With the defence of his French Open title inching closer, Novak Djokovic continues to make smooth progress in Rome. After starting the clay court season without the stamina to even last a three-set match, he is ending its final ATP event striking the ball sweetly. Thanks to a composed and dominant performance, Djokovic reached the final of the Italian Open by defeating Casper Ruud, the fifth seed, 6-4, 6-3.
The victory marks Djokovic’s 1000th career win, a milestone achieved only by Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl and Rafael Nadal. Rome will be his first Masters 1000 final since Paris in November. He has done so without dropping a set, defeating his first two Top 10 opponents of the year, No 10 Ruud and No 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, in back to back matches.
Djokovic will face Stefanos Tsitsipas, the third seed, in the final, who recovered from a set down to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 beat his old rival Alexander Zverev, the second seed, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
After Friday night’s encounter with Auger-Aliassime, in which Djokovic was broken while serving for both sets but recovered impressively, he arrived in the semi-final filled with confidence.
From the beginning, he was dominant, serving at an extremely high level and striking the ball cleanly from on top of the baseline. He dictated Ruud for much of the opening set while anticipating brilliantly from defensive positions. Djokovic broke Ruud’s serve in the opening game before repeating the feat to breeze to a 4-0 lead.
But at 5-1, on Ruud’s serve, a fire alarm rang out in the stadium. After a brief pause, the match shifted, with Ruud beginning to impose his heavy forehand from inside the baseline as the crowd, cheering for the Norwegian, briefly irritated Djokovic. After losing his serve, Djokovic served out the set at the second time of asking.
Ruud entered the second set on far more equal terms and he ran with it, firmly holding serve in his first three games. Djokovic made his move in the seventh game,securing the break after a long deuce game, and then ended as he started, breezing through the final games to seal victory while looking like a man hunting a 21st major title in the coming weeks.
Earlier in the day, Tsitsipas continued his own high class clay court season by reaching his second final after his Monte Carlo victory in April. Despite his great results, which also include a semi-final last week in Madrid, Tsitsipas has rarely played the cleanest version of his game this year. He has rather shown his growing maturity, tremendous composure and competitive instincts, applying himself for every point and navigating the tense moments well. As Tsitsipas remained solid, Zverev’s second serve and forehand crumbled under pressure in the final two sets.
Tsitsipas is now second in the ATP race behind Nadal and as Djokovic looks to take another step up in his level, this rematch of last year’s French Open final is the perfect conclusion for both.
“There are things that didn’t work for me after two sets to love up in Roland Garros,” said Tsitsipas. “I guess I was always pretty stubborn, didn’t want to change, because so far it was working for me, the thing that led me to being two sets to love up. There’s always one more match where I can perhaps maybe do something different.”
The biggest question ahead of finals day at the Italian Open, meanwhile, is identical to the beginning of the clay-court season and it remains unanswered: who exactly can beat Iga Swiatek? So far, it is an increasingly difficult challenge. On SaturdayYesterday, Aryna Sabalenka, the third seed, stood before Swiatek and took a shot at the world No 1 in the semi-final of this tournament. She left with three games to her name as Swiatek methodically picked her apart, easily defeating her opponent 6-2, 6-1.
With her 27th win in a row, Swiatek has now defeated seven Top 10 players in this period and has dropped just one set since the middle of March. The gap between her and the field is the size of a canyon and it is only widening.
Against one of the most powerful players in the world, Swiatek was comfortably the aggressor throughout. She continually dragged Sabalenka off the court with her heavy spin, she struck her backhand extremely well and her elite defence soaked up so much of Sabalenka’s attack, constantly allowing Swiatek to counter.
Swiatek also continues to return at a supreme level, winning an absurd 71% of first-serve return points against one of the hardest first serves in the world.
Despite the way she has bulldozed her opponents, Swiatek had not been entirely content with her recent form, pointing out her up-and-down level in matches as she continues to adjust to the clay. In the past, when she used to be markedly better on clay, moving to her favourite surface would be a considerable relief. Now that the gap between hard and clay is much smaller, she has to adjust her relationship with it.
“I felt a little bit differently [than in previous matches] because I think my level of focus was on a constant level throughout the whole match. Maybe in the second set I got more shaky at the end.
“I’m pretty happy that I learned the lessons on previous matches. On previous matches I felt like I’m kind of letting my opponents come back to the match a little bit. This time I wanted to put pressure on my opponent from the beginning until the end,” she said.
The phenomenal run continues. Swiatek, who defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 in last year’s Rome final, will face the No 9 seed Ons Jabeur this time. As people continually speak about Swiatek’s run in awe and express their admiration towards her, she says that she has not had time to sit back and think about her achievements. That will only come after they are done.
“On these tournaments where we play day after day, we don’t really get time to celebrate,” she says. “Right after we finish the previous match, we have to think about the next one. It’s pretty tough. But I know that after [the tournament] I’m going to be really proud of myself. For sure I’m going to have time to think about what I did. I’m just constantly surprising myself that I can do better and better. I feel like I actually can believe now that the sky’s the limit. That’s the fun part, for sure.”