Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas returns the ball to Germany's Alexander Zverev during their semifinal match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Saturday, May 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
ROME — This is just what Novak Djokovic needed a week before the French Open.
The top-ranked Serb beat Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-3 at the Italian Open on Saturday to reach his biggest final of the year.
Having missed a big portion of the season because he wasn’t vaccinated against the coronavirus, Djokovic will attempt to extend his five-match winning streak over Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final.
“I can expect a big battle,” Djokovic said. “But I’m ready for it.”
Tsitsipas reached his first Rome final by rallying past Alexander Zverev 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Djokovic is seeking his sixth title in the Italian capital.
In the women’s semifinals, top-ranked Iga Swiatek routed Aryna Sabalenka 6-2, 6-1 for her 27th straight win and will face another player on a run, Ons Jabeur, as she attempts to defend her Rome title.
Jabeur beat Daria Kasatkina 6-4, 1-6, 7-5 for her 11th consecutive victory after lifting the Madrid Open trophy last week.
Djokovic recorded the 1,000th win of his career, making him only the fifth man to reach that mark after Jimmy Connors (1,274 wins), Roger Federer (1,251), Ivan Lendl (1,068) and Rafael Nadal (1,051).
After the match, Djokovic was presented with a cake with “1,000” written on it.
“I was seeing Roger and Rafa celebrating those milestones and I was looking forward to get to 1,000 myself,” Djokovic said.
Djokovic is playing only his fifth tournament of the year, with his best previous result the final of the smaller Serbia Open, his home tournament, last month. Last week, he was beaten by 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals of the Madrid Open.
Against Ruud, the first Norwegian to break into the top 10, Djokovic jumped out to 5-1 in the opening set with an array of shot-making that negated his opponent’s power.
On one point early on when Ruud pushed Djokovic wide of the doubles alley, the Serb practically did the splits as he responded with a backhand winner up the line with his racket just a few inches above the red clay court.
Djokovic’s most recent match against Tsitsipas came in last year’s French Open final, when he rallied from two sets down to take the trophy.
Djokovic also needed five sets to beat Tsitsipas in the Roland Garros semifinals two years ago, and they went the full three sets when Djokovic won in the Rome quarterfinals last year.
“I’ve looked back to those matches. I’ve analyzed them,” Tsitsipas said. “There are things that didn’t work for me after two sets to love up in Roland Garros. I guess I was always pretty stubborn, didn’t want to change (tactics). … There’s always one more match where I can perhaps maybe do something different.”
Tsitsipas has been pushed to three sets in three of his four matches this week, having also overcome local favorite Jannik Sinner in straight sets in the quarterfinals.
Tsitsipas has also played all of his matches in the midday heat.
“The heat hasn’t been easy. But that’s what I prefer,” the Greek player said.
Tsitsipas defended his title at the Monte Carlo Masters last month and is aiming for another big clay-court title.
The Italian Open has been played at the picturesque Foro Italico, which includes a court lined by neo-classical statues, since 1935.
“It’s one of the tournaments that has the most history in our sport,” Tsitsipas said. “You can see walking around the site, one of the most beautiful stadiums — the Pietrangeli. So there’s a lot of history playing in these courts and you feel very proud that you’ve made your way here and are able to participate in such a historically rich event.”
Swiatek’s streak is the longest by a woman since Serena Williams won 27 in a row over 2014 and 2015. The all-time longest streak belongs to Martina Navratilova, who put together 74 straight in 1984.
“I’m just constantly surprising myself that I can do better and better,” Swiatek said. “I feel like I actually can believe now that the sky’s the limit. That’s the fun part.”
Seeking to win her fifth straight tournament, Swiatek dominated the eighth-ranked Sabalenka with power, consistency and finesse.
“Today I felt like I really understood the clay,” Swiatek said.
The hard-hitting Sabalenka took a medical timeout late in the second set and had her back treated.
Swiatek, who was a surprise champion at the French Open in 2020 when she was ranked No. 54, will be the favorite to add a second title at Roland Garros when the year’s second Grand Slam starts next weekend.
Jabeur, who is also quickly developing into a French Open contender, saved a match point late in the third.
Former Chelsea and Newcastle forward Christian Atsu is missing and believed to be trapped under rubble following the powerful earthquake that struck Turkey on Monday and left more than 2,500 people dead.
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