As the defense of his French Open title draws closer, Novak Djokovic continues to progress smoothly in Rome. After starting the clay-court season without the stamina to last even a three-set match, he ends his final ATP event by softly kicking the ball. With a composed and dominant performance, Djokovic reached the Italian Open final beating fifth-seeded Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-3.
The victory marks Djokovic’s 1000th career win, a milestone reached only by Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl and Rafael Nadal. Rome will be his first Masters 1000 final since Paris in November. He did so without dropping a set, beating 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 third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final, who recovered from a set down to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 beating former 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 serving for both sets but recovered impressively, he entered the semi-finals full of confidence.
From the start he was dominant, serving at an extremely high level and hitting the ball cleanly from the top of the baseline. He dictated Ruud for much of the first set while anticipating brilliantly from defensive positions. Djokovic broke Ruud’s serve in the opener before repeating the feat to take a 4-0 lead.
But at 5-1, on Ruud’s serve, a fire alarm sounded in the stadium. After a brief break, the game turned around, with Ruud starting 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 the set on the second request.
Ruud came into the second set on much more even terms and he ran with it, holding serve firmly in his first three games. Djokovic made his move in game seven, securing the break after a long two-man game, then finished as he started, coming through the final games to seal the victory while looking like a man looking for a 21st major title in the coming weeks.
Earlier today, Tsitsipas continued his own high-class clay-court season by reaching his second final after winning in Monte Carlo in April. Despite his excellent results, which also include a semi-final last week in Madrid, Tsitsipas has rarely played the cleanest version of his game this year. Rather, he showed his growing maturity, formidable composure and competitive instincts, applying himself to every point and navigating the tense moments well. While 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 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 out for me after two sets to love at Roland Garros,” Tsitsipas said. “I guess I’ve always been pretty stubborn, I didn’t want to change, because so far it worked for me, which led to me being two sets to love. There’s always one more game where maybe I can do something different.
The biggest question before the day of the Italian Open finals, meanwhile, is identical to the start of the clay-court season and remains unanswered: who exactly can beat Iga Swiatek? So far, it’s been an increasingly difficult challenge. On Saturday yesterday, third-seeded Aryna Sabalenka stood in front of Swiatek and shot the world No. 1 in the semi-finals of this tournament. She left with three games under her belt as Swiatek methodically singled her out, easily beating her opponent 6-2, 6-1.
With his 27th straight win, Swiatek has now beaten seven Top 10 players in that span and has dropped just one set since mid-March. The gap between her and the terrain is the size of a canyon and it’s only getting wider.
Against one of the most powerful players in the world, Swiatek was comfortably the aggressor throughout. She continually dragged Sabalenka off the field with her heavy spin, she hit her backhand extremely well, and her elite defense absorbed much of Sabalenka’s attack, constantly allowing Swiatek to counter.
Swiatek also continues to return at a supreme level, earning an absurd 71% first-serve return points against one of the toughest first serves in the world.
Despite the way she bulldozed her opponents, Swiatek wasn’t entirely happy with her recent form, highlighting her level up and down in matches as she continues to adapt to clay. In the past, when she was significantly better on clay, moving to her favorite surface would be a huge relief. Now that the gap between tough and clay is much smaller, she has to adjust her relationship with him.
“I felt a little different [than in previous matches] because I think my level of concentration was consistent throughout the game. Maybe in the second set I was more fragile at the end.
“I’m quite happy to have learned the lessons from previous matches. In previous matches, I felt like I was letting my opponents come back into the game a bit. This time I wanted to put pressure on my opponent from start to finish,” she said.
The phenomenal race continues. Swiatek, who beat Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-0 in the Rome final last year, will face No.9 seed Ons Jabeur this time around. While people continually speak in awe of Swiatek’s run and express their admiration for her, she says she hasn’t had time to sit down and reflect on her accomplishments. It will only come once they are finished.
“On these tournaments where we play day in and day out, we don’t really have time to celebrate,” she said. “Right after finishing the previous game, we have to think about the next one. Its pretty hard. But I know that after [the tournament] I will be really proud of myself. Of course, I will have time to reflect on what I have done. I constantly surprise myself that I can do better and better. I feel like I can actually believe now that the sky’s the limit. This is the most fun part, for sure.