Djokovic survives grueling test to renew record-setting rivalry against Nadal at Italian Open
Top-ranked Serb beats both Tsitsipas and Sonego in separate matches on Saturday
Maybe the new generation of tennis players isn't quite so ready to end the eras of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Titles for Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev in the Monte Carlo Masters and Madrid Open, respectively, raised speculation again that the Big Three — including Roger Federer — was expiring.
Well, again, not yet.
Djokovic and Nadal won a total of three matches over younger players on Saturday and will renew their record-setting rivalry in the Italian Open final on Sunday — exactly two weeks before Roland Garros starts.
WATCH | Djokovic outlasts Sonego in semifinal to set up showdown with Nadal at Rome Open:
They took vastly different paths to get there.
Djokovic regained his cool after throwing his racket off the court to beat Tsitsipas 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 in a grueling, rain-delayed quarter-final that began on Friday.
Then the top-ranked Serb returned a few hours later against local favourite Lorenzo Sonego and wasted a late break and two match points in the second set of a 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2 victory in his second match of the day.
In all, Djokovic spent nearly five hours on court.
"First of all I need to recover. I don't have much time," Djokovic said. "Hopefully I'll have fresh legs, because that's what I'll need to play against Rafa."
Nadal kept his time on court to a minimum by ending the surprising clay-court run of big-serving American Reilly Opelka by 6-4, 6-4.
"I played the match that I had to play," Nadal said. "I had two breaks [in] two sets. That's a positive thing for me. [Being] in the final again here means a lot."
WATCH | Nadal cruises past Opelka to pick up 500th career clay court win:
A day earlier, Nadal eliminated Zverev in straight sets.
Djokovic and Nadal have met an Open-era record 56 times, with Djokovic leading the series 29-27. Their previous meeting came in last year's French Open final, where Nadal won in straight sets. It will be the sixth time they meet in the Rome final, with Nadal holding a 3-2 edge.
Nadal has won the Italian Open a record nine times, while Djokovic has five titles at the Foro Italico.
The women's final will feature French Open champion Iga Swiatek against 2019 Rome champion Karolina Pliskova.
WATCH | Swiatek bests Gauff in straight sets, advances to Rome final:
Swiatek also had to play twice on Saturday. First, she eliminated two-time Rome champion Elina Svitolina 6-2, 7-5 then she beat 17-year-old Coco Gauff 7-6 (3), 6-3.
Pliskova reached her third consecutive Rome final by outlasting Petra Martic 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.
WATCH | Pliskova bests Martic to advance to 3rd consecutive Rome final:
'Really glad to overcome the challenge'
The 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Opelka hadn't dropped a set this week and threatened early against Nadal with a series of huge forehands. But Nadal saved four break points in the fourth game of the match then broke in the next game to take control.
Djokovic fought back from breaks of his serve in each of the final two sets against Tsitsipas.
"I'm just really, really glad to overcome this challenge," Djokovic said. "It's probably the toughest match of the year for me so far."
Fans were allowed to fill 25 per cent of capacity as part of the Italian government's reopening plan.
Against Djokovic, Sonego urged the crowd to get louder in the key moments but ultimately Djokovic's experience paid off as the Serb gained a measure of revenge after getting routed 6-2, 6-1 by the Italian in Vienna last year.
"It was an electric atmosphere out there on the court," Djokovic said.