Rafael Nadal of Spain returns the ball to Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece during a semifinal match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome on May 18, 2019. (Photo: AP)
After losing in the semifinals of three straight clay-court tournaments, Rafael Nadal looked more like his old, dominant self when he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 to reach the Italian Open final on Saturday.
It was a measure of revenge for Nadal after losing to Tsitsipas in three sets at this stage in Madrid last week. This victory should also restore Nadal’s confidence as he seeks a record-extending 12th title at the French Open starting next weekend.
“The main thing is I am playing better. If I play better, I know I’m going to have chances to be in finals and to win semifinal matches,” Nadal said. “If you are not playing well, (beating) the best players of the world is much more difficult. ... I have margin to keep improving. But I am doing the right steps to be there.”
Aiming for a ninth trophy in Rome, Nadal’s opponent in Sunday’s final will be Novak Djokovic or Diego Schwartzman, who were playing later.
Nadal is in the middle of his longest title drought to begin a season since he came onto the scene in 2004. His last trophy came last August in Toronto.
The crowd attempted to encourage Tsitsipas with chants of “Tsi-Tsi-Tsi, Pas-Pas-Pas” but the 20-year-old Greek player couldn’t keep up with Nadal on the long rallies — even though he didn’t play a day earlier after Roger Federer withdrew injured from their quarterfinal.
Conditions were much slower than on the high-altitude court in Madrid, which favored Nadal and made it tougher for Tsitsipas to execute his attacking game.
“The shots that I played today, I played similar shots last week,” Tsitsipas said. “Today those shots felt really slow and he had plenty of time to pass me when I was approaching to the net. .. The court speed was the difference.”
Midway through the first set, Nadal produced a blistering forehand winner up the line on the run, drawing a loud roar from the packed Campo Centrale crowd.
Nadal broke Tsitsipas’ serve early in both sets.
In the women’s tournament, Johanna Konta rallied past sixth-seeded Kiki Bertens 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 in nearly three hours to reach the biggest clay-court final of her career.
Karolina Pliskova beat Greek qualifier Maria Sakkari in the other semifinal, 6-4, 6-4.
Pliskova is having a solid year, having reached the Australian Open semifinals and the Miami Open final after opening the season with a title in Brisbane, Australia.
Konta’s only previous final on clay came recently in Rabat, Morocco, where she lost to Sakkari.
“I’ve never really doubted my ability on the surface,” Konta said. “I won a lot of my first junior titles, first professional titles on clay. I’ve always felt that I have a game that has the ability to do well on this surface.”
Midway through the first set, Konta surprised Bertens with a drop shot winner during a baseline rally, causing Bertens to fall on her stomach to the clay as she rapidly changed directions. Then in the next game, Konta ran down a drop shot and produced an angled winner.
Bertens was coming off the Madrid Open title.
“She played really smart with the drop shots,” Bertens said. “I was all the time getting myself together and trying to push for more energy. But it was not there.”
The 42nd-ranked Konta served for the first set at 5-4 but was broken at love. But Bertens double-faulted to let Konta serve for the second set and Konta got an early break in the third.