By Terry Daley
ROME May 18 Novak Djokovic came from a set down to beat Rafael Nadal for the fourth time in a row and claim his third Italian Open title with an impressive 4-6 6-3 6-3 victory in Rome on Sunday.
World number two Djokovic was broken twice in the first set as Nadal moved towards an eighth Rome title but he came roaring back to dominate the defending champion thereafter.
The Serb finished the match with a flurry of winners, taking 12 of the last 15 points to leave his Spanish rival reeling.
Defeat for Nadal was his third on clay in the season - the first time that has happened in a decade - and raised questions about his form ahead of the French Open which starts next Sunday and where he will be seeking a ninth title.
Djokovic will arrive at Roland Garros on a high after collecting the 44th title of his career to draw level with former French Open champion Thomas Muster.
He has also established something of a psychological hold over Nadal, winning eight of the previous nine sets he has played against the Mallorcan king of clay.
Nadal at Roland Garros is a different proposition altogether but Djokovic will arrive in the French capital arguably favourite to win the only grand slam to elude him after the way he dismantled his rival at the Foro Italico on Sunday.
Nadal has dominated in Rome over the last decade and looked in no mood to surrender his title, breaking twice in the first five games to lead the first set 4-1 as he showed no sign of fatigue having spent 10 hours on court to reach the final.
Djokovic instantly broke back and then had a chance to level the set with another break in game eight when he moved 0-40 ahead but Nadal held firm.
Djokovic raced out of the blocks in the second set, breaking for a 2-0 lead with a rifled forehand winner and held for 3-0.
Some forehand errors from the Djokovic racket allowed Nadal to battle back to 2-3 but a double fault gifted the world No.2 another break and this time there was no way back as the 41st meeting between the players went to a decider.
Dominating the baseline exchanges with power and accuracy Djokovic grabbed the initiative early in the third set and could have moved a double break ahead but for some typically gutsy defiance by the Spaniard.
Nadal then clawed his way back to 3-3 courtesy of a poor Djokovic drop shot but just when it looked as though he was winding up for a big finish the match was snatched from his grasp with a burst of scintillating play by Djokovic.
After breaking for 4-3, Djokovic rattled through his own service game in little more than a minute and then moved 15-40 ahead as Nadal served to stay alive.
One match point went begging but Nadal wafted a groundstroke long on the next point to surrender his title. (Reporting by Terry Daley; editing by Martyn Herman)