ROME – It was just a bit of a scramble, a tired opponent’s mentality and shot-making that drove Novak Djokovic into one match in one of the 2021 Grand Slams.
A scene that has been missing all this year when Djokovic did not play because he was not vaccinated against the Corona virus.
Top-ranked Djokovic made the Foro Italico crowd stand on their feet with several memorable points in a 7-5, 7-6 (1) victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal to reach the semi-finals of the Italian Open on Friday.
To wrap up a long career, Djokovic provided a precise backhand winner over break-bumper Auger-Aliassime and took a 4-2 lead in the second set.
Djokovic celebrated the winner with the ball by raising his arms above his head and then urging the packed crowd at Campo Central to cheer louder by gesturing with his hands.
Djokovic was pushed in both sets by Auger-Aliassime in the first game between the players, but held a key after facing a two-point break in the seventh game of the second set, capping the match with five straight tiebreak points.
Auger-Aliassime grabbed his style, hitting 11 aces and winning 28, seven goals over Djokovic.
“It was top-level tennis,” Djokovic said. “He asked me to raise the level and I had to constantly play well.”
While still chasing his first title of the year, Djokovic was guaranteed a win by retaining the number one spot for another week and securing the top seed at the French Open.
Second seed Daniil Medvedev can no longer pass Djokovic when the rankings are updated on Monday.
Roland Garros starts in nine days and Djokovic prepares for his first Grand Slam of the year after being dumped from Australia ahead of the Australian Open.
Playing ninth seed Auger Aliassime for the first time, it took him some time before he started reading the Canadian’s big serve. He then stepped up his game and hit a lopsided forehand across the court to break and take the first set.
Auger-Aliassime showed some touch early on when he fired a backhand into an air hemisphere to wrap up a long run in the second game.
In the end, though, it was Djokovic—who played his 16th consecutive quarterfinal on the clay court—who won all the big points. Like when he ran in on two hits and responded with two defensive hits before stepping in to strike a backhand across the field during the tiebreak.
Djokovic’s semi-final opponent will be Casper Rudd, who defeated Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont. , 7-6 (7), 7-5.
Shapovalov eliminated 10-times Roma champion Rafael Nadal – who was suffering from a chronic left foot injury – on Thursday.
Rudd took the lead in the first set tiebreaker back and forth, going 8-7 up the turn and then grabbing his first serve point.
The second set came in the deciding eleventh game that saw Shapovalov facing off with seven break points before Rudd eventually won the match and led 6-5.
While being sent to the match, Rod Shapovalov finished off with a header.
Also, fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas sent in 10 aces to defeat Yannick Sener 7-6 (5), 6-2 to reach the Masters semi-finals for the third time in a row on clay.
Tsitsipas will face Alexander Zverev in their third semi-final last month after the 2017 champions beat Christian Garin 7-5, 6-2.
In the women’s tournament, Iga Swiatek extended her winning streak to 26 games by defeating former US Open champion Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ontario, 7-6 (2), 6-0.
Swiatek struggled to deal with being one of the top five players last year. Now she’s learned how to use her recent success to intimidate.
“I needed time to learn how to do it right, how to use the line or the arrangement to put pressure on my opponents,” Swiatek said. “Last year when I had a better rating (than opponents), I felt it was something that was putting pressure on me. This time it is completely different.”
Overall, Swiatek produced 27 winners versus 12 winners for Andreescu and transferred all six of her break points.
“I feel every game I play better and better,” Swiatek said. “Although the first set was very tight, I had some ups and downs, I feel I can play well in important moments and rest at any time.
“I am very happy that the second set was also more solid because it shows that I am learning my lessons throughout the match.”
The defeat ended an impressive run in Rome for Andreescu, who has played in only her third tournament since returning from a months-long hiatus since he took time off to recover physically and mentally.
Friday’s match was the first WTA 1000 sand series quarter-final in Andreescu’s career.
Swiatek is trying to win the fifth consecutive championship and defend her title in Rome.
The last player to win back-to-back games was Serena Williams in 2014-15, when she had a 27th streak.
Swatic will compete in the semi-finals with third seed Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Amanda Anisimova 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to claim her first victory over the American in five attempts.
The Madrid Open champion, Anas Jaber, also advanced, who beat Maria Skari, 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 to claim her 10th consecutive win. Jaber will face Daria Kasatkina, who advanced when Gil Tishman retired due to a left thigh injury, with Kasatkina leading 6-4, 3-2.
Tsitsipas kept his cool while nearly 10,500 fans supported Sener, the Italian who ranks 13th and is considered a future Grand Slam contender.
But the 20-year-old has fallen to 0-12 in his career against his top-five opponents.
Sinner was treated by a physical trainer after spraining his left hip during the final point of the first set.
His body is still developing physically.
“That’s where the gap is,” said Sener. “In terms of tennis, I am there. Physically, I need to improve.”
– Files from the Canadian Press
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Andrew Dampf, The Associated Press