Alexander Zverev sets up Italian Open final against resurgent Novak Djokovic

German 20-year-old Alexander Zverev drew praise from defeated opponent John Isner as he progressed to the final against Novak Djokovic, who thrashed Dominic Thiem

John Isner, who has seen a lot of good players come and go in his 12 years on the Tour, thinks the 20-year-old Alexander Zverev, who beat him for the third time in a row to reach his first Masters 1000 final, has what it takes to be one of the greats.

The tall, thin, deceptively powerful German will never have had a bigger stage on which to deliver on such glowing praise than in a heaving Campo Centrale on Sunday in the final of the Italian Open against Novak Djokovic.

The Serb was back to his imperious best in the second semi-final on Saturday night, dismissing the other young lion of the Tour, Dominic Thiem, in 23 seconds under the hour, 6-1, 6-0. A day earlier the world No7 had stopped the 17-match clay conquest of Rafael Nadal but the Austrian was no match for Djokovic.

Playing now without his long-time coaching staff, Djokovic was irresistible, hitting the ball hard, deep and wide whenever he felt like pulling the trigger. If he can reproduce this form at Roland Garros, the rejuvenated world No2 will push Nadal and Andy Murray all the way in defence of the title he won last year to complete a career grand slam.

While Isner cautioned against starting up the band too soon for Zverev, who showed no nerves at all in winning the first semi-final 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, the willowy prodigy looks to have something that sets him apart. He might just give Djokovic a fright.

I dont know if it would be a torch-passing moment, Isner said of the prospect of the world No17 winning the title, which would make him the youngest champion in Rome since a teenage Nadal beat Roger Federer in the memorable 2006 final. That, in my opinion, goes when he overtakes a bunch of other guys. Hes definitely on his way to that but maybe not right at this second, even if he were to win.

But if he does win, it would be a very cool story for tenGerman nis. I mean, hes talented. He was gifted with a lot of ability but he doesnt let it go to waste at all. I have seen it in the off-season, as well. Thats what it takes to be incredibly good and one of the greats: youre blessed with a lot of ability but you work hard; youre hungry and you want to win. Thats exactly what he does.

Born in Germany of Russian stock, Zverev appears to have the hard-wired Russian grit, mental as well as physical, common to people from harsh environments. And, although he has joined the community of tennis exiles in Monaco, he is in no doubt about his allegiance. My parents moved to Germany in 91. I wasnt even born yet. I grew up in Germany, went to a German school, had German friends. I am the most German that I can be.

Novak Djokovic was at his blistering best against Dominic Thiem, winning 6-0, 6-1 in less than an hour. Photograph: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

As his conditioner Jez Green pointed out, it is tougher for so tall a player to build speed and movement but Zverev is making quick progress. Some of his gets on Saturday would have done Michael Chang proud.

When sons outstrip the sporting deeds of fathers who perhaps unwisely have given them their own first name, the Junior tag quickly begins to look redundant. It was that way with Floyd Mayweather Jr, and it is that way now with Zverev Jr.

The elegant shotmaker, who hits his forehand so hard his gold necklace often swings up to lodge in his mouth, surpassed anything his father achieved on the Tour in just under two hours.

Isner was the perfect foil for his expansive tennis. He is the games reigning king of the serve, 31 places ahead of Zverev across the six categories designated by the ATP, but the American was out-aced 12-8 here after averaging more than 23 free winners per match all week.

The pivotal moment arrived in a twinkle, Zverev deconstructing a relentless serving barrage to break with a sumptuous drop shot in the fifth game. From there, hitting his groundstrokes at 75mph, nearly 8mph faster than Isner, he cruised to a one-set lead in 34 minutes.

Isner held on for his eighth tie-break of the week, and 606th of his career. He led 4-0, 6-3 then found an inside-out forehand clincher behind his serve at 6-5 to level at a set apiece. However, he dropped serve at the start of the third and he never properly recovered. Zverev finished the job like an old pro with a leaping smash after battering the last dregs of resistance out of his tired American friend.

Injury for Muguruza on eve of defence

Garbie Muguruza withdrew from the Italian Open semi-finals with a neck injury, eight days before she starts the defence of her French Open title at Roland Garros. The retirement meant Ukraines Elina Svitolina will play in todays final against the No6, seed Simona Halep.

Muguruza called her trainer and had medical attention after 22 minutes of the match, with Svitolina leading 4-1. It was the 23-year-olds fourth retirement of the season after Miami, Brisbane and Dubai. I want to say a fast recovery to Garbie, she has such a big tournament ahead in Roland Garros, Svitolina told the crowd. Its going to be very tough for her and hopefully she will recover very quickly. I am still a little bit shocked.

The WTA said the injury happened as the Spaniard was returning serves while practising before the match. Muguruza made a movement and her neck froze.

Todays final will be the eighth seed Svitolinas fourth of the year. Halep had earlier made light work of heavy conditions to cruise into the final with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over the Dutch 15th seed, Kiki Bertens.

The Romanian, a winner in Madrid last weekend for the second year in a row, made sure of her first Rome final in an hour and 17 minutes. The start was delayed by half an hour owing to rain.

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