Novak Djokovic upheld a longstanding tradition at the Rome Masters on Sunday, with the top seed surviving a difficult challenge from Norway’s Casper Ruud to reach his tenth final here.
The last time that either Djokovic or Rafael Nadal did not figure in the Foro Italico final was 2004.
Top seed Djokovic did his part to maintain as he beat Ruud 7-5, 6-3, with each set taking well over an hour against the Norwegian who had upset fourth seed Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals.
Ruud, 21, who trains at the Nadal Academy in Mallorca, had big chances in the opening set, but was unable to convert on two set-winning chances.
Djokovic slowly gained control in windy conditions in front of the first fans of he week after officials were allowed to grant entry to 1,000 ticketholders amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’ve all missed the fans,” he said. “Hopefully we will get to see more of them at other events.
“It was great news when we were told we would play in front of them. That’s a good sign for the whole COVID situation, it’s hopefully improving.”
Djokovic, runner-up last year here to Nadal, stands 4-5 in Rome finals and has lost his last three; his previous success came in 2015 over Roger Federer.
Ruud and Djokovic duelled in almost every game of their semi-final with at least four of them lasting for up to six deuces and for more than 10 minutes.
Ruud, ranked 34th, was broken in the tenth game of the first set when he was unable to convert on either of his back-to-back set points, with Djokivic holding his nerve and taking the match lead two games later, 7-5.
Djokovic advanced with a 12th ace on a match point after another duel in the second set with the rising Scandinavian player.
Djokovic will be playing his 62nd Masters 1000 final on Monday and would pass Nadal on the all-time M1000 title list with 36 should he win.
The Serb finished with 37 winners and 19 unforced errors to win his 30th match of the interrupted 2020 season against just one defeat.
“It was a tough two-setter today,” he said, “I had to work for most of the points. It was anyone’s game in the first set, frankly, it was a bit windy and I had to get used to it,” he said..
“Once I did I was able to swing through the ball better. Ruud trains at the Nadal Academy so he has a pattern on clay. His forehand is very impressive.
“It is super important to me to try and win a fifth Rome title, otherwise I would not be out here.
“I don’t take anything for granted even after 15 years on the Tour, I still have a hunger for titles and I want to fight for them – this is exactly where I want to be.