Rafael Nadal rekindled his rivalry with Novak Djokovic in Rome on Saturday, defeating the Serb 7-6 (4), 6-3 to reach a 10th career final in the Italian capital.
The Spaniard hadn’t faced off with Djokovic since he beat him en route to the Madrid title 12 months ago and their one-hour 56-minute showdown was a high-intensity affair throughout.
Nadal will reclaim the No. 1 ranking if he wins the final on Sunday. Otherwise, Federer will hold onto the top spot until at least June 24.
The Mallorcan faces either Marin Cilic or defending champion Alexander Zverev in the final.
Here are some of the main takeaways from Saturday’s 51st meeting between Nadal and Djokovic.
PROGRESS FOR DJOKOVIC
Djokovic has shown great progress this week in Rome, battling through tough situations, and slowly finding his inner warrior. His shot-making against Nadal was reminiscent of vintage Djokovic, at times, as he found his angles and showed the kind of all-court game that troubled his rivals for a decade.
Still at the most crucial moments, it was Nadal who had the upper hand, which is understandable considering Djokovic hasn’t competed at this level often in recent months.
The question remains whether Djokovic has indeed turned a corner or if this is just a good week that could be followed by not so good ones. Last year, he made the final in Rome, defeating Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem en route, and won the Eastbourne title a month later but still Djokovic wasn’t able to shake his doubts.
The most promising sign this time though, is how Djokovic pushed Nadal in some of those rallies, and how tight that opening set was. Djokovic finished the match with a +6 winners:unforced errors differential (26 winners, 20 unforced errors), compared to Nadal’s 22:14, landed 71 per cent of his first serves in and won 60 per cent of the points on his first serve, 61 per cent of those on his second.
PERFECT IN SEMIS
Nadal took his record in Rome semi-finals to 10-0, and will be gunning for an eighth title at the Foro Italico on Sunday.
FORM GOING UP, RANKING GOING DOWN
He may have a had a promising tournament, but Djokovic’s semi-final defeat to Nadal means he will drop out of the top-20 on Monday, which would be his lowest ranking since October 2006. Since he was unable to defend his runner-up points from Rome last year, Djokovic lost points in the Italian capital this week.
The Serb will have a low seeding at Roland Garros and all eyes will be on him to see where he lands in the draw (taking place on Thursday May 24) in Paris.
MASTER OF MASTERS
Nadal took sole ownership of the top spot on the leaderboard for most Masters 1000 match wins, pulling one match ahead of Roger Federer to record a 356th victory at that level (against 77 losses).
CLOSING THE GAP
Nadal narrowed Djokovic’s head-to-head advantage over him to improve his record against the Serb to 25-26. After beginning his rivalry 14-4 against Djokovic, Nadal has lost 11 of his last 14 matches against him.
THE LONG EXCHANGES
There were some signature Nadal-Djokovic rallies in Saturday’s semi-final but one stat that stands out is the fact that Nadal won 14 of the 20 rallies that had nine or more shots.
ANGRY DJOKOVIC IS A GOOD SIGN
Perhaps the most telling part of Saturday’s match was when Djokovic was yelling towards his box in frustration over losing that first-set tiebreak. When they switched ends at 3-all, Djokovic found himself having to deal with Nadal’s high topspin balls while standing against the direction of wind and his struggle to handle those balls brought out the rage inside of him.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Djokovic this engaged and fired up and it’s the most promising sign yet that better things are just around the corner for the ex-world No. 1.
Here’s what she said when I asked her about her finals record in Dubai. pic.twitter.com/dIVtP4wWVG
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 19, 2018
Nadal had beaten Fabio Fognini 4-6 6-1 6-2 earlier in the day to remain in the hunt for an eighth title in Rome and Djokovic joined his great rival in the last four after defeating Nishikori 2-6 6-1 6-3.
It is the first semi-final Djokovic has reached in a disappointing year for the Serbian following his return from injury.
Djokovic holds a 26-24 lead over Nadal in their head-to-head.
Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova positioned herself as a contender for Roland Garros by defeating reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarter-finals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.
The Russian went into last week’s Madrid Open on a four-match losing streak and ranked 52nd in the world but, after making the last eight there and Friday’s 6-7 (6/8) 6-4 7-5 victory, she will break back into the top 30 and be seeded for the French Open, which starts a week on Sunday.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) May 18, 2018
Sharapova is a two-time champion at Roland Garros and getting back on the clay has helped the 31-year-old rediscover some form of old.
This was a contest between two of the biggest hitters and feistiest competitors on tour, and in the opening stages it was Ostapenko who was firmly on top.
The Latvian powered her way into a 5-2 lead and held four set points but Sharapova dug in and reeled off four games in a row, only to miss the chance to serve out the set.
Ostapenko saved a set point to take the tie-break but could not quite maintain the same level in the second set, which Sharapova claimed to force a decider.
The Russian seemed in control at 5-2 but back came Ostapenko, a double fault costing Sharapova as she served for the match at 5-3. She then missed two match points in the next game as Ostapenko levelled at 5-5 but Sharapova was not to be denied, taking the next two games to reach the last four.
Defending champion Elina Svitolina was impressive earlier in a 6-4 6-4 victory over Angelique Kerber, winning the final four games of the first set.
.@MariaSharapova overcomes Ostapenko 6-7(6), 6-4, 7-5!
— WTA (@WTA) May 18, 2018
Karolina Pliskova has been fined a “four-digit amount” for smashing an umpire’s chair in Rome earlier this week.
The world number five was furious at a line call in the penultimate game of her defeat by Greek Maria Sakkari at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. After her smash was called out – and shown on TV replays to be inside the line – Pliskova pleaded with umpire Marta Mrozinska to over-rule but to no avail.
After Sakkari wrapped up victory, Pliskova initially held out her hand to Mrozinska only to withdraw it and smash her racket against the side of the umpire’s chair, creating a sizeable hole.
The WTA does not make its sanctions public, but Pliskova’s fiance and manager Michal Hrdlicka revealed on Twitter both that the 26-year-old had been fined and that she will donate the same amount to charity.
Hrdlicka wrote: “Karolina was fined by the WTA and accepted the fine. She has also decided to send the same amount from her endowment fund for a good cause. It’s a four-digit amount.”