For the third straight day Novak Djokovic had to fight to stay alive in the Rome Masters. After dropping a bagel set Thursday to Thomaz Bellucci, Djokovic fought off a tough Rafael Nadal Friday and today overcame an early ankle issue to take down Kei Nishikori in a 3-hour thrill ride 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(5).
Djokovic again came out scratchy, and early on needed treatment for what looked like a minor bone bruise after whacking his racquet on his ankle.
“It was an awkward situation,” Djokovic said of the injury. “The first game, instead of cleaning my shoes, I hit myself pretty hard, ankle, and actually have a bruised bone which I have right now which was hurting for a while. Then the pain faded away but then returned towards the end of the match. Back and forth. I hope that tomorrow it’s going to be fine.
“But message to all the kids out there: Be aware, when you’re cleaning your shoes, make sure the frame hits your shoe.”
The Serb’s footing was a little unsettled, but Djokovic found his feet in the second and third sets. Yet just when it appeared Nishikori was going to go away down a break in the third, the Asian No. 1 stormed back, saved a matchpoint and forced a deciding breaker. Niskikori, who’s been so rock solid in deciding lets, drew blood first to lead 3-1, but the ever resilient Djokovic win six of the last eight points for the win.
“I thought it was even better than my match against Rafa and the way he was striking the ball,’ assessed Djokovic. “He was making it very tough for me to do anything, really, from the baseline but to defend and wait for the opportunities. Maybe in some games when his balls are maybe a bit shorter in the rally, which started to happen at the beginning of second set, but first set was flawless, I mean, from his side. I couldn’t do too much.”
While Djokovic persevered, you have to credit Nishikori who gave Novak all he could and then some. I think today he proved that he’s on the list of guys Novak has to watch out for in Paris.
“I’m really disappointed,” said Nishikori. “I was playing really good tennis in the first set. I was playing aggressive. I think I stopped doing that in second set. Also, he started playing better. In the third, I think I could have been a little better and he was giving me a lot of pressure and I wasn’t making many first serves. So that was costing me a lot of points.
“In the tiebreak I made too many unforced errors and three in a row from 3-all. That was the biggest mistake today.”
Djokovic has now made the finals at 23 of his last 26 events, and he’s won his last 14 matches in Rome plus his last 17 against Top 10 players. But there’s no time to celebrate.
Tomorrow comes more opposition in the form of a very hot Andy Murray. The Scot, as we thought, blew out lucky loser Lucas Pouille 6-2, 6-1 and he hasn’t dropped a set all week.
“I think I have made some improvements in my game,” said Murray. “Last year I was winning a lot of matches at this time of the year, but I do think I’m playing better tennis this year. I think my serve has been a big improvement for me.
“That’s why in matches like today, Lucas had no opportunities on my serve. I had a few matches like that over the past few weeks, and that hasn’t always been the case.
“To get like a win in the semifinals of a Masters 1000 losing five points on serve is the first time that’s happened in my career, and that’s been the most pleasing thing for me.”
So to the final with two very familiar names…once again for the second straight week.
Novak Djokovic v Andy Murray
Djokovic leads in this long-time rivalry 23-9 but more significantly has won 12 of the last 13 against Murray, taking four straight including a 3-set win a week ago in the Madrid final.
The Madrid conditions and court were more favorable for Murray than Djokovic, but Novak still came out ahead. Rome is the reverse. Murray’s in just his first final there, Djokovic his seventh, seeking a fifth title and third straight.
So based on tournament history and their head-to-head, the advantage on paper clearly goes to Djokovic.
However, Murray has looked outstanding this week, though granted he’s benefited from a fantastic draw, too. Plus, it’s his 29th birthday. What a present that would be finally stopping Djokovic!
“I don’t remember winning any matches, really, on my birthday which isn’t a great sign,” joked Murray. “Hopefully tomorrow that will change.”
And Murray played just an hour today.
Meanwhile, Djokovic has really, really had to work the last three days and I wonder if that plays a role on Sunday. After all, he just won Madrid, played about 5.5 hours or so of tennis the last two days, so he’s got to be feeling something, especially with an awfully short 17-hour turnaround for the final.
The ankle, the long matches, the late nights, etc. They have to catch up, right? But Djokovic seems to be immune to fatigue. We’ve seen it time and time again. And he’s won Rome the last two years beating the other two Big 4 rivals. Mentally, that has to help.
So as for Murray’s best chance? Well, Had this final been in Madrid where Murray’s been more comfortable, I would take the Scot to author the upset. And I want to take him here in Rome, I really do – the cards are so lined up!
But I just think Djokovic will somehow shake off any weariness and find his form and his “A” game. This close to Paris he can’t give his rivals like Rafa and Murray any edge or belief with so much at stake in two weeks. He can’t ease up. One last push and then he gets his week of rest.
The pick: Djokovic in 3
What would surprise me most here is a straightforward Djokovic win in two sets. That would be more surprising than Murray winning in straights, which is possible if Novak is completely gassed.
And if there’s more rain on Sunday delaying the final, that could help Novak rest a little more. But in the end beating three of your biggest French Open threats in Nadal, Nishikori and then Murray would be quite a statement for Djokovic to make heading into Paris.
Let’s see if he can do it.
Tennis Channel has live coverage with the Serena-Keys women’s final at 8am ET, followed by the men’s final at 11am ET. It’s the last match for both guys before the French Open, and it feels like we are going to see this matchup one more time before the clay season concludes.
You Might Like:
Happy 30th Birthday To Andy Murray!
Novak Djokovic’s Physio: He Should Be Ready For Rome And The French Open
Andy Murray Admits: “I Swear On Court Regularly”
Watch Grigor Dimitrov Get Birthday Cake In The Face [Video]
French Open Draw: Rafael Nadal Lands In Novak Djokovic’s Quarter!