her, as she showed in the final. Li knows her mental walkabouts are a problem. "It's killing me," she conceded.
Don't worry about Djokovic: So long has as he re-learns how to hit an overhead smash (his two shanks in the Rome final should be on a blooper reel), I'm not too worried about Djokovic heading into Paris. He made the finals of Monte Carlo with a heavy heart (after his grandfather passed, many thought he’d be well justified to withdraw) and the finals of Rome, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer along the way. This finale was as much his as Rafa's in the first set, and as he said in his post-match press conference, their matches are always tight and usually decided on by a few points. In Rome, Nadal won those points (or Djokovic choked those points depending on your view), and Djokovic didn't seem too disappointed after the match. He's happy with his preparation, he hasn't over-prepared, and as far as we know he hasn't picked up any serious injuries as he goes for the "Djoko Slam" in Paris.