Schwartzman tells Djokovic “you’re a crazy player” as Serb wins Rome
With his fifth title run at the Italian Open, Novak Djokovic showed off the underrated tactics that have made him the second-best clay-courter of the last decade. He’ll be one of three favorites again at Roland Garros.
September 21, 2020
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“You’re a crazy player,” Diego Schwartzman said to Novak Djokovic after losing to the world No. 1, 7-5, 6-3, in the Rome final on Monday. The Argentine may have realized that “crazy” could have been interpreted in a number of different ways, so he made a quick clarification by adding, “You’re so good.”
Djokovic’s tougher-than-the-scores-indicated win gave him his fifth title in Rome, and 36th at an ATP Masters 1000 event; that puts him one ahead of Rafael Nadal at the top of the all-time list. Djokovic was as surprised as anyone else that this year’s Italian Open didn’t finish with another clash between the Spaniard and the Serb. They had met in the final here in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2019. In the 2016 quarterfinals, Djokovic prevailed in one of the best of their 55 matches against each other.
“It’s going to be strange not facing him,” Djokovic said of the prospect of playing someone other than Nadal in the 2020 final. Instead, it was Diego Schwartzman on the other side of the net. The undersized Argentine was playing his first Masters 1000 final, but he had earned his way there, with a straight-set win over Nadal in the quarterfinals, and a marathon three-set win over Denis Shapovalov in the semifinals.
With less than 24 hours to recover from that mini-epic, it was clear that Schwartzman needed to get a good start against Djokovic. And he did, quickly going up 3-0 as the Serb struggled to find any kind of range on his backhand. Just as quickly, though, Djokovic did find his range, and evened the score at 3-3. What followed wasn’t so much a “strange” match, but one that showed why Djokovic is such a strong competitor on a surface, red clay, that doesn’t necessarily give him an advantage over the opponents he faces on it.
Schwartzman is one of those players. Coming into this match, Djokovic was 4-0 in their head to head, but both of their matches on clay—at Roland Garros in 2017 and Rome last year—had gone the distance. Schwartzman is just 5’7”, but what he loses in service power, he gains in defensive speed; he also has a South American’s natural knack for clay. Add all of that up and there’s not much that separates him from Djokovic on this surface. Djokovic can’t easily outlast him in rallies, the way he can so many other players; and he can’t easily hit the ball past him, the way he can on faster surfaces. To Djokovic’s credit, when he’s in these situations on clay, he leans on another tactic, one we don’t talk about much with him: the drop shot.
For the first set and a half on Monday, Djokovic went to his backhand drop shot time and again. Stuck behind the baseline, with no other way to easily win a rally against Schwartzman, Djokovic gently looped the ball short in the court. The tactic isn’t a sure-fire winner for him. He tries his drop shots from well back, which no tennis instructor would ever recommend. He puts them in the net on a fairly regular basis. Even when he threads the needle perfectly, he may end up losing the cat-and-mouse rally that ensues.
But Djokovic keeps at it, and somehow the drop shot works for him in the long run. It works by disrupting his opponent’s rhythm, by making him run, and by forcing him to take a step forward in the court, in case he tries it again. That makes Djokovic’s backhand drives just a little more effective than they normally would be, because his opponent never knows what he’s going to do from that wing. Overall, Djokovic’s drop shot is a big part of how he has made himself into the second-most successful clay-court player of the last decade. It’s a way for him to win points when he’s not feeling confident enough to let the ball rip.
And then there are those times when Djokovic is confident enough to let the ball rip. Starting at 3-3 in the second set, Djokovic abandoned the drop shot and simply asserted his superiority over Schwartzman as a ball-striker. Up until then, the match had mostly been played on even terms. The two players had traded breaks to start the second set, and Djokovic had saved two more break points at 2-2. At 3-3, though, he suddenly upped the pace on his shots and held at love. Instead of fencing and parrying with Schwartzman, Djokovic slugged with him, and Schwartzman couldn’t slug back. At 4-3, Djokovic broke at love with a backhand winner.
Serving for the match, he won the first point with a series of penetrating backhands; he won the second point with a volley winner; and he won the third with a rifled backhand crosscourt winner. He tightened up again at 40-0, and lost the next two points. But he overcame his nerves and closed it out by—you guessed it—going back to the drop shot one more time and forcing a final error from Schwartzman. Seemingly mired in a dogfight, Djokovic had turned on the gas and won 12 of the last 14 points. That is, as Schwartzman said, pretty crazy.
If Djokovic was hoping to find a way to put his US Open debacle behind him as quickly as possible, his title run in Rome should do the trick. He only faced one seeded player in his five matches, but he was forced to find his way through a number of close sets. With the victory, Djokovic takes his place alongside Nadal and Dominic Thiem as the top three contenders heading to Paris.
Thiem and Nadal are natural clay-courters in a way that Djokovic isn’t. But as we saw today. Djokovic has a tactic that helps him level the playing field with even the most dyed-in-the-wool dirt-ballers. If he can do what he did today—win with finesse until he’s confident enough to win with power—he’ll be tough for anyone to beat.