The world No.1 saved two match points, finishing past 1 am to reach the semif-finals in Rome, while Federer was forced to give way to Tsitsipas early in the day due to a right leg injury. Nadal and Schwartzman are the other two semifinalists.
N. Djokovic (1, Srb) d. J. M. Del Potro (Arg, 9, seeded 7th) 4-6 7-6 (6) 6-4
What. A. Match.
Novak Djokovic won a seventh straight encounter, but was pushed to every kind of limit, physical and emotional, by one of the best ever performances of Juan Martin Del Potro, who wasted two match points in the second set to succumb in the decider after three hours and one minute.
The two hadn’t met since last September’s US Open final, when Djokovic had definitively re-asserted his satrapy over the tennis world, and much curiosity surrounded them, especially the Argentinian, who played only his seventh match of the season, due to an unlucky knee injury suffered in Shanghai in October, the last of a long line – and no-one has benefited from his injuries like Djokovic.
While provided with a preternatural, hurricane-y flat power, conveyed through a very traditional Eastern grip, all elements that wouldn’t be supposed to work well on the dirt, where the weight of the stroke is carried through rotation, Delpo has proven himself an excellent clay-courter over the years, both because his force is so overwhelming that it transcends surface caveats, and because he has learned to appreciate a fuller backswing after his wrist problems, which have caused his arm speed to be slightly hampered, by his own Herculean standards, of course.
True, the climate was quite cold, slowing down the court and lowering the bounces, which probably favoured him a little, for the reasons of which above. However, it was hardly predictable that with so few matches played, he would be able to produce such consistency for so long, proving once more what breed of champions he belongs to.
The match was excruciating for both, every shot hit with pace and depth, meaning that for once the shotclock was pretty much forgotten. The first set was somewhat contradictory, flipping most of the expected narratives: after an initial phase of toiling, in which he needed his first serve at all cost, Delpo literally leaned into the long rallies, losing the ones above nine shots but never backing down, and this stoic attitude is what gave him the edge in a set in which Djokovic probably played slightly better. The Serbian fared better with the second serve, and maneuvered more than his opponent with his forehand, a surprising datum, as Del Potro used his ontological power as an unmovable object that Djokovic needed to circle. The Tower of Tandil didn’t open angles, trying to pin the world No.1 to the middle, and effectively used his slice, against which Djokovic has been known to suffer.
Nole was very nervous from the outset, often complaining about the status of the court – he wouldn’t be the only one. He targeted Del Potro’s forehand early on, to test his lateral movement, only going for more forceful solutions later on in games, and exploited his initial preminence in rallies and on second serve returns (he won four of the opening five points on those) to earn a break point in the fourth game, saved by a good body serve from Del Potro, only to be soon followed by another chance that the world No.9 saved with a great combination of shots down the line, before a good slice gave him a 2-2 hold.
After the early cranks, Del Potro started to grow in the rallies, as mentioned, raising his forehand speed, so Djokovic started to look more for the T on his serve (a sign of intelligence), and earned another break point in the sixth game after two great returns to Delpo’s first serve, and after a grueling 32-shots rally, the epithome of the butterfly configuration of power baseline tennis, but the Argentinian survived again with a typically huge inside-out forehand, before a successful rally on the left side took him to a 3-3 score.
Djokovic kept showing signs of unsettlement, missing more than usual (15 errors to 9 in the opener), and found himself a break point down after a couple of tape deflection aided his opponent – on one of those the ball was actually out. Del Potro didn’t profit, mishitting a backhand on a body serve, but took another after he was faster to run around the ball on a backhand exchange, and broke with a heavy forehand down the middle that thwarted Djokovic’s resistance, taking a 4-3 lead.
The Serbian reacted by taking a 0-30 advantage, but an incredible forehand miss after a difficult return eased Del Potro back into the game, and he aced out wide to confirm the break. After a quick Djokovic hold, Delpo found himself again 0-30 down as he served for the set, but his secret weapon, the backhand down the line (the shot that really unsettled Djokovic), kept him afloat, setting up an easy overhead. An error with the same risky shot gifted Djokovic with a break point, but another rock solid effort on the left cross-court got him to a deuce. Del Potro then wasted another great two-hander with a mishit drive volley that favoured an easy backhand pass, advantage Djokovic again. The Argentinian saved himself with a serve out wide, and did it again with a serve&backhand combo (he saved six out of six in the set), before two more backhands gave him the set after an hour and three minutes, with ice in his veins.
The second set reverted to a more traditional plot, as Delpo knew that he couldn’t kept paddling like that, managing to hit many more winners, and raising his first serve percentage – symmetrically, it was his turn to lose a set in which he played better than his opponent. Djokovic, on the other hand, kept trying to move him around, but also started to hit a lethal drop shot, winning four points in the space of a few games, exploiting the pachydermic forward sprinting of his flushed adversary.
