Rafael Nadal won his record fourth Rome Masters title on Sunday, beating defending champion Novak Djokovic 7-6 (2), 6-2.
It’s the third clay-court title in three weeks for the top-ranked Spaniard, following victories at the Monte Carlo Masters and the Barcelona Open.
Nadal extended his winning streak on clay to 30 matches, stretching back to an opening-round loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome last year.
By failing to defend his title, Djokovic will lose the No 3 ranking to Andy Murray on May 11, when last year’s points drop out. The 21-year-old Serb has been No 3 since August 2007.
Nadal broke an Open Era tie with Thomas Muster, who won three Rome titles in 1990, 1995 and 1996. Jaroslav Drobny and Martin Mulligan also each won three titles before the Open Era.
Chris Evert holds the women’s record at the Foro Italico with five titles.
Rome is a key warmup for the French Open, which begins in three weeks with Nadal the four-time defending champion.
Nadal broke serve in the opening game of the match but Djokovic had his chances in the first set before losing control for good in the tiebreaker, sending a weak backhand drop-shot attempt into the net on Nadal’s third set point.
Djokovic then double faulted to hand Nadal a 4-2 lead in the second set.
The match was a far cry from the Monte Carlo final two weeks ago, when Djokovic became the only player to take a set from Nadal on clay this year.
The match was played in alternating conditions, with wind swirling around inside the stadium when the sun disappeared for periods behind clouds.
Djokovic started off with a series of errors as he tried to flatten out his groundstrokes and go for winners to end rallies early. As the match wore on, he waited longer in rallies before going for winners with approach shots to the corners.
Still, Djokovic appeared unsure of his tactics at times. On one occasion in the first set, he attempted a serve-and-volley, but then retreated and watched Nadal’s winner sail by him, out of reach.
Nadal uncharacteristically missed a few forehands at the end of the first set to let Djokovic pull even at 5-5, but Djokovic then missed a routine backhand into the net to drop his serve again and smashed his racket onto the clay, drawing a racket abuse warning from the chair umpire.
Nadal improved his Rome record to 22-1. His won his first two titles at the Foro Italico in 2005 and 2006 with epic 5-hour victories over Guillermo Coria and Roger Federer, respectively, then beat Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets in 2007.
Nadal improved his tour-best record to 38-3 this year, winning five of the eight tournaments he’s entered.
It was Nadal’s 15th Masters Series title, one more than Roger Federer and two shy of Andre Agassi’s record of 17.