ROME —For four or five days after being defaulted from the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic did some serious soul searching.
Then he got back on the tennis court - and since then it’s been fairly straightforward, at least in terms of results.
Dropping only one set all week, Djokovic won his fifth Italian Open title on Monday after beating Diego Schwartzman 7-5, 6-3 in the final, and restored his confidence heading into Roland Garros, which starts in six days.
“I did experience mentally some kind of ups and downs in the first four-five days after that happened. I was in shock,” Djokovic said of the default 15 days ago for unintentionally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball in a fit of anger.
“But I moved on and, really, I never had an issue in my life to move on from something. Regardless how difficult it is I try to take the next day and hope for the best and move on. Having a tournament a week after that happened helped a lot … just because I really wanted to get on the court and just get whatever traces of that - if there’s any - out, and I think I had a really good week.”
The only real issue for Djokovic this past week was his behavior again.
He received warnings from the chair umpire for smashing a racket in the quarterfinals and for foul language in the semifinals.
Still, Djokovic improved to 31-1 this year - with his only loss against Pablo Carreño Busta in the match where he was defaulted. He also passed childhood idol Pete Sampras for the second-most weeks at No. 1 with 287 - and trails only Roger Federer’s 310 weeks in the top spot.
In the women’s final, top-seeded Simona Halep won her first Rome title when 2019 champion Karolína Plíšková retired midway through their match with a left thigh injury.
Halep was leading 6-0, 2-1 when Plíšková stopped playing after just 31 minutes.
The only player to take a set off Djokovic this week was German qualifier Dominik Koepfer in the quarterfinals.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis, to be honest. I don’t want to be arrogant here - of course I’m very, very satisfied and pleased to win a title - but I know that I still have a couple of gears,” Djokovic said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to raise that level for the French, because that’s going to be necessary if I want to go deep in the tournament.
“This gives me even more confidence that is absolutely necessary for a grand slam.”
Against Schwartzman, who was playing his first Masters 1000 final, Djokovic recovered from a 3-0 deficit in the opening set and eventually wore down the steady Argentine to finish off the match in just under two hours - and just before it resumed raining.
With his 36th Masters 1000 title, Djokovic moved one ahead of Rafael Nadal atop the all-time list.
Schwartzman had beaten nine-time Rome champion Nadal in the quarterfinals then edged Denis Shapovalov in a long three-setter in the semifinals. But no player has beaten Nadal and Djokovic in the same tournament since 2016 when Juan Martín del Potro achieved the feat in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Able to run down virtually everything, the 5-foot-7 (170-centimeter) Schwartzman gave Djokovic fits early on, when there was a brief rain shower.
With Schwartzman standing far behind the court, Djokovic began relying heavily on his backhand drop shot, although it took him three efforts into the net until he finally found his range.
The drop shots began to pay off, though, as evidenced when Djokovic won a 19-shot rally to save a break point at 4-4 in the first set with a short ball that set up an easy volley winner.
Earlier, Plíšková had her lower back treated by a trainer after Halep won the first set. Plíšková also had her left thigh taped during the match.
Halep, who lost the 2017 and 2018 Rome finals to Elina Svitolina, extended her perfect record in tennis’ restart to 10-0.
“In 2013 here I started to (reach) the top of world tennis,” Halep - now a two-time Grand Slam champion - said, recalling her surprise run to the semifinals that year. “Since then I started to play really well and finally, after two finals, I could win this title.”
The second-ranked Halep improved to 14-0 overall stretching to February, when she won in Dubai. After the tour’s five-month break because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Romanian returned by winning another trophy in Prague last month. She skipped the U.S. Open because of travel and health concerns.
Players from both finals wore face masks as they picked up their trophies themselves.
Due to the pandemic, a crowd of only 1,000 fans was allowed inside the 10,500-seat Campo Centrale stadium.
The tournament, which was rescheduled from its usual May slot due to the pandemic, also had reduced prize money.
Halep collected a winner’s check of 205,190 euros ($242,000) - down from the 523,858 euros ($616,000) awarded to Plíšková last year. The men’s prize was reduced even more drastically. Djokovic received 205,200 euros ($242,000) compared to the 958,055 euros ($1.1 million) Nadal took home last year.
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