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At the Italian Open, let’s just say Rafael Nadal has been focused. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) 
At the Italian Open, let’s just say Rafael Nadal has been focused. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) |Associated Press

Tennis Saturday: Abrams picks the Italian Open men’s semis; Djokovic v Schwartzman and Nadal v Tsitsipas

The Nadal match starts at 8:30 am EDT. The Djokovic match is at 2 pm EDT.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Internazionali BNL d’Italia
Rome, Italy
Saturday, May 18, 2019
Men’s semifinals

I was ready to write about how fantastic this tournament was, with a day in which all the quarterfinalists had to play two matches because of the inclement weather on Wednesday here in Rome. I was ready to write what an amazing tournament Juan Martin del Potro was having, and what a phenomenal match he had played in topping Novak Djokovic for just the fifth time in twenty matches as he was serving to Djokovic with two match points at 6-4, 6-6, and 6-4 in points. I was ready to write how brave del Potro was for continually coming back from constant injuries and surgeries, and what a warrior he was in conquering his Serbian indomitable protagonist. I was ready to remark what a battler the tall Argentinean was after playing the match with a bloody big toe and nail on his right foot. I was ready to jump all over Djokovic for being insincere and inconsistent. I was ready to write about a fantastic semifinal between two Argentines, one 6’6” and one 5’6”. Basically, I was ready to conclude that there would and could be no way that what happens in Paris starting a week from tomorrow could ever top the wonderful week of magic and surprises that we have all witnessed this week at Foro Italico. And then it happened…

Del Potro slid a slice serve off the side of the deuce court, got a weak return from Nole, and was ready to pound his dependable sledge-hammer of a forehand to end the match, choosing to go behind the running Nole as the Serbian scrambled to cover the court that was left open, when the giant slugged his beast of a forehand wide. Okay. Match point #2. A baseline rally ensued and Nole, using a tactic that he enjoyed all night, but one with more risk than reward, especially at that point in the match, executed an incomparable, almost impossibly perfect drop-shot that the plodding Goliath just couldn’t reach. Wow! What a brave, ballsy shot! But had he missed it—the very shot that I’ve been holding against Roger Federer for trying twice in the third set tiebreaker in the finals of Indian Wells against Dominic Thiem way back in March—and flubbing, I would have been all over Nole, probably holding it against him at least until this year’s U.S. Open! But lo and behold, Nole didn’t miss, and that was all she wrote. Faced with the tiebreaker tied at 6 all in points, Djokovic wore down del Potro, won the final two points to go with the two previous ones, and effectively won the match by sending the contest into a third set, which from my point of view was never contested. When the physio came out in between sets to work on del Potro’s foot, toe, and nail, and saw the glob of bright red gleaming from del Potro’s foot as he slid his sock off, the match was effectively over, and Djokovic stole the semifinal position that rightfully belonged to del Potro.

Oh, well, I’ll have to write something else….

Diego Schwartzman, del Potro’s countryman and alter ego, awaits Djokovic now, as he played probably his best stretch of tennis this year by beating Kei Nishikori at his own game. Although the match was marked by streaks of games won, which is more a mark of women’s tennis than men’s, Schwartzman took the match more because he played exceptionally well than because Nishikori was off his game. Yes, Schwartzman ran out to a 4-0 lead before Nishikori could regroup and answer back with a run of his own, but the Argentinean moved particularly well after a day in which he played two full matches, was sharp as nails with his passing shots, and was solid as a rock off the ground in extended rallies. Schwartzman, who has seen his ranking drop in the past year from No. 12 to No. 24, appears back on track to make a run at the Top Ten, if he continues to play as he has this week in Rome. The next match will mean an awful lot. But I’m not sure who it means more to.

The other semi will feature Rafa Nadal, who has looked almost super human this week and really hasn’t been tested at all, against Stefanos Tsitsipas, who advanced to the semis when 37-year-old Roger Federer woke up a day after taking his two matches on Thursday, realizing that his old legs just weren’t going to work, and pulled out of the tournament. Frankly, I understand, from the tournament’s point of view that all the quarterfinalists had to play two matches on Thursday, but had Borna Coric beaten Roger Federer Thursday in his first and only match, when The Fed had to play two matches on ancient wheels, Coric would have been the only quarter-finalist who would have slid into the quarters with only one match played on Thursday. The fact that a 22-year-old played fresh, and a septuagenarian had to play twice clearly was an advantage to the youth, and a detriment to the senior. You could argue that, by losing Federer to withdrawal, it was a detriment to the tournament too. And so, the tournament was potentially robbed of a Federer-Nadal semifinal match, because the directors were inflexible with how they handled the only living legend currently competing on the men’s Tour.

Novak Djokovic over Diego Schwartzman
Frankly, I would have preferred to watch a match between the David and Goliath of Argentine tennis-- del Potro and Schwartzman, than the scheduled Djokovic/Schwartzman matchup. I find Nole’s game very predictable, too clinical, and too efficient to be entertaining or exciting. That’s not to belittle his play. But I also find his personality to be a bit of an enigma—seemingly insincere and camouflaged by circumstances. When he salutes the crowd at the end of a match it looks contrived to me, and when he blows off steam, which I generally like and appreciate from other competitors, I find his tantrums not earnest, and frankly, full of shit. With that said, Nole will win this match, whether I like it or not. And the beat goes on.

Rafa Nadal over Stefanos Tsitsipas
With the exception of the excitement that Nick Kyrgios caused by his emotional meltdown on court Thursday, this match will be the signature moment of the tournament. Tsitsipas is like a horse running fourth, making his move around the final turn, ready to overtake the top three. But the Big Three don’t want to let him pass, and this week it’s Nadal who has the chance to put the Greek in his place. Based on how focused and how simply terrific Nadal has been this week, I say Nadal holds off the threat of the young thoroughbred by a nose, and moves into a final with Nole.