World number one Djokovic will play Argentine Diego Schwartzman for his fifth Rome title.
Top seeds Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep both advanced to the finals of the Italian Open on Sunday as fans returned to the stands at the Foro Italico for the first time.
World number one Djokovic beat Norway’s Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-3 and will play Argentine Diego Schwartzman for his fifth Rome title.
Top women’s seed Simona Halep reached a third final where she faces defending champion Karolina Pliskova for a trophy the Romanian narrowly missed out on in 2017 and 2018.
Djokovic had been on a collision course for another final showdown with Nadal a week before the French Open at Roland Garros.
But Schwartzman eliminated the nine-time Rome winner in the quarter-finals, and booked his ticket to the final with a 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7/4) win over Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
“Of course, you know, with Nadal in the finals and without Nadal in the finals makes a big difference,” said Djokovic, who has played five of his nine finals against Nadal in Rome.
“So it’s going to be strange not facing him, but at the same time, I won’t underestimate anybody that steps on the court against me tomorrow.”
The Serb can win a record 36th Masters title on Monday. He is currently tied on 35 with Nadal.
Of his four titles in Rome his last was in 2015, with three lost finals in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Top women’s seeds clash
World number two Halep ousted Garbine Muguruza 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 to meet second seed Pliskova who eased past fellow Czech Marketa Vondrousova 6-2, 6-4.
“Thank God I don’t play (Elina) Svitolina, because I lost two times against her,” joked Halep of the Ukrainian she twice fell to in the final.
Wimbledon champion Halep held off a fightback from her Spanish rival.
After pulling level at a set all, the ninth seed slumped to 5-1 down in the third, before pulling out a string of winners to draw the match back to 4-5.
Serving to stay in the match, though, she hit successive double faults to hand Halep victory.
Halep extended her winning streak this season to 13 consecutive victories, with her last defeat coming against Muguruza in the Australian Open.
She won the Dubai title in February, before the coronavirus lockdown, coming back to claim victory in Prague last month having skipped the US Open.
Italy’s government from Sunday allowed up to 1,000 spectators at open-air sports events for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown.
“That definitely was nice to have some people out there,” said Pliskova.
“It felt super empty, like super lonely.”