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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, September 19, 2020

Novak Djokovic

In a tough test, Novak Djokovic defeated qualifier Dominik Koepfer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 reaching the Rome semifinals for the 11th time.

Photo credit: Internazionali BNL d'Italia Facebook

Tenacity is an essential ingredient to crafting clay-court success.

German qualifier Dominik Koepfer showed spunky spirit pushing Novak Djokovic to three sets. The world No. 1 responded with stiff resolve at crunch time.

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In a tougher test than you might have anticipated, Djokovic defeated Koepfer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 reaching the Rome semifinals for the 11th time.

The top-seeded Serbian raised his record to 29-1 on the season advancing to his 69th career Masters semifinal.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty.

Djokovic, who had held in 18 of 19 service games en route to the quarterfinals, dropped serve four times today—including twice at love—smashed his racquet in frustration, was generally frustrated by the pesky play of the 97th-ranked German, repeatedly exhorted himself in Italian and wasn't thrilled hearing the chair umpire mistakenly refer to him as "Federer" at one point.

Still, the top-seeded Serbian regained focus in the final set repelling the uprising. Djokovic converted six of 21 break points to battle through a two hour, 10-minute skirmish.

The victory vaults Djokovic into his seventh straight Rome semifinal where he will meet Casper Ruud.

Ruud rallied past Rome resident Matteo Berrettini 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) into his first career Masters semifinal. It was a milestone moment as Ruud is the first Norwegian to reach a Masters semifinal.

"It feels great, obviously," Ruud said. "This is my first time in the semifinals and today was even my first time in the quarterfinals. I'm just enjoying the moment, I guess. I'm in a good flow. I've gained good confidence in my game this week. Rome, I feel well this week here. It's great clay courts it's the way I think clay courts should be."

The fourth-seeded Italian rolled Ruud at the US Open two weeks ago 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. Today, the tireless 21-year-old Norwegian turned the tables in a gripping comeback that lasted three minutes short of three hours.

Bidding to become the first Italian semifinalist since 2007, Berrettini banged a big serve down the middle to set up his favored inside-out forehand for a 5-3 lead in the tiebreaker. Berrettini had a good look at a forehand down the line that would have given him match point had he made it. Instead, he jerked it wide.

Seizing that small crack, Ruud skipped his fourth ace off the service line then sent a slice serve down the T for match point at 6-5. Berrettini netted his signature shot, the diagonal forehand, as the Buenos Aires champion reached a milestone with his first final four appearance in a Masters event.

"When you play a top five player and one of the big three you play the toughest opponent tennis players can ever meet," Ruud said of facing Djokovic. "It’s the toughest challenge for any tennis player to play against those three. I’ve played against Federer and played against Medvedev in the ATP Cup.

"It will be a great opportunity to play against one of the big three. I’m ready for anything."

Djokovic owns more wins in Rome (53) than Koepfer has in his entire ATP career, but that fact didn’t stop the two-time all-American at Tulane from pressing the top seed today.

A clinical Djokovic broke twice in a row to open charging to a 4-0 lead after 16 minutes.

Qualifier Koepfer rose to each challenge he confronted this week. The left-handed German denied a match point topping Alex de Minaur then scored his first career Top 10 win over Gael Monfils on Thursday night.

Contesting his first ATP quarterfinal in his maiden Masters appearance, a fearless Koepfer broke back in the fifth game to get on the scoreboard.

An increasingly unsettled Djokovic played a sloppy game as Koepfer scored his second straight break at love to get right back on serve.

Shaking it off, Djokovic targeted the German’s forehand wing to good effect stamping his third break for 5-3.

The top seed served out the opening set in 38 minutes.

Djokovic must have spent his clay-court practice time sharpening up his drop shot. The eight-time Australian Open champion used the dropper to torment compatriot Filip Krajinovic yesterday and deployed the dropper in the early stages of the second set breaking to open the second set.

Credit Koepfer, who was playing his sixth match of the week after a trio of three-set qualifying wins, for his commitment to the cause and showing the confidence he could hang with the world No. 1 in lengthy rallies. Crunching his flat two-handed backhand into the corners, Koepfer scored his second love break of the day to level six games into the second set.

A cranky Djokovic erupted in frustration winding up and tomahawking his Head racquet to the court incurring a racquet abuse warning. Afterward, Djokovic, who was defaulted from the US Open fourth round for accidentally striking a lineswoman in the throat with a ball, said he's trying to control his anger on court, but conceded outbursts are unpredictable.

"It’s not the first nor the last racquet that I’ll break in my career," Djokovic said. "I’ve done it before, I’ll probably do it again. I don’t want to do it, but when it comes it happens. I guess that’s how I release sometimes my anger. It’s definitely not the best message out there especially for the young tennis players looking at me and I don’t encourage that definitely.

"But look we are all people we all do our best. There are periods when I don’t do that and sometimes periods when I do that. It’s unpredictable. I am working on my mental and emotional health as much as I’m working on my physical health. That’s always been a part of my training and recovery as well. Developing a strong character and understanding myself."

Undeterred by the histrionics across the net, Koepfer burned Djokovic with his own drop shot then streaked forward slamming a smash to hold for 4-3—his first lead of the day.

Djokovic, who is fluent in Italian, spent some time pacing around the baseline muttering misgivings. Then the top seed reset sliding his third ace down the T to level the set after 77 minutes of play.

A gorgeous drop-shot lob combination from Djoker froze Koepfer who acknowledged the winner with “that’s too good.” Still, Koepfer showed fighting spirit, strong legs reminiscent of the young Nicolas Kiefer and the ability to redirect some of Djokovic’s drives on the rise.

In fact, Koepfer was consistently taking the ball earlier than the world No. 1 by the stage—he also shrewdly targeted the Serbian’s forehand return holding for 5-4.

Growing in confidence with each passing game, the world No. 97 drew a pair of errors converting his fourth break in as many chances. Surprisingly, the Masters debutant outplayed the world No. 1 snatching the second set to force a decider after 90 minutes.

Sweat-soaked by the battle, both men left the court for clothing changes.

A hustling Koepfer fought off three break points to start the decider running down a Djokovic drop volley and shoveling a perfect reply in the corner to help him hold.

Rather than flipping his lid, Djokovic tossed his white baseball cap aside, narrowed his focus and got back to work.

The four-time champion rolled through eight straight points breaking on a Koepfer double fault for 2-1.

Sustaining the lead throughout the set, Djokovic converted his second match point with a fine drop volley winner.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion will face the 34th-ranked Ruud, who trains at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, for the first time with a spot in the final on the line.

"I did watch a little bit of his match today," Djokovic said of Ruud. "It’s going to be our first meeting. He’s a clay-court specialist, obviously very good on different surfaces, clay is where he feels most comfortable and where he has had his best result.

“It’s really impressive to see him in the semis, but at the same time it’s kind of expected knowing how well he can play on this surface. He had a tough match today well fought. Hopefully we can have a good match. I’m going to have to do my video analysis and home work with my coach and team and get ready for that one."


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