The world champion earned an immediate break point behind a double fault, but Del Potro kept shutting him out with an ace to the T (he pushed his first throughout the match, often serving in the 130s), and showed his own smarts by taking off the pace for once, disrupting Nole’s rhythm with a slice, and holding for a score of 1-1, to which Djokovic responded with his best game of the match, hitting a reverse backhand volley, winning a drop-shot battle after a Del Potro tweener, and acing for a 2-1 lead.
After two more quick holds, Delpo predictably started to lose some lucidity, missing two backhands to find himself 2-3, 15-40 down. He saved the first break point with an unreturned serve, but at the ninth attempt Djokovic finally capitalised when his cross-court backhand hit the baseline and squirted away from Del Potro – it was his turn to complain about the court’s conditions.
Just as the set seemed poised for an easy conclusion, as Djokovic rose to 5-2, and then to a set point on Delpo’s serve, the match moved from good to great: the Tower saved his serve with another serve&backhand down the line virtuosism, and dug himself out of the hole with two more double-handed shots, to surge to 0-30 on Djokovic’s serve. The Serbian then was called for a time violation, and tried to pierce him with a slice serve that didn’t really bother a man with the wingspan of a pterodactylus, eliciting a huge inside winner, 0-40. Djokovic saved the first break chance with an overhead, but succumbed with a backhand unforced, as Delpo got closer, levelling things at 5-5 with a forehand down the line that looked more like a Concorde than a fuzzy yellow ball.
Two quick holds meant that the set was bound for a tie-breaker. After a couple of mini-breaks, servers dominated until a score of 4-3 in favour of Del Potro, who then struck with one more backhand down the line to set up an inside-in forehand winner, bringing him within two points from victory. Djokovic held on with a forehand winner to stay in contact, but hit a forehand return long, gifting two match point to Delpo at 6-4. With a winning opportunity on his own serve, though, the 2009 US Open champion faltered, hurrying on a fairly easy forehand cross-court, and mishitting it out wide. Djokovic couldn’t have asked for more, and, back on his serve for the second match point, hit a perfect drop shot (which he had forsaken for a while) and tied the score at 6-6. The Argentinian then tried to throw every drawer he had, but two unforced errors delivered the set to Djokovic at 8-6, well past midnight
After Del Potro received treatment to his bleeding right toe, operations resumed with both players still giving everything despite their clear exhaustion. Djokovic wasn’t particularly serene even after winning the second set, and held in the second game despite getting caught after a 40-0 lead, but also threw his racket in frustration after missing an easy backhand passing shot. Del Potro was the same facial hue of the court by now, and was also the first to concede an opportunity, offering two break points in the third game with a forehand unforced. However, he saved them both again with a quick combination and with some help from a grievous forehand mistake by Djokovic, and held after another deuce.
The Argentinian had nothing left on return, though (Djokovic quickly held to tie at 2-2), and could only try to hang on, ultimately folding: Djokovic took a 15-30 lead with a fulminating cross-court forehand return winner, but Delpo responded with the best point of the match, as he hit a big inside-out forehand followed by a swinging volley in the same direction; Djokovic wasn’t wrong-footed, and hit a short cross-court backhand pass of devilish accuracy, but Del Potro stretched and hit a back-spinning two-handed half-volley, utterly unreachable, eliciting a roar from the crowd and a high-five between the two incredible performers. Sadly for the Tower, that was as far as he could go, and he got broken for a 3-2 deficit, on the heels of a deep return by Djokovic and of a forehand into the net with the court gaping in front of him – his very likely last thought before sleep tonight, if he’ll sleep at all.
That was game over, as Djokovic proceeded to hold comfortably (liking to salt his foe’s wounds, he aced with the second serve to go 4-2 up), and finished with an inevitable drop shot winner – Delpo had chosen to sit deep in order to put more returns into play – and an ace to the T, but this was the kind of match that: a) saved a lackluster tournament, and b) should have ended with a tie, such was the heroism displayed by both. Next up for Djokovic is another prime timer with another Argentinian like Del Potro, just a foot shorter, Diego Schwartzman, who is yet to drop a set and has been impressive against homegrown Matteo Berrettini and sixth seed Kei Nishikori.
In one of the two previous matches of the day, Nadal was able to contain a hot start from fellow left-handed Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, knowing full well that his elderly opponent, who had spent almost five hours on court on Thursday, would soon run out of steam, as promptly happened when Verdasco flirted with a double break lead, before imploding all the way to a second-set bagel. In the other, Diego Schwartman reached his maiden Masters 1000 semi-final by easily beating Kei Nishikori:
R. Nadal (Spa, 2) d. F. Verdasco (Spa, 38) 6-4 6-0
D. Schwartzman (Arg, 24) d. K. Nishikori (Jap, 6) 6-4 6-2