The Serbian saved two match points to fend off Del Potro's best attacking tennis from both wings and reach the Internazionali BNL d'Italia semi-finals 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 early Saturday morning. The four-time Rome champion led 5-2 in the second set, only to have to erase both match points in the tie-break, including one on Del Potro's racquet.
But the top seed took control midway through the third set and will now face Argentine Diego Schwartzman for a place in his second consecutive ATP Masters 1000 final.
“I never lost faith I could come back to the match. One break of serve, mini break in the tie-break when he was 6/4, more or less open forehand that he was making the entire match, that's all it took for me to come back,” Djokovic said. “[He] missed a couple crucial points in the tie-break. Also break point third set, quite easy forehand. That's what happens. That's sport. I'm just really pleased to overcome.”
Djokovic had beaten Del Potro in both of their prior FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings on clay and in seven of their past eight meetings. But Del Potro, competing in only his third tournament of the season, battled Djokovic evenly from the baseline and often overpowered last week's Mutua Madrid Open champion from both wings, using his backhand to open up the court and attack Djokovic's forehand.
Del Potro broke in the seventh game and erased all six break points faced in the first set, including three while serving it out at 5-4. The Argentine ripped a backhand winner down the line to take the opener.
“I lost probably the positioning of the court over him. Towards the end of the first, he just started hitting the ball really well from both corners, also backhand side, backhand down the line. He was playing really well, gave me a lot of trouble,” Djokovic said.
The Serbian at last broke in the sixth game of the second when a bad bounce on the line caught Del Potro off guard. But the Argentine broke back in the ninth game when Djokovic tossed in a loose game while attempting to serve out the set at 5-3.
Del Potro, however, missed a forehand on his first match point at 6/4 in the second-set tie-break, and Djokovic locked in on his serve. The Serbian increasingly turned to his drop shot to break up the rallies and lure Del Potro forward, and he executed the shot to perfection while saving the second match point at 5/6.
As the midnight hour came and went, the third set saw both players egging the packed crowd inside Campo Centrale to get behind them. But it was Djokovic who broke in the fifth game as Del Potro netted a sitting forehand. The Argentine, who missed most of this season because of an injured kneecap suffered last October, didn't see a break chance the rest of the way.
Did You Know?
Del Potro's 10 wins against the World No. 1 are the most by any player who has never been ranked No. 1 himself.