Djokovic beat eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal at the Rome Masters, the final marquee warm-up event before the season's second major. It led to talk about whether the Serbian star should assume favored status ahead of the "King of Clay."
Piers Newbery off BBC Sport passed along comments from the tournament's second seed, who admitted Nadal remains the player to beat on the surface:
The last few years have been quite successful for me at Roland Garros.
Especially the last two, where I played finals and semi-finals and lost in both of the matches against Nadal, who has the best record on clay and best record here, and obviously is still number one favorite to win the tournament this year.
It would appear the friendly rivals are on a collision course for the championship match. Both players still have some hurdles to jump before that becomes reality, though.
For Djokovic, he had to overcome the heavy-hitting Cilic in his first matchup with a seeded foe.
He came out of the gates a bit slow and the more aggressive Cilic was able to take advantage. He scored a quick break and then consolidated it with a hold to grab an early 3-1 edge. It looked at that point like the No. 2 player in the world could be in for a long afternoon.
Djokovic was quickly able to bounce back, however. He started to find a rhythm on the return despite the Croatian firing on all cylinders. It allowed him to go on a run to get back level and eventually take control of the opening set.
Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe noted Cilic was still the aggressor, but in typical Djokovic fashion he was finding ways to win points:
Down 1-3, Djokovic is back on the lead 4-3 but I still feel he's too passive. Needs to dictate cause Cilic is really attacking him.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) May 30, 2014
After that early 3-1 hole, Djokovic ended up winning five straight games to take the opening set. Cilic didn't play poorly, although his error count did rise as the set went on, it was just a matter of the favorite being better once the point got to neutral.
Andrew Jerell Jones of First Look Sports pointed out Cilic just hasn't been able to get over the hump when up against "Djoker:"
Still hasn't change. When it matters the most in a tight set, no matter the form of Cilic, he will succumb to Djokovic. He'll compete tho.— Andrew Jerell Jones (@sluggahjells) May 30, 2014
The match turned even more in favor of Djokovic in the second. The combination of power and precision Cilic showed early on began to fade. The result was just four winners, which isn't nearly enough for him to beat a top opponent.
Sure enough, the four-time Australian Open champion looked far more comfortable. Darren Cahill noted his strong play:
Novak Djokovic has weathered an early barrage of winners from Marin Cilic. In control now leading 6/3 5/2. Playing beautifully.— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) May 30, 2014
Djokovic proceeded to capture the second second without much of a battle, 6-2.
Credit to Cilic for continuing to fight despite the deficit. He broke for a 4-2 lead midway through the third set, but Djokovic got back level in the next service game.
Cilic later got a look at a break point to take the set at 6-5, but barely missed a winner down the line. Djokovic then came back to hold and force a tiebreak.
That's where the Croatian was finally able to convert a lead. He crushed forehands off seemingly every line to race out to a 4-1 lead. This time he made sure Djokovic wasn't able to mount a comeback as he forced a fourth set with a 7-2 win in the breaker.
Barry Flatman of the Sunday Times was impressed with the underdog's effort:
Will this be a test for @DjokerNole? Got to say Marin Cilic looks really up for the challenge— Barry Flatman (@Barry_FlatmanST) May 30, 2014
The dropped set seemed to serve as a wake-up call for Djokovic. He came out revitalized in the fourth set, grabbing a quick break. On the flip side, Cilic wasn't able to match his third-set form early in the set, likely because of all the energy he had to expend to win it.
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Djokovic stretched the lead to 3-0 in the set and never trailed from there. He would have liked to close it out in straight sets, but having to play a competitive match at this stage should help him prepare for the even tougher matchups surely on the horizon on the road toward a title.
Cilic did eventually provide some resistance in the fourth set, but fell 6-4. The win moves Djokovic to 9-0 in meetings between the pair, including two wins this season.
Looking ahead, the second seed will play the winner of an intriguing encounter between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jerzy Janowicz in the fourth round. He holds an 11-5 career mark against Tsonga and has never played the rising star from Poland.
Although either player should amount to his biggest challenge of the tournament so far, he will be the overwhelming favorite. It's going to take an extraordinary effort for anybody to prevent a meeting between Djokovic and Nadal in the final.