Novak Djokovic sees a bit of himself in Holger Rune.
The 20-year-old Rune is solid in nearly every area: A great mover and super fit physically, he’s strong off both his forehand and backhand, has good hands and is an aggressive returner.
Perhaps that’s why Rune has now recorded two victories over Djokovic in little more than six months, beating the 22-time Grand Slam champion 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 Wednesday to reach the Italian Open semifinals.
Rune, who also defeated Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November, troubled the 22-time major winner with his rapid court coverage. He made his opponent hit extra balls on points that Djokovic thought he had already finished off.
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Djokovic said the consistently damp conditions at the Foro Italico this week were challenging for him.
“In these kind of conditions, it’s very difficult to get the ball past him,” Djokovic said. ”He’s very, very fast, very quick. Great anticipation. Just a very talented, dynamic player, all-around player.
“He was just better. He played too good for me for most part of the match,” Djokovic added. “He kept his nerves and deserved to win.” Unlike the win in Paris, which was a breakthrough moment for Rune, this one felt like a confirmation for the Danish player.
“If it’s working against Novak, it works against almost anybody,” Rune said of his performance.
The 35-year-old Djokovic didn’t appear at his best physically early on and called for a trainer after holding for a 2-1 lead in the second set. It wasn’t immediately clear what the issue was.
Djokovic recently returned after three weeks off because of a lingering issue with his surgically repaired right elbow. He’s preparing for the French Open, which starts in 11 days.
“I know I can always play better,” Djokovic said. “I always like my chances in Grand Slams against anybody on any surface, best-of-five.” Rune, meanwhile, is boosting his credentials as a Grand Slam title contender after a solid season on clay that included a runner-up finish in the Monte Carlo Masters, a title in Munich, and now a semifinal spot in his first main draw appearance in Rome.
“I want to win a Grand Slam this year,” Rune said. “I hope it can be achieved at the French Open. If not, I hope to make it in the other two Grand Slams.” Djokovic stormed out to a 5-2 lead in the second but Rune rallied back, winning a 34-shot rally with a sublime backhand drop-shot winner to set up a late break.
Rune also called for a trainer late in the second set to have his right leg treated. The match was then suspended because of rain with Rune serving to stay in the set at 4-5, 0-30.
After a suspension of more than an hour, Djokovic won two straight points to break Rune’s serve and take the second set. But Rune responded with two service breaks early in the third.
Djokovic committed 35 unforced errors to Rune’s 15, with 22 of those coming on his forehand.
Djokovic has won the Italian Open six times, including last year, and failed to reach the final only once in eight previous editions — when he was beaten by Rafael Nadal in the 2018 semifinals.
Nadal, who holds the record of 10 titles in Rome, is not playing as he remains hampered by a nagging hip injury, leaving his status for Roland Garros in question.
With Djokovic eliminated, an 18-year streak of either him or Nadal playing in the Rome final ends.
Djokovic will also lose the No. 1 ranking to Carlos Alcaraz, another 20-year-old player, next week — even though Alcaraz was beaten by 135th-ranked Hungarian qualifier Fabian Marozsan in the third round on Monday.
Rune’s semifinal opponent will be Casper Ruud, who beat Francisco Cerundolo 7-6 (5), 6-4.
In the women’s tournament, two-time defending champion Iga Swiatek retired in the third set of a quarterfinal against Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina because of a right thigh injury.
It was 2-2 in the third when the top-ranked Swiatek stopped after more than two hours of play. She had won the first set 6-2 then Rybakina won the second set 7-6 (3).
Rybakina will next face Jelena Ostapenko, who beat Paula Badosa 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 to reach her first semifinal on clay since winning the 2017 French Open.
Rune got into a heated exchange with the chair umpire about a disputed call during the second set. When the umpire refused to change the call despite Rune saying that the mark on the clay showed that Djokovic’s shot was out, he lost his cool.
“Do you get punished when you make mistakes? You don’t. So please respect the player,” Rune said to the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani. “It’s an absolute joke.” Rune took issue when he was asked about his reputation as the game’s “bad boy.” “I don’t see myself as the bad boy at all,” he said. “I play with a lot of passion and energy when I’m on the court. … I don’t know why that should be a bad boy thing, to play with energy on the court. A bad boy thing is to break rackets and stuff like this. If I remember well, I don’t break a racket when I play.”