Rome, Sep 21 (efe-epa).- Serbian world No. 1 Novak Djokovic defeated Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3 here Monday to capture his fifth Italian Open crown and move ahead of Rafael Nadal in their two-man race for most career ATP Tour Masters 1000 titles.
Most importantly for Djokovic, he will head into the French Open with five wins on clay under his belt and a decent chance in Paris to add to his third-best haul of 17 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.
The Serbian, whose only loss in the coronavirus-interrupted 2020 season came when he was defaulted from his fourth-round match at the US Open against Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball, has now racked up 81 ATP Tour titles in his illustrious career.
Monday’s final started in ideal fashion for the 1.7-meter (5-foot-7) Schwartzman, who broke Djokovic’s serve twice en route to grabbing an early 3-0 lead amid a steady drizzle.
The Serbian, who had showed his temper earlier in the tournament when he broke a racket in Saturday’s quarterfinals and argued with the chair umpire in the semifinals, made it known he wanted play halted due to the wet conditions with comments he made in English to his coach, Slovak Marian Vajda.
But after venting his frustration, Djokovic reeled off four straight games to get back on serve.
The Argentine, who stunned nine-time champion Nadal in straight sets in Saturday’s quarterfinals, saved a set point when serving at 4-5 but then lost his serve for a third time in the 12th game to drop the first set in an hour and 11 minutes.
Djokovic continued to struggle against his pesky opponent at the start of the second set, dropping his serve in the opening game and then saving two break points in the fifth game before holding for 3-2.
But the Serbian started getting more depth and penetration on his ground strokes in the final stage of the match, winning 11 straight points to go ahead 7-5, 5-3, 40-0 and give himself three championship points.
Although Schwartzman saved two of them, Djokovic clinched the victory in one hour and 53 minutes by winning a long rally that finally ended with the Argentine chasing down a drop shot and shoveling a forehand just wide of the sideline.
It was a fitting end because the Serbian had used the drop shot as a weapon throughout the contest against a speedy opponent who is capable of defending sideline to sideline but struggles at the net due to his lack of reach.
“It was a great week. A very challenging week. I don’t think I played my best tennis throughout the entire week, but I think I found my best tennis when I needed it the most in the decisive moments today, yesterday (and in) practically every match,” Djokovic said after winning a record 36th ATP Tour Masters 1000 title.
“That definitely makes me very satisfied and proud that I managed to find that fifth gear when it was most needed. Turning to Paris, I couldn’t ask for a better tournament here in Rome. Another big title and (I am) super pleased with it.”
Despite the loss, the week was an unforgettable one for Schwartzman who reached his first Masters 1000 final in his 35th main-draw appearance in those tournaments.
His victory over Nadal and his hard-fought 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7-4) semifinal win over Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, in which he rallied from a service-break deficit three times in the deciding set, even caught the attention of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona.
“Congrats Little Schwartzman!!! You play with a volleyball net and yet you’re in the final,” Maradona wrote on Facebook, referring to his countryman’s diminutive stature. “For me, you are already a champion.”
Earlier Monday, Romanian world No. 2 Simona Halep confirmed her status as French Open favorite by taking the Italian Open women’s singles title when her opponent, Czech defending champion Karolina Pliskova, retired due to a left-thigh injury while trailing 6-0, 2-1 in the final.
Like on Sunday, Monday’s matches were played with a reduced number of fans in attendance; the Italian government had decided to allow up to 1,000 on-site spectators for the final two days of play at the Foro Italico.
The Italian Open is one of the biggest clay-court events on the ATP and WTA calendars and a key tune-up event for the French Open, which due to the coronavirus pandemic will be played this year from Sept. 27 to Oct. 11. EFE