Serbian world No.1 Novak Djokovic got a stern test from Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman but he pulled out a 6-3, 6-7 (2-7), 6-3 victory to advance to the Italian Open final.
The four-time Italian Open champion appeared to have the match fully under control when he won the first set in routine fashion on Saturday.
But Schwartzman struck back in the second set, stepping up his return game to earn two breaks of the world No.1’s serve, Efe news reported.
Although Djokovic managed to break back on both occasions and force a tiebreaker, the Argentine played some of his best tennis of the match to win the “breaker” easily and force a decider.
The 1.7-meter (5-foot-7) Schwartzman is known as one of the best counterpunchers on the ATP Tour, but on Saturday he consistently tried to take the initiative and also made effective use of the drop shot after pushing Djokovic out of position.
But even though the world No.1 had played into the wee hours of Saturday to defeat Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 in over three hours in the quarterfinals, a match in which he had to save two match points in the second-set tiebreaker, the Serbian still had enough left in the tank to overcome Schwartzman in the third set.
The final set was similar to the opening one, with Djokovic not facing a single break point and capitalizing on a key break-point opportunity in the sixth game.
Afterwards, Djokovic acknowledged that his opponent had made his life difficult on Centrale court.
“He came out with the right game plan. He was hitting the ball clean. He was hitting it fast. He was mixing up the pace. He was dropshot-ing really well. It was really hard to read the play,” Djokovic was quoted as saying on the ATP Tour’s Web site.
Next up for Djokovic in Sunday’s final will be Spanish world No.2 Rafael Nadal, who defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 in Saturday’s first semifinal. The Spanish great avenged a loss to the rising 20-year-old Greek star a week ago at the Madrid Open.
Djokovic, who won Madrid, had said prior to that final that he wanted to test his game against Nadal, widely regarded as the greatest clay-court player.
Tsitsipas spoiled those plans, but that chance will now come on Sunday.
“He keeps on showing to the world why he’s one of the biggest legends of tennis history,” Djokovic said of Nadal. “I have the greatest respect for him. He’s my greatest rival of all time, for sure… Every time we get to play each other, it’s a thrill. It’s the ultimate challenge.”
Djokovic leads their head-to-head 28-25; Nadal has a 16-7 advantage of clay, although the players have split their last 14 matches on that surface.
The match will be especially important to Nadal, who has reached his first clay-court final of the season and will now seek to win his first ATP Tour title since August 2018.
A win in Rome would also boost Nadal’s confidence ahead of the French Open, an event he has won a record 11 times.
In women’s semifinal action on Saturday at the Italian Open, Johanna Konta of the United Kingdom rallied past Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 and Czech Karolina Pliskova, the world No.7, defeated Greece’s Maria Sakkari 6-4, 6-4.