After nine-time champion Rafael Nadal’s surprising loss in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia quarter-finalson Saturday evening, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is the clear favourite in Rome.
Djokovic, who is currently tied with Nadal at a record 35 Masters 1000 titles each, is two wins from standing alone atop that leaderboard. For now, though, the top seed will be focussed on his semi-final opponent, though. The Serbian will have to get past first-time Masters 1000 semi-finalist Casper Ruud when they meet for the first time.
“He’s a clay-court specialist. Obviously, he’s very good on different surfaces, but clay is where he feels most comfortable and where he had his best results,” Djokovic said. “He’s relatively young, as well. He’s making his way up the ranking scale. It’s really impressive to see him in [the] semi-finals, but at the same time, it’s kind of expected, knowing how well he can play on this surface.
“Hopefully we can have a good match. I’m going to have to do my video analysis and homework with my coach, with my team, and get ready for that one.”
Djokovic enters his 11th semi-final at the Foro Italico with a 29-1 record in 2020. Ruud will try to become only the second player to defeat the World No. 1 in a Rome semi-final (9-1) in the Italian capital. The Serbian’s only loss at this stage of the Italian Masters 1000 came against Nadal in 2018.
The 35-time Masters 1000 titlist has been tested in his opening three matches in Rome. Djokovic needed 87 minutes to win the first set of his third-round clash against Filip Krajinovic and was broken on four occasions in his three-set quarter-final against Dominik Koepfer.
Djokovic will hope to rely on the support of a small Italian crowd on Sunday. Up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed on site at the Foro Italico for the final two days of the tournament.
“I feel very welcomed here by people. You don’t see people in the stands, but the people who are part of the organisation, from transportation people, volunteers, grounds people, everyone is very kind to me. I happen to speak Italian, so obviously that brings me closer to them,” said Djokovic. “I feel that probably next to Serbia and maybe China, this is the place where I get the most support and where I get to feel the best, really. The results that I have had in the past  years are proving that I’m feeling great [here].”
This is arguably the biggest opportunity of Ruud’s career thus far. The Norwegian began the week with a 2-7 record at Masters 1000 events, with both of those victories coming in Rome. The World No. 34 will try to reach his third final from four clay-court events this year.
“This is my first time in the semi-finals, and today was even my first time in the quarter-finals [of a Masters 1000]. I’m just enjoying the moment,” Ruud said. “I’m in a good flow. I have gained good confidence in my game this week. Rome, I feel well here. [These are] great clay courts. It’s the way I think the clay court should be.”
With his run to the last four, Ruud has overtaken Cristian Garin to lead the clay wins leaderboard on the ATP Tour this year. Ruud has won 12 of his 14 matches on the surface in 2020.
There is a big opportunity in the bottom half of the draw, as eighth seed Diego Schwartzman plays 12th seed Denis Shapovalov. If Schwartzman lifts his first Masters 1000 trophy on Monday, he will crack the Top 10 of the FedEx ATP Rankings for the first time. If anything else happens, Shapovalov will achieve that same feat.
“Denis [is a] great player,” Schwartzman said. “He’s a very good guy. He’s playing every week better and better. He’s going to be tough.
“It’s a different game than Rafa. He maybe has three, four games unreal and then you have a chance because he [makes] mistakes. But he’s playing [consistently] the past few weeks, so it’s going to be really tough.”
When a reporter asked Shapovalov about breaking into the Top 10 after he defeated Grigor Dimitrov earlier Saturday, the Canadian politely avoided responding in detail out of respect for Schwartzman. The Argentine then earned his first ATP Head2Head triumph against Nadal on his 10th attempt.
“For sure it’s my best match ever,” Schwartzman said.
The Argentine will next play another lefty in Shapovalov, who will certainly come out firing in their first meeting. The Canadian is 9-2 since the ATP Tour resumed in August, having reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at the US Open. He will hope to maintain his consistency against Schwartzman, who only made 17 unforced errors against Nadal.
“You have a lot of ups and downs. It’s fairly tough to stay consistent, I think. There are only certain players that have been able to do that throughout their career, so I’m happy to be playing this well,” Shapovalov said. “I have just been going one match at a time. And of course, I have had some lows. But I feel like that’s where working with a psychologist has helped me a lot to pick myself back up and improve my game after the drops.”
While Schwartzman has only competed in one previous Masters 1000 semi-final, last year in Rome, Shapovalov is playing in the last four at this level for the fifth time. Last year, the lefty reached the final of the Rolex Paris Masters. He has done well to make a quick change from hard courts to clay after dashing from Flushing Meadows to the Foro Italico.
“I have had a lot of difficult matches.
Dealing with jet lag and the body fatigue, it’s not easy, so I’m really happy with the way I have been able to overcome that,” Shapovalov said. “The way I felt tonight was really good, so I’m really happy and really pleased with myself.”
ORDER OF PLAY – SUNDAY 20 SEPTEMBER 2020
CENTRALE start 12:00 pm
Not Before 2:00 pm
 Novak Djokovic v Casper Ruud
Not Before 4:00 pm
Not Before 7:00 pm
 Denis Shapovalov v  Diego Schwartzman
PIETRANGELI start 4:00 pm
Not Before 5:30 pm
Jeremy Chardy/Fabrice Martin v  Marcel Granollers/Horacio Zeballos