He played better, he’s getting closer, but Rafael Nadal still cannot solve the Novak Djokovic riddle right now. And few can! Today, Nadal lost his 7th straight to his rival in the Rome quarterfinals 7-5, 7-6(4) in a very good, very entertaining match.
“Certainly winning against Nadal on clay doesn’t happen often, doesn’t happen every day,” Djokovic said. “So it is one of the ultimate challenges if not the ultimate challenge we have in sports. So I’m going to take this as a boost of confidence, no doubt, for the rest of this tournament and then of course for French Open.”
Djokovic, though, began the match much like he did yesterday when he was force fed a bagel by another lefty, Thomaz Bellucci. Nadal jumped out early grabbing a break thanks to a rather sloppy start from the Serb.
Neither player was in form but things heated up quickly.
Djokovic served 0-30, 2-4 but managed to scrape out a long, bruising hold. The body blows didn’t stop there as Djokovic continued to find the range eventually breaking Rafa in another long game to level at 4-all.
Nadal stopped Djokovic’s momentum to square it a five, but capping it with this incredible point, Djokovic won five of the last six games to take the opening set 7-5.
Nadal, however, wouldn’t allow himself to get down. In a blink he was back up a break and led 3-1 before once again Djokovic clawed his way back to level. And then Rafa’s nerves got the best of him once again.
Serving 5-4 in the second, Nadal – almost on cue since we’ve seen it so much from him – failed to convert any of the five set points he had in that game. Novak played well on many of them, but if you’re Rafa, you’re the King of Clay, you’re the 7-time Rome champion, you have to convert once of those! He didn’t, Djokovic broke back and eventually took the tiebreak.
“I was fortunate in important moments,” said Djokovic after his 14th straight win in Rome. “But I managed to take him out of his comfort zone in important moments and didn’t give him always the same look. I thought he played high quality tennis. He tried to step in. He was trying to play aggressive. But towards the end, I guess I was a bit more fortunate.
“I think the last 20 minutes of the match was a very high quality of tennis, entertaining, of course, for the crowd, for us players, as well.”
Nadal showed some signs of life – had a decent serving day, especially on his second serve and hit with some depth. Djokovic played pretty well. The end is the same. That’s 15 straight sets for Djokovic against Rafa and he’s now won 7 straight sets against Nadal on clay.
“I am playing well,” Nadal said. “It was a beautiful match, a little bit unlucky for me today, so many chances in the first set. I have to congratulate him. When somebody is winning as much as he is doing last year and months, two years, we know the dynamics are so important. He was hitting great shots in important moments.”
Does a match like this help Rafa? I don’t know. Those five set points in the second will probably keep him up a few nights. He did show some good form, but there’s little to believe he can win three sets off Djokovic right now on clay.
“In general I’m playing well in the most of the matches most of the time,” Nadal added. “And today I was there mentally fighting for every point, hitting good shots. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s better for me best-of-five or best-of-three. Is something that I don’t think about it now. The only thing that I think is I have been very, very, very close this afternoon, and that’s positive.
“I have been competing at the highest level against the best player. Play a match like this, best player of the world, that’s the only thing that give me the confidence.”
Djokovic will now face Kei Nishikori who brushed off Dominic Thiem 6-3, 7-5 (wait, Djokovic-Nadal wasn’t the final?)
“He is a tough opponent,” Nishikori said. “He hits very heavy on both wings. Great backhands. Not many weaknesses.
“It was really a battle of groundstrokes from the baseline. At the moment I’m playing really well. I returned well. I tried to stay because he has a great kick serve.”
Earlier in the day, Andy Murray continued to prove why he’s a real threat in Paris. A day after embarrassing Tomas Berdych with a double bagel, David Goffin found himself eating his own breakfast snack courtesy of an opening set Murray breadstick.
Goffin got on track in the second pushing the Scot, but after several breaks of serve Murray hung on for a tough 6-1, 7-5 victory.
“I knew that he must have been playing well coming into the match, and I went in expecting it to be very tough. He got off to the best possible start. But it was very hard from that end of the court. You’re playing right into the wind,” Murray said, “But the most pleasing thing about the match today was each time I got broken, I broke back right away, so I never allowed him to get any momentum.”
Murray’s opponent in the final is the surprising Frenchman Lucas Pouille. The 22-year-old only got into the draw via a “Lucky Loser” when his countryman JW Tsonga withdrew. And today he received a second reward thanks to a walkover from Juan Monaco who was unable to play due to a left hip injury.
Lucky Lucas it is. Let’s see how lucky my picks will be.
Andy Murray v Lucas Pouille
What a great draw for Murray. I said at the start of the week Murray had to happy with his draw. Well, he’s got to be even happier now having to face the 52nd-ranked Pouille for a spot in a Masters final. Pouille, though, is a decent player who hits the ball pretty hard and could be tricky if he gets into a zone.
“He’s very good,” said Murray of Pouille. “By the end of this year he’ll be up close to the Top 20 in the world, potentially higher. I think after this tournament he will be around 30, at least. It’s going to be a difficult match for me. I don’t expect it to be easy.”
While just 22 Pouille is certainly on an upward trajectory, it’s hard seeing him pull the upset here. Murray’s playing too well right and clay really is starting to become his best surface.
“I think I’m getting rewarded now for the work that I put in over the years on this surface,” said Murray. “Obviously took me time to feel comfortable on it. But I didn’t sort of just give up on clay and say, ‘You know what? This isn’t my surface. I’m not going to prepare for it properly or train hard.’”
The pick: Murray in two
Novak Djokovic v Kei Nishikori
Wait, didn’t these two just play? Yup, for the second straight week they meeting the semifinals, and it’s the fourth time already this year after Australia and Miami. And I think the result is going to be the same.
That said, I don’t think Djokovic is as sharp as he would like to be. I don’t know if that’s the court, the wind, maybe fatigue from Madrid, but whatever it is he’s not up to par. So Nishikori has a chance here, just like Nadal did today.
I just have to think Djokovic will correct the mistakes and come out with intensity from first ball.
The pick: Djokovic in two
Tennis Channel has live coverage once again from 6am ET. It looks like another Djokovic-Murray matchup, can either Nishikori or Pouille player spoiler?
SATURDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTER COURT start 12:00 noon
WTA –  G. Muguruza (ESP) vs M. Keys (USA)
Not Before 2:30 pm
ATP – [LL] L. Pouille (FRA) vs  A. Murray (GBR)
Not Before 5:00 pm
WTA –  S. Williams (USA) vs I. Begu (ROU)
Not Before 8:00 pm
ATP –  N. Djokovic (SRB) vs  K. Nishikori (JPN)
ATP – [PR] J. Benneteau (FRA) / E. Roger-Vasselin (FRA) vs  B. Bryan (USA) / M. Bryan (USA)
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