For the second straight day the top two players in the world, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, found themselves against the ropes at the Rome Masters, this time against fellow Top 10ers.
First Djokovic who had come into the event on shaky footing after that mysterious wrist setback. But this week the wrist has been a welcome non-issue and his from sound. Today he matched up with veteran and 2013 French finalist David Ferrer.
Djokovic jumped out early, though blew his first chance to serve for the opening set. Ferrer stiffened to take the second. Novak regained some form in the third yet once again – as we’ve seen him do much of the season – squandered a break advantage. Ferrer fought back to level but Djokovic eventually closed it out for a hardfought 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 victory.
“It was the most physical match I had on clay this year,” said Djokovic. “I am really glad to overcome this challenge because David is a great competitor. I respect him a lot. We all know how good his record is on clay – the best after Nadal. Knowing that I am going to work for every single point of the match, coming out as a winner gives me a lot of satisfaction and confidence.”
The win puts Novak into the semis tomorrow against the surprising Milos Raonic. The Canadian has benefited from a great draw absent of any true clay threats. Still, he did beat JW Tsonga and this afternoon Jeremy Chardy was his victim 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 so he’s playing with confidence this week.
“I don’t think clay will be my best surface, but I think it can come close,” said Raonic who trainer in his early days on the clay in Barcelona. “I like having the time. I’ve just got to not doubt my game plan in tough moments, like at the end of the second set where I got a little bit too defensive. I’ve got to keep my foot on the pedal, play aggressive and try to dictate as much as I can. I think the clay can be good for me.”
Anyone with a serve like that is a threat on any surface.
In the second semi, it’s Nadal against the rapidly improving Grigor Dimitrov. Playing on his 23rd birthday, Dimitrov got a nice present from 36-year-old Tommy Haas who had to retire after losing the first set 6-2 with a shoulder injury.
“It was one of the most memorable days of my life,” said Dimitrov. “I was just talking to my team, it’s my first win on my birthday, so it feels good. It’s a bit unfortunate, the way it ended up. But I’m just a happy birthday boy today.”
Birthday boy today, tomorrow chum for Rafa? Maybe or maybe not.
Nadal’s struggles resumed today this time to Andy Murray. In their first meeting in over two years, Murray shockingly took the first set 6-1 from the “King of Clay”. After a tense opening two games, Nadal forged ahead 2-0 to seize control of the second.
But things against got tight in the third with Murray recovering from an early break before finally succubing 1-6, 6-3, 7-5.
“I went more to the net in the second set and played with more passion,” Nadal explained. “During the night the ball got slower and the bounces got slower.
“This match gives me the power and confidence.”
Um, ok. But fact is, Rafa, you’re not playing well because if you were playing well you wouldn’t be losing 6-1 sets to guys like Murray! Murray’s good, but he’s not “6-1 good” on clay!
And Rafa knows. Heck, everyone knows. For whatever reasons Nadal’s just not feeling it right now.
As for Murray, he looked very good at times tonight, and it’s a good sign for sign his Wimbledon title defense.
“I don’t fell like people have respected the severity of having back surgery, it takes time and I feel I am getting closer to where I want to be,” Murray said. “Tonight was the best I hit the ball and best I felt physically since the surgery.”
Now to some quick thoughts on tomorrow.
Milos Raonic v Novak Djokovic
I give Milos a chance but like I said, he hasn’t played anyone worth a lick on clay this week. Now he’s matched up against the very best returner in the business on one of his better surfaces. Granted, Djokovic has been prone to lapses and he’s hardly in peak 2011 form, but he’s got the exeperience and the game, and even though he had a grinder of a match today, he should be fresh for success.
The only time these two paired up was on clay last year and Novak whipped him in straights at Davis Cup. So more of the same tomorrow.
The pick: Djokovic in two
Rafael Nadal v Grigor Dimitrov
The way Nadal’s giving sets out like Halloween candy you have to like Dimitrov’s chances here. He pushed Rafa at the Aussie and took a set from him at Monte Carlo last year. In fact, while Nadal leads the Bulgarian 4-0 Grigor’s won a set in each of those losses. And based on what I’ve seen from Nadal this week, there’s little reason to think that trend won’t continue.
Nadal’s just been too patchy and the shots often don’t have that power or that depth we usually see. What we do see are a lot of bad errors deep in rallies or the errant frame job off the forehand.
And perhaps all the tennis he’s played – three straight days of three set matches – are piling up. While, Dimitrov, who just celebrated birthday No. 23 today, has to be fresh as a 23-year-old should be!
So I absolutely give Grigor a chance for the upset, however he’ll have to do it two. That’s because like Grigor’s girlfriend, Maria Sharapova, Rafa’s just been awfully tough in final sets this month. So I’ll with lean on him here. But you can see the magic if fading.
The pick: Nadal in three
In the women’s semifinals, Serena Williams is the big favorite to come away with the title this week. She’ll take on former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. In the first semi it’s Jelena Jankovic against Sara Errani.
Tennis Channel has live coverage of all four semifinals starting at 6am ET.
SATURDAY MADRID SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
WTA –  J Jankovic (SRB) vs  S Errani (ITA)
Not Before 2:00 pm
ATP –  M Raonic (CAN) vs  N Djokovic (SRB)
Not Before 4:30 pm
WTA –  S Williams (USA) vs  A Ivanovic (SRB)
Not Before 8:00 pm
ATP –  R Nadal (ESP) vs  G Dimitrov (BUL)
After Suitable Rest – R Haase (NED) / F Lopez (ESP) vs G Dimitrov (BUL) / L Rosol (CZE)
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Watch Grigor Dimitrov Get Birthday Cake In The Face [Video]
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