Djokovic Remains Undefeated Against Del Potro On Clay

Late-night session at Foro Italico in Rome (photo: Internazionali BNL)

ROME, May 18, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

When World No. 1 Novak Djokovic met the No. 7 seed Juan Martín del Potro in the last quarterfinal round contest of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Friday night at Foro Italico, it was a rematch of their U.S. Open final last September, in which Djokovic won in straight sets. It also marked the 20th time that Djokovic and del Potro had faced each other. So, in a sense, there was some familiarity among the two participants.

Like a well-crafted chess match in which each player went through a series of methodical moves but with a endgame in mind, Djokovic came from behind and beat del Potro, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, that ended shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday in Rome.

Because timing is everything, it was amazing how Djokovic was able to come up with such quality of play in the moments that counted the most. He outpointed del Potro by just five points, 109-104, but it was his focus and invincibility that enabled him to win.

“I never lost faith I could come back to the match. One break of serve, mini break in the tie-break when he was 6-4, more or less open forehand that he was making the entire match, that’s all it took for me to come back,” Djokovic said after his victory, as quoted by the ATP Tour website. “(He) missed a couple crucial points in the tie-break. Also break point third set, quite easy forehand. That’s what happens. That’s sport. I’m just really pleased to overcome.”

The four-time Rome champion Djokovic entered with a 15-4 head-to-head advantage against the Tower of Tandil. He had won their past five matches – including all three of their previous meetings on clay. Two of them had been at Foro Italico, in 2009 and 2017, both straight-set wins for the 31-year-old Serbian. Now, add another one in the win column for Djokovic – in their career head-to-head and on clay. And it was well worth staying up late to witness.

Since Wimbledon 2018, Djokovic is 19-1 against Top 10 players.

From the beginning, there were plenty of relentless rallies between these two heavyweights – a 32-shot back-and-forth rally wasn’t out of the question – and patience proved a great virtue, too. Thirty-four minutes into the contest, it was only 3-all, and both Djokovic and del Potro seemed ready to settle in for a long evening that didn’t begin until 10:05 p.m. on a cool, 17º Celsius evening before a full house gathered at Campo Centrale.

Before the match, Djokovic praised del Potro. He said of his Argentine opponent: “With that serve and forehand, it doesn’t really matter what surface you play on. It’s quite a weapon that he has.

“It’s going to be a great challenge. We had battles throughout our careers, last one in U.S. Open final. I love him really as a person. He’s a lovely guy, really nice guy. We get along very well. I respect him a lot as a player.”

Del Potro gained the first break of the match when he survived a 15-shot rally, hitting mostly backhanded returns, to go ahead 4-3 over Djokovic. He consolidated the break by taking advantage of a couple of uncharacteristic unforced errors by the World No. 1 and followed it with his second service ace to go ahead 5-3. A game later, del Potro closed out the 62-minute opening set at 6-4 by hitting a solid backhand winner down the line that capped a 12-minute, 12-point thriller. He saved six-of-six break points he faced during the 62-minute set, including all three in the final game.

Next, on serve through the first five games of the second set, Djokovic broke del Potro on his third opportunity to take a 4-2 lead as the match reached the one hour and 30 minute mark. The Serbian consolidated the break with his third ace followed by a service winner to go ahead 5-2. After del Potro held, he found an extra boost of energy – perhaps, feeding off of the crowd – and, quickly, gained a 0-40 advantage with three break points to play with. Djokovic fought off the first, but del Potro came back with a break of his own and the two titans were back on serve. Del Potro held at 15, and with the set at 5-all, it was a brand new match. After an easy hold by Djokovic to regain a 6-5 lead, and as the clock reached midnight in Rome, del Potro had a game point at 40-30 and made it count to force a second-set tie-break at 6-all. The match had reached the two hour mark.

In a back-and-forth tie-break, del Potro gained a match-point at 6-4 with a service winner. Then, he netted a return, perhaps, letting his nerves get the best of him in just his seventh match of the year. On his second match point, Djokovic stymied del Potro with a gutsy drop shot that the Argentine was unable to get a racquet on. With the score 6-all, Djokovic gained an advantage when del Potro netted an easy return. And, he put it away at 8-6 after del Potro hit a long return. Djokovic, who won the last four points of the tie-break, was pumped up knowing the match was headed to a third set.

Before the start of the third set, del Potro received a visit from the trainer who attended to his right foot. Then, on serve at 2-1, he let three break points against Djokovic slip by. The Serbian managed to hold his serve at the completion of a 10-point game for 2-all. Djokovic gained a valuable break of del Potro’s serve in the fifth game following three bad misses to take a 3-2 lead. He consolidated the break with a love game that included a second-serve ace for a 4-2 lead. Could the finish line be in sight for the World No. 1? After an easy hold by del Potro, Djokovic’s fifth service ace enabled him to hold for 5-3. Del Potro held at 15 to stay alive. However, serving for the match, Djokovic closed it out on his first match-point opportunity by hitting his sixth ace for the win as the match clock registered three hours and one minute.

At the conclusion, the two competitors – after having played 213 points Friday night into Saturday and three matches in two days – shared a respectful, warm embrace at the net.

The 30-year-old del Potro was playing in just his third tournament of the year – and second in two weeks – since sustaining a fractured right kneecap at last October’s Rolex Shanghai Masters. The Argentine was seeking his 11th win over a World No. 1 and attempting to reach his first clay-court Masters 1000 semifinal in seven years. But it went for naught.

Del Potro validated himself with two victories on Thursday, against David Goffin and Casper Ruud, without dropping a set, while Djokovic reached the quarterfinals by defeating Denis Shapovalov and Philipp Kohlschreiber. Now, it would be on to Roland Garros for del Potro. As for top seed Djokovic, he remains alive into the weekend with a semifinal match against unseeded Diego Schwartzman less than 24 hours away.

Friday results

Singles quarterfinals / Campo Centrale
No. 1 Novak Djokovic d. No. 7 Juan Martín del Potro, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4
Diego Schwartzman d. No. 6 Kei Nishikori, 6-4, 6-2
No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas d. No. 3 Roger Federer, walkover
No. 2 Rafael Nadal d. Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 6-0

Saturday’s order of play 

Singles semifinals / Campo Centrale
No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal, NB 2:30 p.m.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. Diego Schwartzman, NB 8 p.m.