It was a schedule to whet the appetite in a hot and sunny Rome, as the final eight men took to court with semi-finals places on the line.
Perhaps the most unexpected loss of the week had been suffered by 10-time and defending champion Rafael Nadal, his painful foot finally proving too much against a man more than a decade his junior, the No13 seed Denis Shapovalov. So Rome, like Madrid last week, would not see the anticipated 59th meeting between the Spaniard and his greatest rival, world No1 Novak Djokovic.
For his part, the five-time champion Djokovic faced a different young Canadian, the No8 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, and with affirmation of the No1 ranking for yet another week now in his sights.
Nadal was, indeed, the only top-five seed not to make it through, while the only unseeded man came in the shape of the current No45 Cristian Garin. The Chilean was a dangerous clay player who had reached No17 last year, and had five clay titles in the bag. He even had wins over his next opponent, the No2 seed Alexander Zverev, both in Munich in 2019, and in the final of the 2013 Roland Garros boys’ championship.
Zverev, though, was a former Rome champion, had made the final in Madrid last week, and was hot favourite to reach the semis, which he did in well under two hours, 7-5, 6-2. It took the second seed to at least the semis of all three clay Masters in a row, and kept alive his chances of a second Rome title.
His was the only men’s match scheduled on the Grandstand arena, and he would next face the winner of the match across the Foro Italico on Court Centrale between Jannik Sinner and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
These two young players, 20 and 23 respectively, had already met four times before, and had a win each in Rome itself. This time, the pair’s showdown reached new heights in the tournament’s closest thing to the famous Colosseum.
The arena’s rake, curves and height may no longer boast the Foro’s huge marble statuary—that belongs to the equally popular Pietrangeli stadium—but Court Centrale is arguably one of the finest in the world for the spectators. The steep sides and curved ‘corners’ ensure great sight lines, but they also ensure that every sound is bottled inside, so the applause and cheers reverberate to deafening effect.
For home players, or the favourite if no Italian is involved, it is a wonderful, spirit-lifting experience. For the opponent, it must be reminiscent of those gladiators who fought for their lives almost 2,000 years ago in the ancient Colosseum six kilometres away.
Sinner, the only remaining Italian standard-bearer, was cheered to the very top rows. Twice a Major quarter-finalist and a runner-up at the Miami Masters last year, he had now matched his clay quarter-final in Monte-Carlo last month. But in the rangy, single-handed Greek, he faced the two-time Monte-Carlo champion and a French Open runner-up who had 29 match-wins this season.
Tsitsipas got off to a strong start, breaking in the second game and then holding a 19-point game to preserve a 3-0 lead. But it was not to last as Sinner lifted his level, served to the lines, threw in drop-shots, and piled up the winners.
Not that Tsitsipas’s level had dropped: He too was serving well, following up with a big angled forehand, or net chase, or drive to the baseline. It was compelling, big-time hitting, with both men using every inch of the court and beyond.
So Sinner got the break back in the fifth game, and stayed on the Greek’s coat-tails with the set extending beyond the hour. Come the tie-break, the Greek showed steely focus to shut out the noise in the cauldron atmosphere, even after seeing his point advantage snatched away.
One more bold net charge from Tsitsipas earned him another chance to serve with a lead, this time on set point, a fine volley finish edged it, 7-6(5), after almost an hour and a half.
There was a long pause as Sinner disappeared with the physio: the courts were dragged and watered, and the fans took a refreshment break after such a long, hot overture. But the Italian got off to a flier in the second set, holding strongly and pressing Tsitsipas to deuce. The Greek held on, and then broke in the third game.
He increasingly had the Italian on the run to the extremities of the court, and Sinner seemed to be moving more gingerly, perhaps troubled by a groin strain. He had one chance to break back, pressing hard in the fourth game, but to no avail. Tsitsipas was looking fresh, calm, and full of running, and broke again to love for 5-2.
Some of the wind had gone out of the Italian fans’ sails, but they clearly liked the Tsitsipas game, too, and he had taken care not to antagonise them during the match.
Sinner saved the first match point, and had the Italian faithful on their feet again with a drop-shot winner: break point. The Greek saved it, but then play was halted for a medical emergency at the top of the arena—on match point.
They had to wait more than 10 minutes to conclude the story, which ended with a whimper rather than a bang: cautious, careful, and finally a modest Greek winner to move into the semis against Zverev. And it will be their eighth meeting, their third straight clay semi in a month, and with a win apiece in Monte-Carlo and Madrid.
They were followed by another closely-fought affair between the two 23-year-olds, Ruud and Shapovalov. They had only played one another once before, a win for the Norwegian in the title match of Geneva’s clay last year.
Canadian Shapovalov had worked very hard to reach this second meeting, playing one extra match, and he needing two hours 40 minutes to beat Nadal last evening. To be back so soon was a big ask, in hot daylight conditions, and the tape supporting his knee and thigh paid testament to the stresses and strains.
In the event, it was Ruud who had to fend off break point first, in the third game, but then they both served cleanly to the latter stages of the set. Ruud missed the chance of four break points in a long eighth game, with Shapovalov digging deep to make it 4-4. Indeed from there, barely a point was lost on serve as they headed into a tie-break with one hour on the clock.
It took 10 minutes, and finally a lucky net-cord winner to give Ruud a set-point, sealed with an ace, 7-6(7).
Ruud worked the only break chances of the set in the seventh game, and it looked destined to be another tie-break. Shapovalov threw down a strong marker with a love hold for 5-4, but then a marathon 13-minute game went to Ruud after he broke at the ninth attempt, 6-5. It earned him the chance to serve for the match, and he did so, 7-5, after two hours 20 minutes.
It will be Ruud’s second straight Rome semi-final—he did not play last year—and back then he was unseeded and beaten by Djokovic in straight sets. He could be facing exactly the same opponent this time around.
Source: Sport Review