Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal set up 57th career clash at Italian Open

ROME, ITALY - MAY 15: Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates during the Semi Final match between Novak Djokovic and Lorenzo Sonego on Day Eight of the Internazionali BNL D'Italia 2021 at Foro Italico on May 15, 2021 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

World number one Novak Djokovic on Saturday battled past Italian Lorenzo Sonego to set up a clash with nine-time winner Rafael Nadal for the sixth time in the Italian Open final.

Defending champion Djokovic won 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 6-2 in two hours and 44 minutes against the 33rd-ranked Italian after second seed Nadal earlier swept past American Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4. Djokovic had earlier survived a three-set battle with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in their rain-delayed quarter-final. The five-time Rome champion had been trailing 4-6, 1-2 when the tie was halted overnight. But the 33-year-old came back to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 after more than three-and-a-quarter hours.

Djokovic and Nadal, who will be facing each other for the 57th time, last played in the 2020 French Open final which the Spaniard won in straight sets.

The pair have won 14 of the last 16 Rome titles between them, while Nadal leads their head-to-head in finals in the Italian capital 3-2.

Nadal saved two match points to defeat Canada’s Denis Shapovalov in the third round, and then ousted Madrid Open slayer Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals.

On Saturday, Djokovic let two match points slip in the second set of his semi-final.

He then saved three break points in the first game of the third set, before powering towards his 11th Rome final.

“I’ve only myself to blame for not closing the match in the second set, I could have and should have,” said Djokovic.

Nadal staved off break points in the fourth game against Opelka and did not look back.

Nadal is looking to equal Djokovic’s record of 36 Masters 1000 titles in his 12th Rome final, while his opponent would pull two clear with a win.

Two weeks before Roland Garros, the 34-year-old was rarely troubled by the towering American playing his first Masters semi-final.

Nadal blasted down 11 aces and did not drop serve against the 47th-ranked player who had not been broken all week.