Italian Open finals preview: Djokovic v Schwartzman and Halep v Pliskova
Main draw action in Rome began less than twelve hours after the conclusion of the men’s singles final at the US Open. There were questions about how players would cope with the sudden shift from hard to clay and indeed, none of the Italian Open finalists made it past the fourth round in New York (if they even played there) and yet we also have both top seeds reaching their respective championship matches.
Simona Halep skipped NYC to focus on the clay and she will be looking to justify that decision with her first Rome title and to take her current win streak to 14. Karolina Pliskova, meanwhile, is the defending champion and she will be looking for a big confidence boost heading into Paris, following her disappointing results stateside.
Novak Djokovic is chasing history, looking for a record 36th Masters 1000 title, whilst Diego Schwartzman could potentially make some history of his own by becoming the first man to beat both Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the same clay court tournament.
Below, we take a look at each of the finalists’ paths so far and assess their chances of being the last man or woman standing this year at the Foro Italico.
Simona Halep (1) v Karolina Pliskova (2)
Simona Halep’s route to the final:
R32: d. Jasmine Paolini (WC), 6-3 6-4
R16: d. Dayana Yastremska, 7-5 6-4
QF: d. Yulia Putintseva, 6-2 2-0 ret.
SF: d. Garbine Muguruza (9), 6-3 4-6 6-4
Halep had a comfortable start to the week with straight sets wins over Paolini and Yastremska, and she was then aided by a retirement from an in-form Putintseva; the Kazakhstani world No 30 reached the quarter-finals in New York less than two weeks ago.
Her first real test did not come until the semi-finals, where she faced Muguruza, against whom she had a 2-4 record. Muguruza’s four wins, however, had all come on hardcourts, whilst Halep’s two wins were both on clay. Their last meeting had been in this year’s Australian Open semi-finals, with Muguruza winning a tight battle, 7-6(8) 7-5.
Back on the clay, Halep was able to reassert her dominance and, in spite of a small hiccup when first serving for the match at 5-2 up in the third, the Romanian was able to make it through to a third career final in Rome (previously 2017-18, lost both to Svitolina).
Karolina Pliskova’s route to the final:
R32: d. Barbora Strycova, 6-3 6-3
R16: d. Anna Blinkova (Q), 6-4 6-3
QF: d. Elise Mertens (11), 6-4 6-4
SF d. Marketa Vondrousova (12), 6-2 6-4
Pliskova won in Brisbane at the start of the year, but has had a fairly torrid time since. She lost in the third round of the Australian Open and then to unseeded opponents at both Dubai and Doha. After the restart, she lost in her Cincinnati opener, and then at the US Open, as the top seed, she was dumped out in round two by Caroline Garcia.
In Rome, however, where she is the defending champion, things have taken a significant turn for the better. The Czech has powered through to the final without dropping a set and she has beaten some stiff competition along the way. Mertens has been one of the most consistent performers since the tour resumed and Vondrousova was the runner-up at last year’s French Open.
Halep and Pliskova have met 12 times before, with the Romanian leading 7-5, although Pliskova has won the past two meetings, and they are tied 1-1 on clay.
As noted above, Pliskova was in the midst of a poor un of form prior to this tournament, but the opposite is true of Halep. She is currently on a 13-match winning streak that has seen her pick up titles in Dubai and Prague. That, along with having skipped the US swing to focus on clay, would logically make Halep the favourite, but Pliskova has been in top form this week and has she has the better recent H2H record.
Then there’s the Rome history, Halep is a twice beaten finalist whereas Pliskova is the defending champion. That may just be the mental advantage she needs to get herself over the line and reignite her season.
Prediction: Pliskova in 3
Novak Djokovic (1) v Diego Schwartzman (8)
Novak Djokovic’s route to the final:
R32: d. Salvatore Caruso (WC), 6-3 6-2
R16: d. Filip Krajinovic, 7-6(7) 6-3
QF: d. Dominik Koepfer (Q), 6-3 4-6 6-3
SF: d. Casper Ruud, 7-5 6-3
On paper, Djokovic appears to have had an easy ride to his 10th Rome final, but in reality it has been a struggle for the world No 1 at times. His first match against the Italian wild card Caruso was simple enough but it then took 88 minutes to win just the first set against Krajinovic. That tie-break, however, was incredibly the 24th that Djokovic has won from his past 25 played.
In his quarter-final, the Serb was far from his imperious best, failing to capitalise on break point opportunities, but he fought through to win and three, and then Ruud had a chance to serve for the opener in their semi-final before Djokovic found that extra gear to power though to the final.
Djokovic is a four-time champion in Rome but he has also lost his last three finals at the Foro Italico, to Nadal (2019), Zverev (2017) and Murray (2016).
Diego Schwartzman’s route to the final:
R32: d. John Millman, 6-4 7-6(1)
R16: d. Hubert Hurkacz, 3-6 6-2 6-4
QF: d. Rafael Nadal (2), 6-2 7-5
SF: d. Denis Shapovalov (12), 6-4 5-7 7-6(4)
The 28-year-old Argentinian made headlines in the quarter-finals by beating Nadal in straight sets, joining Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas as the only men currently in their 20s to have achieved that feat. He had pushed the Spaniard close in previous encounters but it took until this, his 10th attempt, to finally get the win.
In the semi-finals he backed that up by scraping past Shapovalov in just over three hours of play, taking 113 points to his opponent’s 112. It was a topsy-turvy match, with twelve breaks of serve, but Schwartzman was the man to squeeze over the line and his reward is a first Masters 1000 final. His opponent on Monday will be playing a record breaking 52nd.
Djokovic and Schwartzman have played four times before with the Serb winning the lot, but on the two occasions they have played on clay it has gone the distance. At Roland Garros in 2017, Djokovic came from behind to win 5-7 6-3 3-6 6-1 6-1, and last year in Rome they met in the semi-finals with Novak winning 6-3 6-7(2) 6-3.
Yet, whilst Schwartzman has put in two great performances to beat Nadal and Shapovalov, the final will be a different test altogether. He has never played in a final at this level before and no one has played more than Djokovic. The Serb’s record in Rome finals, however, is 4-5, which by his lofty standards is a poor conversion rate. The optimists in Schwartzman’s camp will see that as something to latch onto but it’s unlikely to help their man when all is said and done.
If nothing else, Djokovic was off court by mid-afternoon and Schwartzman played a gruelling match that finished around 10:30pm. The physical and mental recovery needed is immense and that is not a situation conducive to success against one of the game’s greatest ever players.
Prediction: Djokovic in 2
The women’s singles final will begin at 13:30 (BST) and the men’s singles final will follow, but not before 16:00 (BST).
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