It may only be for another 16 hours or so but Novak Djokovic is still unbeatable. Although today the Serb had a lot of help staying perfect.
Andy Murray served at 5-4 with the Serb’s 37-match win streak in the balance and a place in his first career clay final on the line but the Scot tossed in two double faults and that was that.
Djokovic, who looked dead and gone and physically ailing from some sort of hip injury, broke back for 5-5 and then took charge eventually closing out Murray in a third set tiebreaker to win 6-1, 4-6, 7-6(2) to advance to the Rome Tennis Masters final where he’ll meet again Rafael Nadal for a fourth time this season.
“It was a fantastic match and whoever saw it knows how close it was,” Djokovic told Reuters. “He played really well. I had to earn my points as he wasn’t making a lot of errors. It took a lot out of both of us and unfortunately someone had to lose.”
I felt Murray had a chance but after the first set it looked grim. I thought Djokovic wasn’t playing great but he still blew Murray’s doors off the in the first set. Credit to Murray who regrouped and scraped through the second.
In the middle of the third, Djokovic looked wobbly, tired and at times he seemed content that the streak with his streak ending today especially after getting broken at love to go down that break. But high marks to Novak for getting up off the canvas (or dirt) and gutting one out.
Now it’s a question of fitness with Nadal looming.
“I’ll do what I can, I have a team of people who will do their utmost to get me ready, there’s not much time but we’ll see how I play,” Djokovic said.
“The important thing will be whether I’m fit or not, that will play an important role so we’ll see how fit I am.”
And for Murray, this follows in a long line of collapses that will haunt the Scot who turns 24 Sunday. More often than not when Murray loses a tough match he regresses, let’s see what the upcoming two months hold for him now. Will he rally or will he sulk like he did after the Australian Open final?
“I’m one of the best closers in tennis and I very rarely, especially against the best players, lose matches when serving,” said Murray. “But I played a bad game and I made two double faults. It was good match and I had chances to win. He played very well in the first set and I did not really get into it. I think after that, especially towards the end of the second and third sets, there was some very good tennis.
“I can compete with those guys and I am going to need to play like that and even better if I want to win the French Open,” he said. “So I am going to work hard over the next 4-5 days to build up to it. This has given me confidence going in now. What happened tonight in terms of finishing the match off, it will not let me down. It is the first time it has happened to me and I’ll make sure it is the last.”
Best closers? No you’re not Andy.
As for tomorrow, conventional wisdom is that Djokovic is gassed and a fresh, healthy (un-sick?) Nadal will roll. Djokovic will mail it in, not risk serious injury and be satisfied to end the streak to Nadal knowing that he wasn’t 100%. And he could, but I’m not sold. (He could even withdraw before the match, that would really be a curveball – keep the streak intact, deny Nadal.)
Novak knew the challenge ahead of him down 5-4 in the third when he could have given in and nobody would have blinked an eye. But full credit, he still wanted it, showed that raging desire and took it.
And sure, Djokovic played a 3-hour match today but many players have played matches of that length and still recovered and won the next day. Yet in this new age of wussified players we don’t expect that anymore. And that’s too bad.
So tomorrow I’m going to expect Djokovic to complete the pre-French sweep and beat Nadal. If that hip is OK and he’s not totally drained (though he’s talking like he is – “I’ve played more matches than any player, so it’s normal that you get exhausted. I will do my best to recover for tomorrow”) I think he wins. Nadal hasn’t looked great and like last week, this court – it’s a fast clay court – helps Djokovic more than it does Nadal. That’s right, in this rivalry which Nadal leads 16-10, 9-1 on clay I think Nadal has a better chance against this new Djokovic on hardcourt than on the dirt!
Once again the key, for me, will be Nadal’s serve (assuming Novak’s fit). Because if Rafa doesn’t serve extremely well Djokovic is going to pounce on it and dictate the point from there. He’s a great returned, Nadal’s not a great serve and on clay Nadal’s serve is exposed and even Rafa knows it.
“The situation now is a little bit different and I think he is playing fantastic – he is unbeatable this year and I know that it will be a difficult match if I play against him,” Nadal said of Novak. “But, there is no reason not to fight and there is no reason to not play my best and have confidence on my serve.”
From the baseline it’s been pretty even now. Djokovic missed a high number of balls today but Nadal’s been making some bad errors all week, as well. And I think Djokovic’s backhand has been nasty and if Nadal goes back to that forehand-backhand exchange we saw in Madrid it could be trouble for the Spaniard.
Djokovic’s forehand has more firepower but it’s also more error prone, so I would expect Rafa to tease that side more tomorrow and maybe bring the Serb to the net a little where he’s not as strong as he is from the backcourt.
Djokovic’s second serve is attackable but Nadal just isn’t that offensive minded in his return game. Maybe he will be tomorrow?
And even though he calls Novak the favorite, it’s now Nadal the one with the real pressure. After today’s epic the pressure is off Novak. He can almost go into the match and have fun knowing the Grade A effort he gave today. But Nadal can’t afford to lose again on the eve of the French. Last week it was the altitude, this time Djokovic is tired. The pressure is squarely on Nadal. He’s the King of Clay. He’s suppose to dominate on this surface and he’s the one who wants the revenge for the beating he took last week in front of his home fans.
So if Djokovic has any gas left in the tank, tomorrow is the day to drain it. He’s come this far, he just needs two more sets and then he’ll have a few days off to rest. Why stop now?
In the women’s final it’s Maria Sharapova, who thumped Caroline Wozniacki, against French Open finalist Sam Stosur.
Match time is at 4:15pm local, 10:15 ET, which means under the hot sun in Rome (more trouble Novak?). Tennis Channel has the coverage. ESPN3.com will have live streaming.
SUNDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
S Peng (CHN) / J Zheng (CHN) vs  V King (USA) / Y Shvedova (KAZ) – WTA Doubles Final
Not Before 2:00 PM
 M Sharapova (RUS) vs  S Stosur (AUS) – WTA Singles Final
Not Before 4:15 PM
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  N Djokovic (SRB) – ATP Singles Final
M Fish (USA) / A Roddick (USA) vs J Isner (USA) / S Querrey (USA) – ATP Doubles Final Time TBA
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