After a subpar start to his clay season Novak Djokovic desperately needed a big win and today he got it. The Serb elevated his game thumping Roger Federer 6-2, 7-6(4) to advance to Sunday’s Rome Tennis Masters final where he’ll meet rival Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic started out the match against the in-form Federer looking like his 2011 unbeatable self. While his serve wasn’t quite there, Djokovic dominated play with his powerful, heavy groundstrokes and jaw-dropping defense. And really for the first hour of the affair it was a mismatch.
Credit to Federer, who didn’t go away. Djokovic served for the match at 5-4 but Roger wouldn’t let him slam the door shut as he turned the tables by ripping his own forehand winner down matchpoint. At one point, Federer had reeled off 15 of 19 points and stood two points on Novak’s serve from forcing a third.
Djokovic, though, regrouped just in a nick of time, got to the tiebreak and finished off Federer in confident fashion.
Djokovic has now won two straight over Roger and five consecutive sets going back to the US Open. Federer still leads their series 14-11 but Djokovic right now has the upper hand.
For Federer, after some question marks if he’d even play, he had a good week in Rome reaching the semifinals. I just not sure if just playing on a slippery blue surface in Madrid and then Rome is going to be enough. For me, it’s hard to put much stock in Madrid, leaving Rome where Federer collected wins over three very average players. So I don’t know how he’s going to beat both Djokovic and Nadal in best-of-5 sets on clay to win the French. It may just be too tough a task these days for a guy his age. He may very well need some help in Paris.
”Overall, I don’t think I was playing good enough,” Federer admitted to the AP. ”Plus, I was a bit tired. I’ve been playing a lot lately.”
In the earlier semifinal, Nadal stayed perfect this year on the red clay, again beating his countryman David Ferrer in straight sets, this time 7-6(6), 6-0. The near-90 minute first set was an absolute slugfest with Nadal escaping by the slimmest of margins.
“The first set was unbelievable, how David set the match with amazing rhythm and aggression,” said Nadal who’ll bid for a sixth Rome title. “His movements were unbelievably good and so I did the best possible for me. The thing that I tried to do was to maintain the score close. After the first seven games of the match [it was] more equal; before it was not.”
For Ferrer, maybe this is the year he finally makes the French Open semifinals? With Andy Murray slumping and Tomas Berdych/Juan Martin Del Potro unknowns, this could very well be the last best shot for the 30-year-old who’s made the last four at the US and Australian Opens but never in Paris.
Looking to tomorrow, Nadal-Djokovic is the best rivalry in tennis right now. Nadal leads 17-14 but his last win in Monte Carlo comes with an asterisk as Djokovic was dealing with the death of his grandfather. Before that, Djokovic had won seven straight including the Rome title a year ago.
Both guys come into Sunday, fit, fresh and in-form. So for me, this one carries with it much more weight than Monte Carlo. And I think Nadal knows that and takes Djokovic down again.
After all those losses last year, Rafa came awfully close in Australia and then got the paper win in Monte Carlo. Now, to cement his momentum going into the French he needs this one.
That said, the match will rest on Novak’s racquet. Djokovic’s best beats Nadal’s best, on any surface. If the Djokovic ups his serve and plays from the ground like he did at the start against Federer, he’ll win. His game just matches up so well against Nadal – diffusing the Nadal forehand and attacking Rafa’s weak second serve – and we know he’s already well inside the Spaniard’s head.
In the end I just think Nadal finishes the job here. He hasn’t lost a set on the red clay this season and Novak will need two to win. And even though he looked much, much better today, I’m still not convinced Novak’s is back in 2011 form, and to beat Nadal in best-of-3 he’ll need to be.
Djokovic has also made it clear his big goal is the French Open where history will await the “Djoker Slam”. And after getting that big win today part of me wonders how much he’s willing to expend Sunday when the bigger prize is down the road.
Who would be more upset losing Sunday, Rafa or Novak? I say Rafa.
”We’re both physically fit and fresh and ready to deliver our best tomorrow,” Djokovic said to the AP. ”We have a great rivalry. He’s the player I’ve played the most against in my career and there are no secrets. It’s going to be a good fight. It would be good for both of us to get that trophy before Paris.
”Playing Rafa is always a challenge. He’s the best player ever on this surface. But after 2011, I know I can win now,” Djokovic added. ”I need to step into the court and take chances and not allow him to move me around.”
In the women’s final, after Serena Williams decided to rest for Roland Garros, it’s reigning French Open champion Li Na against Maria Sharapova.
Tennis Channel has coverage live coverage starting at 7:30am ET. And as always with Nadal-Djokovic matches be sure to block out a good chuck of your Sunday because it’s likely going to be a long, very long final.
SUNDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 11:30 am
 S Errani (ITA) / R Vinci (ITA) vs E Makarova (RUS) / E Vesnina (RUS) – WTA – Doubles Final
Not Before 1:45 PM
 N Li (CHN) vs  M Sharapova (RUS) – WTA – Singles Final
Not Before 4:00 PM
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP – Singles Final
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