Djokovic into Rome semis with return-to-form win

Sports

ROME — It was just the type of scrambling, wear-down-the-opponent mentality and shot-making that took Novak Djokovic to within one match of a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2021.

A spectacle that was missing for so much of this year when Djokovic didn’t play because he wasn’t vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The top-ranked Djokovic brought the Foro Italico crowd to its feet with several memorable points in a 7-5, 7-6 (1) win over Felix Auger-Aliassime to reach the Italian Open semifinals on Friday.

To conclude a long rally, Djokovic produced a delicate backhand topspin lob winner over the leaping Auger-Aliassime to break serve and lead 4-2 in the second set.

Djokovic celebrated the lob winner by raising both of his arms above his head then urged the packed crowd on Campo Centrale to cheer louder by gesturing with his hands.

“It was high-level tennis,” Djokovic said. “He did ask me to raise the level and I had to play consistently well.”

While he is still seeking his first title of the year, Djokovic was ensured by the victory of holding on to the No. 1 ranking for another week and have the top seed at the French Open.

Second-ranked Daniil Medvedev can no longer pass Djokovic when the rankings are updated on Monday.

Roland Garros starts in nine days and Djokovic is gearing up for his first Grand Slam tournament of the year after he was deported from Australia before the Australian Open.

Playing the ninth-ranked Auger-Aliassime for the first time, Djokovic took some time before he started reading the Canadian’s big serve. Then he stepped up his game and hit an off-balance cross-court forehand winner to break and take the first set.

Auger-Aliassime showed some touch early on when he pulled off a backhand half-volley winner to conclude a long rally in the second game.

In the end, though, it was Djokovic — playing his 16th consecutive quarterfinal at the clay-court tournament — who won all the big points. Like when he ran down two smashes and responded with two defensive lobs before stepping in to whip a cross-court backhand winner during the tiebreaker.

Djokovic’s semifinal opponent will be Casper Ruud, who beat Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (7), 7-5.

Shapovalov eliminated 10-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal — who was dealing with a chronically injured left foot — on Thursday.

Also, fifth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas served 10 aces to defeat Jannik Sinner 7-6 (5), 6-2 to reach his third consecutive Masters semifinal on clay.

Tsitsipas will face Alexander Zverev in their third semifinal over the last month after the 2017 champion beat Cristian Garin 7-5, 6-2.

Tsitsipas kept his cool while nearly the entire crowd of 10,500 fans supported Sinner, the Italian who is ranked 13th and considered a future Grand Slam contender. But the 20-year-old Sinner dropped to 0-12 in his career against opponents ranked in the top five.

Sinner was treated by a physical trainer after twisting his left hip during the final point of the first set. His body is still developing physically.

“That’s where the gap is,” Sinner said. “In terms of tennis, I’m there. Physically, I need to improve.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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