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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, May 17, 2023


Twenty-year-old Holger Rune broke five times dethroning defending champion Novak Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, to reach the semifinals of his Rome debut.

Photo credit: Alex Pantling/Getty

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic sees his younger self in Holger Rune.

​Today, ​Rune dispensed rally ruthlessness reminiscent of the top seed dusting Djokovic in the dirt.

Djokovic: Rune Reminds Me of One Big 3 Champion

​Roaring out to a 4-0 lead in the final set, the 20-year-old Dane dethroned defending-champion Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 charging into the Rome semifinals with vigor.

"It was a great match. I think I started extremely strong, put him under some pressure," Rune told the media in Rome. "Second set I think he stepped up and put me under more pressure.

"Obviously the rain delay came. It was a bit tricky. But I managed to come out and find the tennis that I played in the first set in the beginning of the third, just kept going."

Talk about dazzling debut on Rome's historic red clay. Rune hit his way into history as this upset means for the first time since 2004 neither Djokovic nor Rafael Nadal, who withdrew continuing recovery from a hip injury, will contest the Rome final. 

Consider Rune defeated Djokovic for the second straight match following his fierce Paris Masters final triumph last November, deconstructed the six-time champion in baseline rallies and backed up his bold statement of intent as a Grand Slam title contender at Roland Garros.

Mastering his sometime mentor and practice partner, Rune was the calmer competitor and played cleaner tennis throughout a a two-hour, 19-minute quarterfinal that featured a one-hour rain interruption and both players jawing at veteran chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani at different times.

Afterward, Djokovic credited Rune for outplaying him.

"I think this is probably the coldest and wettest tournament I've ever played here in Rome. I don't really recall so many days in a row raining. Obviously 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.

"Yeah, he was just better. He played too good for me for most part of the match. I did have a bad start of the third set. I think that's where match kind of shifted to his side. He kept his nerves and deserved to win."

The seventh-ranked Rune beat the 35-year-old Djokovic to the ball in running rallies, committed 20 fewer unforced errors and converted five of 10 break point chances.

Monte-Carlo finalist Rune, who raised his record to 12-9 vs. the Top 10, including a 2-1 mark against world No. 1 champions, will face either fourth-seeded Casper Ruud or Francisco Cerundolo for a spot in the Rome final.

Aiming to make another Masters statement, Rune reiterated his mission statement for 2023: Win a maiden major.

"I want to win a Grand Slam this year," Rune said. "That's what I've said in the past, and I stick to that. Obviously I hope it can be achieved at the French Open. If not, I hope to make it in the other two Grand Slams."

​The biggest surprise of this match wasn't that Rune won, it was that he was so comfortable making Djokovic uncomfortable in baseline rallies.

Rune was so sharp from the baseline at times it was Djokovic bailing out of rallies resorting to the drop shot or playing higher-risk down the line.

While you can chalk it up to Djokovic's lack of recent match play, the truth is Rune never looked fazed facing the world No. 1.

The man wearing the backward baseball cap competed with conviction and why wouldn't he? Rune has already beaten Djokovic in a Masters 1000 final, has faced him several times in practice where he's fared well and doesn't carry the scar tissue other Top 10 opponents have endured against the reigning Wimbledon winner.

"I'm going to ask him for tips," Djokovic said. "He beat me twice so I have no tips for him. So far, he's doing very well."

Rune rattled out five service breaks and stunningly broke Djokovic down in backhand exchanges, including boldly going backhand-to-backhand to elicit a two-handed error. ​Rune was routinely hitting his backhand bigger, nearly seven miles an hour faster at times, according to Hawk-Eye stats from TennisTV.

Whether Djokovic, who took a tablet from the trainer midway through the match, was ill, rusty or just out of answers against a younger version of himself depends upon your point of view. ​

Contesting his 17th consecutive Rome quarterfinal, Djokovic looked lethargic in the opening set, while Rune was flying out of the blocks.

Tennis Express

​ ​Wearing a white long-sleeved t-shirt beneath his polo shirt to ward off the damp chill, Djokovic could not buy a serve at the outset.

Rapping a backhand down the line, Rune broke to open. The Dane denied a pair of break points to consolidate for 2-0.

​Moving smoothly and striking with confidence, Rune was pressing the defending champion in baseline exchanges.

Between points, Djokovic was pulling the bottom of his red polo shirt up to wipe his eyes as if trying to clear his sight.

Across the net, Rune had a clear vision employing the drop shot at times to drag Djokovic forward. The top seed scattered a forehand down the line wide then sailed a forehand as Rune gained a double-break 4-1 lead.

​ Struggling to gain traction in baseline rallies, Djokovic attacked, but shoved a forehand volley into the net to face a set point. A smash saved it and Djokovic dodged the dilemma holding for 2-5.

Serving for the set, Rune snapped a swing volley to set up a forehand volley winner for two more set points. When Djokovic, whose return was sporadic in the set, missed a backhand return long, Rune had a one-set lead.

