Novak Djokovic survived a scare against home favourite Lorenzo Sonego to edge past the Italian and book a Rome Masters final showdown with Rafael Nadal following an epic Saturday in the Italian capital.
The world number one, who produced a sensational fightback to see off Stefanos Tsitsipas in a last-eight tussle that was played over two days, returned to centre court just hours later to down Sonego 6-3 6-7 (5) 6-2 after a pulsating two hours and 44 minutes.
Djokovic initially showed no sign of fatigue from his earlier endeavours as he bossed the opening set, taking one of his two break points in the fourth game before serving it out in 34 minutes.
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Sonego, who had stunned the Serbian in their only previous meeting at the Vienna Open last year, began to feed off the energy of a vibrant home crowd in a much tighter second set.
The world number 33 saved several break points in an enthralling finale to second before Djokovic finally broke in the eleventh game with a sensational pick-up from his opponent’s devilish drop shot. The Serb’s celebration suggested he was expecting to serve out the contest from there, but the 26-year-old surprisingly hit back to force a tie break.
Once again Djokovic looked in control with a 4-2 lead at the change of ends in the breaker but the inspired Italian roared back to send the crowd into raptures by taking the tie break 7-5 on his fourth set point.
Sonego looked to maintain his momentum in the early stages of the decider but could not make the most of two break opportunities in Djokovic’s opening service game. The Serb continued to weather the storm and in typical fashion, turned defence into attack with a stunning return that claimed a crucial break in game four.
It seemed to dampen the spirit of both the crowd and his opponent as Djokovic maintained control to break again and claim victory to book a 57th meeting with Nadal – and a ninth in Rome - on Sunday.
Speaking after the match, Djokovic said:
I think I bounced back very well after the second set. Maybe if he started with a break in the third it would look different, but I had chances and only myself to blame for not closing out the match in straight sets.
"It’s not easy to play against him (Sonego), and obviously the crowd were behind him. It was an electric atmosphere. In the end I managed to close out the game well.”
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Asked about the prospect of adding another chapter to his rivalry with Nadal, he added: "First of all I need to recover. There’s not much time so hopefully I’ll have fresh legs, which I will definitely need in order to have a chance against Rafa. He has also had some tough matches this week, but obviously for myself with the rain delays and everything that happened today. I will need to be fresh and will give it my all.”
Earlier on Saturday, Nadal defeated big-serving American Reilly Opelka 6-4 6-4 to reach his 12th Rome final. Nadal, who is targeting a 10th title at the tournament, saved four break points at 2-1 down in the opener before edging the contest with a break in each set.
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“I did the thing that I had to do today,” said Nadal. “It is not an easy, beautiful match to play and, [against] a player like Reilly, [you aren’t going to] have rhythm. You know you are going to have just a few options on your return and you know he can play very aggressive from the baseline. That is what happened at the beginning of the match. He had some options [for the] break and it was super important for me to save those moments.”
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