Rome Masters 2020: Djokovic faces Schwartzman in pursuit of record 36th Masters

Schwartman edged three and quarter hour thriller over Shapovalov by one point

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

In an unprecedented tennis season that has crowned only three tournament champions since February, this year’s unseasonably late Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome delivered one more unexpected story late into the Rome evening on Friday night.

The nine-time champion and world No2, Rafael Nadal, who entered the quarter-finals with a 63-6 Rome record and with a 19-win run on clay, lost in straight sets to a player he had beaten in all nine previous meetings, world No15 Diego Schwartzman.

Of course, the fact that this was Nadal’s first tournament in seven months, while Schwartzman had three events under his belt, including two matches on the clay of Kitzbuhel, may have had a bearing on the upset.

But even so, little has been normal at any tournament since the resumption of competition in August, courtesy of the global coronavirus pandemic. The usually packed Foro Italico has been without any fans, leaving the normally vibrant atmosphere rather flat—though a few lucky ticket-holders will be admitted for the semis and finals.

But because of the back-to-front schedule this summer, the two finalists at the US Open, champion and world No3 Dominic Thiem plus runner-up No7 Alexander Zverev, could not manage the impossible turn-around from New York’s hard courts to Rome’s clay.

The same applied to US semi-finalist, No5 Daniil Medvedev, who opted out of Rome, while fellow semi loser, Pablo Carreno Busta, was a shadow of his US self in his opening 6-1, 6-1 loss to Nadal.

Indeed it has been a rare beast who has survived both events with any success: US quarter-finalist Alex de Minaur, Andrey Rublev and Borna Coric all failed to get beyond Round 2 in Rome.

So even without any competitive matches, Nadal was expected at least to make the final, where he was also expected to meet four-time former champion, Novak Djokovic.

Now Djokovic, world No1 and the outstanding player of 2020, was playing in his 11th Rome semi, and hot favourite for the title. After all, his winning ways had jumped the tennis shut-down to continue where he had left off in January/ February. So titles at the start of the year at the ATP Cup, Australian Open and Dubai had already been supplemented by the Cincinnati title, and his only loss in 30 matches came from a default in the fourth round of the US Open.

His progress in Rome was perhaps the ideal preparation for the title match: Not a seed thus far, and progressively more testing matches with each round—ideal to tune his form to the conditions. Even in the semis, he faced the only remaining unseeded man in the line-up, No34-ranked 21-year-old Casper Ruud.

The young Norwegian was certainly showing his prowess on clay this season, winning a career-first title in Buenos Aires and then making the final in Santiago. And he was proving to be a giant killer in Rome this year: No11 seed Karen Khachanov in Round 1, Marin Cilic in Round 3, and No4 seed Matteo Berrettini in the quarters—though how much that three-hour contest had taken out of Ruud remained to be seen.

But these unusual settings had also given another 21-year-old a chance to shine. Not that No12 seed Denis Shapovalov is the kind of player to go unnoticed wherever he plays, such is the swashbuckling style of his tennis. And his talent had taken him to four Masters semis before this Rome run, going on to reach the final at the Paris Masters.

A similar question to Ruud’s, though, hung over his head. He needed almost two hours to beat No15 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters, and nearly three hours to win the match before that. And just as he had at the US Open, he made the quarters in the doubles draw, too.

But perhaps weighing heaviest in the scales for Shapovalov was that “impossible turn-around window” from New York to Rome. He was the only quarter-finalist from the US Open to go deep in Rome, and against the fast movement and clay reputation of Schwartzman, this semi was a huge ask. He admitted: “I have had a lot of difficult matches. Dealing with jet lag and the body fatigue, it’s not easy.”

But could either of these 21-year-olds reach the final against such odds?

Certainly Ruud came out with real intent to break Djokovic at the start of their match, and he held his lead through to 5-4, serving for the opening set. He went up 40-15, two set points, but both were wiped out by Serbian winners—a cross-court backhand and a drop-shot. The former champion went on to break, hold, break again for the set, 7-5.

And even though Djokovic’s serving level dropped in the second set, it was the young Ruud who found himself battling to hold. He held for 3-5, but Djokovic took set and match, 6-3, to reach his 115th career final, his 10th Rome final, after 2hrs 11mins.

The world No1 looked more at home on Court Centrale than he has all week, too, and with a combined 9-0 record over the other two semi-finalists, he has reason to be supremely confident about winning a record-breaking 36th Masters title come Monday.

The sun had set at the Foro Italico before Shapovalov spread out his wares in a first meeting with Schwartzman. But it was the man from Argentina who broke first and held to lead 3-0. Come the fourth game, the young Canadian blitzed a love hold with some aggressive net points, but it was not until Schwartzman was serving for the set that the full range of Canadian single-handers worked their magic, a backhand winner down the line, and a forehand winner on the third of his break points, 4-5.

However, it did not last: Shapovalov’s first serve was under 50 percent, and although he made some outstanding winners, there were also 18 errors. Schwartzman worked a break point and converted for the set with a roar, 6-4.

The young Canadian broke in the fifth game, but serving for the set, he doubled faulted on break point, 5-5. However, he broke a hesitant Schwartzman again, fought off a break point, and attacked the net to hold for the set, 7-5.

Shapovalov then needed treatment to his hamstring—surely a boost to his opponent—but he still resisted break points and an 11-minute game to hold for 1-1, as the iron-man rallies continued. Shapovalov finally broke through with a smash winner, and with half an hour on the clock, he led 2-1, but not for long: He doubled faulted on break-back point, one of what would be a string of breaks in the intense, gruelling contest.

This was shaping up to be one of the matches of the year, but Shapovalov got the first chance to serve for the match—only to be broken again. It would take a tie-break as the clock headed past three hours, and the younger man was the more tired and tight. They changed ends at 4-2 to Schwartzman, and the Argentine drew one last error to seal his first ever Masters final.

It was a thriller of a match, and a heartbreaker for the loser—afterthree and a quarter hours, separated by just one point in the 225 played. And no doubt one other interested party watched every point: Djokovic will be licking his lips at a match that must have taken a huge mental and physical toll on his final opponent.

The men’s final takes to court at 5pm Monday [4pm UK].

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