Rafael Nadal showed Novak Djokovic he's still the man to beat on clay, beating the top-ranked Serb 7-5, 6-3 Monday in a rain-delayed final to win his record sixth Italian Open title.
After losing to Djokovic in seven straight finals — including in Rome last year — Nadal has now won two in a row against the Serb after also taking the Monte Carlo Masters title on clay. With the French Open starting Sunday, though, both players said they have room for improvement.
"I don't think I played that well, I can do better," Nadal said. "When you are not serving 100 percent perfect then you are in trouble because he returns hard. I am trying to play more aggressive and I am hitting the ball better than last year."
Djokovic, who said he was emotionally drained in Monte Carlo after the death of his grandfather, made 41 unforced errors in this match, including a double-fault on the last point to give Nadal his 49th career title and his 35th on clay.
Nadal did not drop a set all tournament to clinch his third Italian Open victory in four years, with his winning streak interrupted last year by Djokovic.
"He is always the favorite even if I win against him seven times," Djokovic said. "He is the best player in the world on this surface and the two wins I had gave me confidence and I think that the match today was quite close . even if he won in straight sets.
Djokovic played well at the start but the turning point came midway through the 10th game when a line judge called the Serbian's shot out. The umpire overruled the decision, but Nadal won the replayed point and then held his serve to make it 5-5.
The win moved Nadal back to No. 2 in the rankings, ahead of Roger Federer, and could go some way toward boosting his confidence ahead of Roland Garros. He acknowledged last year that Djokovic had a mental advantage over him after all those losses.
"You need to accept your losses because this is a game and in this sport you will always lose, but it is normal that you lose and you need to be patient to wait for your moment," Nadal said. "I accept my losses and try to keep being competitive. You win a few points and you lose a few and you can lose a match. Today I won and that's the difference. You don't need to find great things — it is the small things that make the difference."
Nadal is a six-time champion at Roland Garros, while Djokovic will be looking for his first title there. He currently holds the other three Grand Slam titles, having beaten Nadal in the finals of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Australian Open.
"I cannot say that thought is not present, it's there," Djokovic said. "I am going and preparing for a Grand Slam as I prepare for any other big event, with more focus. It's two weeks long and the most important tournament and we always want to deliver out best game.
"I feel good on the court and I need to make a few adjustments before Paris but I'll be in top form."
Monday's match was the first time the same two players competed in back-to-back finals since the tournament began in 1930.
Nadal broke first in the fifth game of the first set but Djokovic broke back when the Spaniard hit a forehand into the net.
Djokovic appeared to be in control of the match, holding to love, while Nadal was struggling with his serve, only landing 48 percent of his first attempts.
However, Djokovic appeared to be affected after a long rally ended with the overturned line call. Had the Serb won the point, it would have given him two break points.
But Nadal held and then broke in the next game, drawing Djokovic to the net before sending a sharp volley past him.
Djokovic was so angered that he smashed his racket against a net post and was given a warning.
Nadal took the first set with the second of three set points after Djokovic hit long. And the Serbian was immediately broken again in the second set as Nadal took firm control of the match.