Novak Djokovic said on Sunday it felt “strange” not playing Rafael Nadal in the final of the Italian Open as he prepares to meet his great rival’s slayer for the Rome trophy on Sunday.
The Serbian, a four-time winner, takes on Argentine Diego Schwartzman in his 10th final on the clay of the Foro Italico, after dominating Norwegian Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-3 in Sunday’s semi-finals.
Eight seed Schwartzman battled past Canadian Denis Shapovalov 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7/4), a day after dumping Nadal in the quarter-finals.
“Of course, you know, with Nadal in the finals and without Nadal in the finals makes a big difference,” said Djokovic, who has lost three to Nadal, including last season.
“Most of the finals that I reached in the big events on clay I played against Rafa,” continued the Serb.
“So it’s going to be strange not facing him.”
Djokovic has won all four of his previous meetings against Schwartzman, but Nadal had beaten the Argentine in all nine of their previous meetings.
“I won’t underestimate anybody that steps on the court against me tomorrow,” said the 33-year-old Serb.
“Diego played the match of his life (against Nadal). He was so impressive. And that proves that anything is possible, even Nadal who is probably the toughest challenge in our sport, playing Nadal on clay.
“But he managed to win in straight sets, so that proves his quality.”
Djokovic will bid for a record 36th Masters title on Sunday, being currently tied on 35 with Nadal.
For Schwartzman, ranked 15th, a top ten place in the world is at stake, and a fourth career title.
“I have two dreams, you know, tomorrow,” said the 28-year-old from Buenos Aires.
“One, it’s winning a tournament like this. And the second one, be top 10. Both are there tomorrow on court against Novak. I know it’s very difficult. I need to play more than my 100%. I don’t want to say impossible, because it’s not impossible. I know can beat him.”
Djokovic was pushed in his first meeting with 34th-ranked Ruud, but knew how to tighten his game at key moments of an intense match, to the delight of the fans.
For the first time on Sunday a maximum of 1,000 people were authorised in the stands.
“I missed them a lot and all the players missed them,” said Djokovic.
“I hope we will see more in the next tournaments as well, it was great news when we found out that we would be playing in front of an audience.”