Rafa Nadal will not have long to dwell on his defeat against Novak Djokovic in last Sunday's final at the Madrid Masters; the world number one takes to the court in Rome today as he seeks to defend the title he has won five times in six years. On the other side of the net will be Poalo Lorenzi, who pulled off something of a shock on Tuesday by beating Madrid semifinalist Tomaz Bellucci.
Nadal, who had not been beaten on clay since a fourth-round loss to Robin Söderling at the 2009 French Open, cut a fatalistic figure in the wake of only his seventh defeat on the surface since 2005. In that period, the Spaniard has won 206 clay-court encounters and was on a 37-match winning streak when Djokovic announced his arrival as a serious contender for the Roland Garros crown with a display the Serb described as "the best match of my life on clay."
Seeded one and two in Rome, Nadal and Djokovic may well square up again later this week in the final Masters before the Parisian showpiece brings the curtain down on the European slow-court season. Nadal has five French titles to his name, one short of Björn Borg's record of six. Djokovic is unbeaten in 2011, winning all 32 matches he has contested- but Nadal is still the man to defeat in Paris. "Can Djokovic beat Nadal on clay in five sets? I doubt it," Mats Wilander, a three-times French Open champion, said in an interview last week. "Can he beat Rafa in any five-set match? I doubt that too."
Roger Federer, the only player to win in Paris since Nadal's emergence when he took advantage of Söderling's favor in 2009, beating the Swede in the final, identified the Madrid courts as one of the keys to Djokovic's triumph: "It was surprising to see Rafa lose on clay but it was just one tournament, and it was a quick clay court so he had a better chance of beating Rafa," said the Swiss.
"There are no secrets; things came together for me," Djokovic, who will become world number one this week if he wins in Rome and Nadal fails to reach the semifinals, said on Monday. "I am a more mature player and a more mature person, so I know what to do on court. As does Nadal: "If I lose the number one ranking, it's not the end of the world," he said after Madrid. "I'll try to work hard and I'll try to beat him."
Djokovic, meanwhile, goes into the Rome tournament as a player on the verge of bringing about the fall of a one-man empire.