'Strange not facing Nadal,' says Djokovic ahead of 10th Italian Open final

Rome (AFP) –

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Rafael Nadal may have crashed out, but great rival Novak Djokovic booked his ticket to the final of the Italian Open on Sunday.

A week before the start of Roland Garros, the Serbian, a four-time Rome winner, will play his 10th final on clay at Foro Italico after dominating the Norwegian Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-3 in Sunday's semi-finals.

Nine-time Rome winner Nadal crashed out in the quarter-final on his return from a coronavirus-enforced break.

"Of course, you know, with Nadal in the finals and without Nadal in the finals makes a big difference," said Djokovic, who has lost three to Nadal, including last season.

The 33-year-old, who along with Nadal has been present at each Italian Open final since 2005, plays either Argentine eighth-seed Diego Schwartzman, who shocked Nadal, or Canadian Denis Shapovalov, the 12th seed, next.

"Most of the finals that I reached in the big events on clay I played against Rafa," continued the Serb.

"So it's going to be strange not facing him, but at the same time, I mean, Diego and Denis have deservedly reached the semi-finals.

"I won't underestimate anybody that steps on the court against me tomorrow."

Djokovic will bid for a record 36th Masters title on Sunday, being currently tied on 35 with Nadal.

And he warned he has not lost none of his hungry for trophies of which he holds 80, having been unbeaten this year before his US Open default.

"Of course, finals at such a big event means a lot even after 15 years being on the tour," said Djokovic who won his first Rome title in 2008.

"I still am as motivated to get my hands on the trophy. It's super important, otherwise I wouldn't be here.

"I don't take anything for granted, even after 15 years on the Tour, I still enjoy it.

"I still have a hunger for the titles and putting myself in a position to fight for the title is exactly where I want to be."

Djokovic was pushed in his first meeting with 34th-ranked Ruud, but knew how to tighten his game at key moments of an intense match, to the delight of the fans.

For the first time on Sunday a maximum of 1,000 people were authorised in the stands.

"I missed them a lot and all the players missed them," said Djokovic.

"I hope we will see more in the next tournaments as well, it was great news when we found out that we would be playing in front of an audience."