Nadal still rusty after break; Djokovic still angry
ROME (AP) Rafael Nadal still has to shed some rustiness following a seven-month break from tennis as he prepares to chase a record-extending 13th French Open title.
Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, still appears to have some anger issues two weeks after getting kicked out of the U.S. Open for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball in a fit of anger.
Nadal's first tournament back ended with a 6-2, 7-5 loss to Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open on Saturday. That was after Djokovic earned a verbal warning for smashing his racket on the red clay midway through a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win over German qualifier Dominik Koepfer.
Nadal, a nine-time champion in Rome, had never lost to the 15th-ranked Schwartzman in nine previous meetings. But Schwartzman dictated the baseline rallies and produced a series of drop-shot winners as Nadal uncharacteristically made unforced errors and struggled to get his first serve into play.
For two months during the lockdown, Nadal said, he didn't touch a tennis racket.
"It's a completely special year -- an unpredictable year," Nadal said. "At least I played three matches."
While Nadal won his opening two matches this week in straight sets, his rustiness showed from the start against Schwartzman.
Nadal committed nearly twice as many unforced errors as Schwartzman, 30 to 17, and won only 29 of 63 points on his serve -- resulting in five breaks.
"Losing that many serves you can't expect to win a match," Nadal said. "So something that I have to fix. I know how to do it."
Nadal, who chose not to play the U.S. Open due to travel concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, had not played a tournament since winning a title in Acapulco, Mexico, in February. He now has one week to regroup before he attempts to win a record-extending 13th French Open title.
Roland Garros starts next weekend.
"I'm going to keep working and keep practicing with the right attitude and I'm going to try to give (myself) a chance to be ready," Nadal said.
Schwartzman came up with a series of clutch shots, perhaps none better than during the second game of the second set when he won a 17-shot rally to save a break point by running down a drop shot and passing Nadal with a forehand that landed on the line.
"It was my best match ever," Schwartzman said.
Nadal suggested he struggled with the humidity on a warm evening at the Foro Italico.
"Conditions out there was much heavier than the previous days in terms of the bounces of the ball," Nadal said. "Was difficult to push him back. He did a great job."
Earlier on Campo Centrale, when Djokovic was broken at love to even the second set at 3-3, he reacted by breaking his racket, earning a warning from the chair umpire.
"It's not the first nor the last racket that I'll break in my career," the top-ranked Djokovic said. "I've done it before and I'll probably do it again. I don't want to do it but when it comes, it happens.
"That's how, I guess, I release sometimes my anger and 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."
Djokovic had already appeared frustrated during the game before he broke his racket, glaring toward the umpire following a couple of overrules and a point that was ordered to be replayed.
"That's just me," Djokovic said. "Of course I'm not perfect and I'm doing my best."
The 97th-ranked Koepfer, who screamed at himself in frustration throughout the match, was also warned for misbehavior early in the third set.
Aiming for his fifth title in Rome, Djokovic's semifinal opponent will be Casper Ruud, who eliminated local favorite Matteo Berrettini 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) in a match that lasted 2 hours, 57 minutes.
Schwartzman will next face Denis Shapovalov, who held off Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 3-6, 6-2.
While fans have not been admitted to the tournament yet, Italy's sports minister said Friday that 1,000 spectators will be allowed in for the semifinals and finals.
In the women's tournament, top-seeded Simona Halep reached the last four when Kazakh opponent Yulia Putintseva retired midway through their match due to a lower back injury.
Halep was ahead 6-2, 2-0 when Putintseva decided she was in too much pain to continue -- having already taken an off-court medical timeout between sets.
Halep, who lost two straight finals in Rome to Elina Svitolina in 2017 and 2018, will need to beat two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza to return to the championship match.
Muguruza required more than two hours to eliminate U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
The other semifinal will feature last year's French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova against fellow Czech and defending champion Karolina Pliskova.
Vondrousova beat Svitolina 6-3, 6-0, and Pliskova defeated Elise Mertens 6-3, 3-6, 6-0.
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Updated September 19, 2020