What a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday weren’t we just predicting the end of Novak Djokovic and the full-on ascent of the mighty King of Clay, Rafael Nadal? And then today, how quickly things change.
This afternoon in Monte Carlo, Grigor Dimitrov proved the critics wrong, myself included, and showed why the 21-year-old is worth of the that Future of Tennis billing, stretching a misfiring Rafa to three sets in a tough 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 win for the Spaniard.
Nadal cruised early to a 6-2 first set bulge but then the errors really crept in. Dimitrov played blisteringly well, almost Federer-like at times in taking two breaks from the erratic Rafa to stun the crowd and grab the second.
With the tension rising (and Grigor playing on his girlfriend Maria Sharapova’s birthday!), both guys held in the third and even with Rafa still out of sorts, he never let the upstart Bulgarian see a break chance.
Nadal finally broke at 4-4 and served it out for his 45th straight win in Monte Carlo and his 18th in a row this season.
“I know that when you have these tough matches, it is decisive to keep fighting,” said Nadal. “If you keep fighting, you will lose some ones, but you will have a chance to win a lot of ones, too.
“I gave that fight. Finally he had his chance, and I had my one, and I converted. That’s it. I think I played better the last couple of games. Obviously I’m trying to find better rhythm all the time. In my opinion, I did it in the end. It was great.”
Dimitrov, who I doubted had the mettle to pull off such a shocker, still showed me a lot in the loss. And after a string of disappointing defeats to top players, this might have been the best loss of his career.
“It’s a tough loss,” said Dimitrov who turns 22 next month. “Of course, I think I gave everything I had today. I must say, all the credit to him. He’s an extraordinary player, extraordinary fighter. Today he obviously showed why he’s the best not only on that surface, I believe, but he’s one of the best out there.
“Even though I lost the first set, I didn’t lose my composure on court, and that helped me win the second. Eventually when the third started, I felt quite comfortable playing. I actually started rallying with him much more from the baseline, which I think I shouldn’t have done that too much. It’s a good lesson to learn.”
A future Top 10, Top 5 for Grigor? Why not. He played some very impressive tennis today and that backhand I said would be a liability really held up well.
Nadal, who appeared very rattled at times, something we hardly ever see from him on a clay court, moves on the meet JW Tsonga tomorrow in the semifinals. Tsonga edged Stan Wawrinka in three sets 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 to reach his first semifinal in Monte Carlo, and his first at a Masters since 2011.
After a disappointing 2012, under new coach Roger Rasheed perhaps JW is making some real strides this year. Let’s see. Rafa, though, has won seven of their 10 meetings and I think after the scare today, Uncle Toni will have his protege back in form.
“It’s an incredible challenge,” said Tsonga who celebrated his 28th birthday on Wednesday. “He won eight times here. Anything I might achieve will be just a bonus for me. I have no longer any pain in my legs because I know I’m going to play a player that’s a lot better than I am on clay. But I do have some weapons. I have everything to win and nothing to lose.”
In the second semifinal tomorrow, it’s top seed Djokovic against the surprising semifinal Fabio Fognini.
Djokovic brushed aside reports of a dislocated bone in his ankle by “elevating” to his game to its highest level of the week, trouncing Jarkko Nieminen 6-4, 6-3. It still wasn’t anywhere near Novak’s best performance – he was broken three times – but after all the talk and doubt this week, he and his fans have to feel some modicum of relief with the result.
“It was great,” said Djokovic. “Very solid from the back of the court. Played with the right intensity from the start of the match till the end. That’s a big step forward for me today comparing to the first two matches in every sense. I finally got a great feel on the clay. Hopefully I can maintain that level tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Faux-nini reached his first career Masters semifinal by dashing the hopes of Frenchmen Richard Gasquet 7-6, 6-2. I had said yesterday that with Djokovic a question mark, what a great opportunity this was for Gasquet. But once again Richard disappoints.
That said all credit to the Italian drama king. He played pretty well today and at 25 maybe he’s got a big run in him.
“This is one of the best performances ever for me,” continued the Italian. “It’s my first semifinal at a Masters 1000. I have another opportunity to play with a great player here in the center court in front of so many people, special friends and family.”
Fognini and Djokovic have four times and the Serb has won all of them (recall they missed that French Open QF from a few years ago). So if the ankle isn’t a concern – it doesn’t seem to be based on today’s performance – Novak should get through.
“I played another time I think a really good match with a fantastic player,” said Fognini. “I mean, he is Top 10 and has won so many tournaments. Now I just have to say I’m really happy. It’s my first semi-final in Monte Carlo, my home. I’m so happy.”
So any chance we won’t get our dream final? If Novak’s ankle is in bad shape, Fognini is quite the shotmaker and after finally beating some top players, I actually think he could do it. But that’s only if Djokovic’s injury is an issue.
“I have to be prepared for quality rallies,” said Djokovic. “He’s a player who has won against some top players here, a player who feels good. He is going to have nothing to lose and will be motivated to play well in front of his Italian supporters that are many here.”
As for Rafa, Tsonga has beaten him before and he has no fear of the big stage. Plus, few guys can red-line like the Frenchman. But I still have to think Rafa and his team will get his game in order following today’s dangerous duel.
Tennis Channel will have live coverage of both semifinals starting at 7am ET with Rafa the 10am with Novak.
SATURDAY MONTE CARLO SCHEDULE
COURT CENTRAL start 11:00 am
J Benneteau (FRA) / N Zimonjic (SRB) vs D Marrero (ESP) / F Verdasco (ESP) – Possible Court Change
Not Before 1:00 PM
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  J Tsonga (FRA)
Not Before 3:00 PM
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs F Fognini (ITA)
 B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA) vs M Raonic (CAN) / B Tomic (AUS)
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