World No. 1 Novak Djokovic survived an opening set scare against a surging Casper Ruud in the semifinals of Rome on Sunday afternoon, fighting off double set point with the Norwegian serving for the set at 5-4, 40-15, eventually moving though to the final of the Masters 1000 event, 7-5, 6-3.
Djokovic was originally down 5-3 in the first set but held for 5-4, then got out of trouble on both set points—including hitting a flawless backhand drop shot winner on the second one. He then snuck out the set and never really looked back to move through after two hours and 11 minutes on court.
"It was probably the windiest conditions we've had this week, so it was challenging for both of us," Djokovic said. "For me, especially in the first set, I served well, but he was a better player from the back of the court until those set points at 5-4. I played a couple of good points to break his serve.
"I think Casper is a really good player, someone who's very dedicated to his work, on the court and off the court as well. He's a nice guy, he trains at Nadal's academy—it's no accident he's in the semifinals here in Rome. I'm sure we'll see more of him in the big tournaments, especially on this surface."
The Serb is now in his 52nd career Masters 1000 final, passing Rafael Nadal for most in history. And on Monday he’ll go for his 36th Masters 1000 title, which would also pass Nadal for a new record.
"The Masters 1000 events are as important as it gets on the tour. These are the events I want to perform my best at, other than the Grand Slams and ATP Finals," he said. "The finals at such a big event means a lot. I'm still motivated as ever to get my hands on the trophy. This is what I work for. As time passes by the tougher it gets, but I still feel really good physically, and I love playing in Rome.
"I always want to do well here. With Nadal in the finals or without Nadal in the finals makes a big difference, but I won't underestimate anyone who steps out on the court against me tomorrow."
Up next for Djokovic will be the No. 8 seed, Diego Schwartzman, who battled for three hours and 15 minutes to outlast No. 12 seed Denis Shapovalov in the second semifinal, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4). Both players broke serve three times in the final set—Shapovalov even served for the match at 5-4 in the decider.
"Denis was playing very good tennis, aggressive tennis," Schwartzman said. "At the end, in the third set, we were playing for many things, and maybe the nerves were there, but I think I took my chances.
"Maybe in the third set he played better than me, but in the tiebreaker I think I was very solid."
Schwartzman, who beat Nadal in the quarterfinals on Saturday in the upset of the tournament, is now through to the first Masters 1000 final of his career, and if he wins, he'll break the Top 10.
“I have two dreams tomorrow—one is winning a tournament like this, and the second one is to be Top 10. Both are there tomorrow on court against Novak,” Schwartzman told press after the match.
“I know it’s very difficult. I don’t want to say impossible, but it’s going to be very difficult. The chances will be there tomorrow, so I’m going to do everything to be more than my 100% tomorrow on court.”
Djokovic is 4-0 against Schwartzman, but both meetings on clay went the distance, the Serb rallying from two-sets-to-one down to win in the third round of the 2017 French Open, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1, then battling over two-and-a-half hours to win in the 2019 Rome semifinals, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-3.