Despite serving an unsightly 30 percent, Rune backed up his delivery with command, winning 17 of 23 points played on his serve and committing just three errors in the 39-minute opener.

An out-of-sorts Djokovic, who betrayed his cause with 13 unforced errors in the opening set, held at 15 to start the second set. Rune responded rolling through his second love hold.

​The world No. 1 saved a break point holding for 2-1 then called for the trainer, who gave him tablets.

To that point, Rune was cruising, but a sketchy call slowed his roll.

Serving at 2-3, Rune stopped play to question a Djokovic drive he was convinced landed out. If he was right, it would have been the Dane's game. Instead, chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani ruled the shot touched the line bringing the game score back to deuce though Hawk-Eye replay showed the ball was out.

That brief tiff took a toll on Rune, who lost his concentration for a bit.

Sixty-six minutes into the match, Djokovic zapped a diagonal forehand winner for break point. Rune bungled an overhead handing Djokovic the break ad a 4-2 lead.

Some fans were chanting his name as Djokovic leveraged the lapse with confidence backing up the break with a quick hold for 5-2.

"Physio!" an angry Rune raged on the next changeover lashing out at chair umpire Lahyani over the call he believed was incorrect while the trainer worked on his right knee.

Throughout the entire drama a slight drizzle continued prompting fans to pop umbrellas up for protection.

When Djokovic served for the second set at 5-3, Rune extended rallies going up love-30. Running down the Serbian superstar's drop shot, Rune reset the adventurous point, rallied a bit more then carved a brilliant backhand drop shot winner for triple break point. Rune waved his arms exhorting fans to make noise.

Rune broke back for 4-5 as the persistent precipitation created sluggish conditions in rallies. Djokovic went up love-30 on the Dane's serve and was two points from forcing a final set when chair umpire Lahyani, noting the lines were slippery due to the ran, stopped play.

After about a one-hour rain delay, the pair returned for a warm-up hit before resuming play with Rune right up against it down love-30.

Sixty-eight minutes after their last rally, Djokovic pulled the string on a backhand drop shot for triple set point.

The seventh seed tried lured the Serbian forward with a dropper, but Djokovic was all over it, snapped a smash and spun a a short forehand winner sealing the second set just two points into resumption.

Resetting, Rune cleaned the sideline with a crisp crosscourt backhand for triple break point. Lining up a diagonal forehand, Djokovic lashed the drive off the line. Initially, that winner was called out, but chair umpire Lahyani correctly called it good. That was a brief reprieve as Djokovic slapped a forehand down the line well wide.

Erupting in a loud "come on!" Rune started the final set the same way be began the first with an energized break of serve.

Versatility is a Rune asset. He's a 20-year-old who can exhibit the shrewd court sense and shifting speeds of a 40-year-old veteran. Displaying the depth of his game, Rune bamboozled the world No. 1 with a drop shot, lashed an ace and fired a forehand winner working through a tricky deuce hold to confirm for 2-0.

Hit with a time violation warning by chair umpire Lahyani, Djokovic vented his frustration on the chair umpire charging he was starting the serve clock too soon. Lahyani explained he starts the serve clock after first announcing the score in Italian before repeating the score in English.

"What's the drama between waiting between English and Italian are you acting out here or what?" Djokovic barked. "Why are you calling the score for 20 seconds? Just call the score."

Seeing the 22-time Grand Slam champion rattled, Rune showed killer instinct and proceeded to beat the defending champion down at his own game.

A smash brought the Dane another break point then Rune settled in behind the baseline and banged backhand to backhand with Djokovic eventually rattling out a two-handed error to break again for 3-0. Continuing to drive the ball deep, Rune held for 4-0.

Showing sharp all-court acumen, Rune extended his lead to 5-1.

As a police car siren wailed off in the distance, Djokovic was trying to slow Rune's roll. Playing at an uncharacteristic speedy pace on serve, Djokovic hung on to hold for 2-5.

When he out-dueled Djokovic in the Paris Masters final last November, Rune saved six break points in the final game serving out the championship.

Today, Rune repelled a break point at 30-40 winning yet another longer baseline exchange on a Djokovic error.

On his first championship point, Rune was hit with a time violation warning.

Shrugging it off, he closed on one final forehand miss from Djokovic.

The pair shared a warm embrace after Rune wrapped an impressive two hour, 19-minute win.

The 20-year-old Rune will face either fourth-seeded Casper Ruud or 24th-seeded Argentinean Francisco Cerundolo for a spot in the Rome final. Rune and Ruud had a contentious clash at Roland Garros last summer with neither man backing down from the feistiness afterward.

Meanwhile, Djokovic will move on to what should be quicker clay conditions in Paris as he aims for a men's record 23rd major championship.

"I know I can always play better," Djokovic said. "Definitely am looking forward to working on various aspects of my game, of my body, hopefully getting myself in 100% shape. That's the goal.

"I always like my chances in Grand Slams against anybody on any surface, best-of-five. Let's see how it goes."


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