Novak Djokovic fought back after dropping the opening set to defeat Milos Raonic 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 at the 2014 Rome Masters.
Emerging from the fierce three-hour battle allowed him to earn a spot in the championship match on Sunday.
There were questions coming into the week about Djokovic's right wrist. He had to withdraw from the Madrid Open last week due to the ailment, and it was starting to become a growing concern with the French Open, the season's second major, right around the corner.
He felt good enough to make his return in Rome, however, and has shown no signs of any further setbacks en route to the final. Before the event, Andrew Dampf of the Associated Press (via ABC News) passed along comments from the Serbian star about dealing with the injury:
It's a wiser decision if you try to heal it 100 percent than 50 percent and compromise the next weeks.
The second time that it comes back it becomes a chronic injury, which you definitely don't want to have. From now on I will be extra careful about my wrist.
Djokovic certainly didn't look any worse for wear as he exchanged heavy forehands with the hard-hitting Canadian. Raonic was happy to oblige, of course.
Unsurprisingly, they exchanged service holds for a majority of the first set. Both players had a couple looks in the early going to get a break, but neither was able to capitalize. They each had another gear when they needed it to hold.
For Djokovic, that's an area of continued improvement. Howard Bryant of ESPN notes the No. 2 player in the world is now converting service games at an elite rate:
Another problem Djokovic poses: He's now holding serve at 90 pct, which is a career-best for him and Isner/Raonic territory.— Howard Bryant (@hbryant42) May 17, 2014
Raonic was matching him hold for hold, though. Perhaps the most impressive part was how far he kept pushing Djokovic behind the baseline. His combination of forehand power and precision was tough to deal with, even on the slower clay court.
Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe stated the 23-year-old rising star's better movement contributed to his ability to force the six-time Grand Slam champion off the court:
Djokovic needs to take the ball earlier cause Raonic is really moving way better this year. He won't "toy" him around easily.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) May 17, 2014
Djokovic had multiple opportunities to break with Raonic serving at 4-4 but couldn't grab the lead. A tremendous touch shot at the net from the Canadian on one of the break points was worthy of making the highlight reel.
A couple of points later, Djokovic fired his racquet to the ground as the frustration of missed chances boiled over. Raonic proceeded to rack up another service hold. The trend led to a tiebreak to decide the first set.
Djokovic rushed out to a 3-0 lead before Raonic mounted a furious rally. He won six straight points after falling into that early hole and closed out the opening set with a 7-5 win in the tiebreaker.
Brad Gilbert of ESPN raved over Raonic's improvement on clay:
Wow Missile Raonic takes the 1st set vs Djoker amazing how much better he has gotten on the Red Clay— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) May 17, 2014
The confidence gained from winning the first set was on display early in the second. Raonic was able to make serious inroads on the Djokovic serve in each of his first two return games of the set. He just wasn't able to convert any of the three break chances.
Having survived those chances for Raonic to take complete control of the match, Djokovic fought back to edge ahead in the second set. He scored the first break at the end of a long game to grab the 3-1 lead.
SI.com's Beyond The Baseline provided Djokovic's reaction:
Novak Djokovic roars as he *finally* breaks the Raonic serve. Leads 3-1 in the second. pic.twitter.com/LMY4VSouWp— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) May 17, 2014
The lead was shortlived, though. Raonic fought back to get his first break of the match in the very next game to get the set back on serve.
From there, the second set starting looking more like the first. Both players started trading holds, many with relative ease. So they headed to another tiebreak.
This time it was Djokovic who rose to the occasion. He played far more aggressively than he did in the first tiebreak and it paid off. After grabbing a 5-4 lead, he won two straight points off Raonic's serve to level the match at one set apiece.
Arash Madani of Sportsnet remarked that the Serb looked more like his usual self during the tiebreaker:
Vintage Novak Djokovic. Plays a superb point to set up set point, then wins the second set tiebreak. To a third vs Raonic. Terrific stuff.— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) May 17, 2014
Djokovic proceeded to do exactly what Raonic couldn't early in the second. He earned a break in the first game of the deciding set to grab his first advantage of the match. That killer instinct is often the difference between a Grand Slam champion and a player still trying to reach that level.
The second seed consolidated the break and he was off to the races.
Who's your pick to win the 2014 Rome Masters?
Unfortunately for Raonic, the long match led to him losing some of his power by the third set. In turn, he wasn't able to push Djokovic off the court quite as frequently and the second seed was finally able to get into a comfort zone.
He never let Raonic get the break back as he captured the final set 6-3 to advance.
The Canadian deserves a lot of credit for his effort. He was the better player for a majority of the first two sets but simply couldn't put Djokovic away. And when you give a player of that caliber a second chance, he's usually going to take advantage of it.
Looking ahead, Djokovic will face the winner of the second semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov in the final. He holds an 18-22 career record against Nadal and a more favorable 3-1 mark against Dimitrov.
While he would obviously love to win the title, the more important thing is that he's returned to the court and looked healthy.
He should be all systems go when the French Open gets underway next weekend as he looks to complete the career Grand Slam.