Rafael Nadal celebrates his win. (Reuters)
Rafael Nadal celebrates his win. (Reuters)

Rafael Nadal cruises into Rome final with win over Reilly Opelka

  • Nadal kept his time on court to a minimum by ending the surprising clay-court run of big-serving American Reilly Opelka by 6-4, 6-4.
AP | , Rome
PUBLISHED ON MAY 15, 2021 10:52 PM IST

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had starkly different days at the Italian Open on Saturday. Djokovic regained his cool after throwing his racket off the court in a grueling, rain-delayed quarterfinal victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas by 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, then was to play his semifinal later against local favorite Lorenzo Sonego in the second match of the day for both players.

“I haven’t played too many matches this year, so I don’t feel too exhausted,” Djokovic said. “I’m pumped to get another win today.”

Nadal, meanwhile, kept his time on court to a minimum by ending the surprising clay-court run of big-serving American Reilly Opelka by 6-4, 6-4. The 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Opelka hadn’t dropped a set this week and threatened early against Nadal with a series of huge forehands. But Nadal saved four break points in the fourth game of the match then broke in the next game to take control and move within one victory of a record-extending 10th title at the Foro Italico.

The women’s final will feature French Open champion Iga Swiatek against 2019 Rome champion Karolina Pliskova. Swiatek also had to play twice on Saturday. First, she eliminated two-time Rome champion Elina Svitolina 6-2, 7-5 then she beat 17-year-old Coco Gauff 7-6 (3), 6-3. Pliskova reached her third consecutive Rome final by outlasting Petra Martic 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

Djokovic fought back from breaks of his serve in each of the final two sets to reach his eighth consecutive semifinal in Rome, where he has lifted the trophy five times, most recently last September when the tournament was moved to later in the year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m just really, really glad to overcome this challenge,” Djokovic said. "It’s probably the toughest match of the year for me so far.”

Sonego was backed by a loud crowd when he rallied past seventh-ranked Andrey Rublev 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 to reach his first Masters semifinal. Their match was washed out Friday. Fans were allowed to fill 25% of capacity as part of the Italian government’s reopening plan. It was Sonego’s second consecutive win over a top-10 player, after also eliminating No. 4 Dominic Thiem. The Italian routed Djokovic 6-2, 6-1 in their only previous meeting, in Vienna last year.

The Djokovic-Tsitsipas match began on Friday but was suspended overnight with Tsitsipas leading 2-1 with a break in the second set — with play having already been interrupted for 3½ hours due to the intermittent rain.

“It kind of felt like we played two matches,” Djokovic said. “Completely different conditions today; ball bouncing a bit more, coming to you. Yesterday it was really slow and muddy on the court.”

Djokovic also went the distance to beat Tsitsipas in five sets in last year’s French Open semifinals. This year's French Open starts in two weeks and Djokovic, who has had a difficult start to the clay-court season, appeared frustrated at times with his game.

Facing a break point early in the third set, Djokovic attempted a difficult drop shot that landed on top of the net cord and agonizingly bounced back into his side of the court — handing Tsitsipas a 2-1 lead.

Djokovic reacted by throwing his racket angrily into the advertising boards lining the side of the court, which drew a code violation warning for unsportsmanlike conduct. Djokovic’s temper was also an issue during his second-round match this week against Taylor Fritz, when he fumed at the umpire for not stopping play soon enough due to rain.

Last year, Djokovic was disqualified from the U.S. Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball. Djokovic’s behavior once again drew attention away from his exquisite play and court coverage — which was effective even on points he lost.

During one particularly long rally, Tsitsipas ran down a drop shot then retreated to the baseline and eventually unleashed a powerful one-handed backhand down the line, to which Djokovic’s forehand reply sailed long. That gave Tsitsipas a break of Djokovic’s serve for a 5-4 lead in the third.

But Tsitsipas was left bent over, with one hand on his knee and the other leaning on his racket, which was resting on the clay. Clearly exhausted, Tsitsipas couldn’t then serve out the match. Djokovic quickly took advantage and won three straight games to end it after 3 hours, 16 minutes of play over two days.

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