Wow! What a cracking semifinal we've just seen at the Rome Masters Tennis Tournament. The world No. 2 and No. 4 players served up an ebbing-and-flowing contest which neither one wanted to lose. Novak Djokovic's 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (2) victory in the second semifinal sets up a fourth Masters 1000 final with world No. 1 Rafael Nadal this year. And so the rivalry continues...
But hats off to Andy Murray for playing absolutely out of his skin and taking the game to Djokovic after being outclassed in a one-sided first set. Andy Murray has not only revived his flagging tennis game but has also shown the danger that a man with nothing to lose could pose against a streaking winner like Djokovic.
For all the money in the world, many of the television audience would have switched off and gone about their routines when Djokovic throttled Murray in the first set. However, Andy Murray seems to be no slouch on the slow red dirt this year, as he took a set off Nadal in their Monte Carlo Masters semifinal, and now, took Djokovic the distance in their Rome Masters semifinal.
The statistics tell the story of a master-class in baseline slugging, with Djokovic and Murray getting 69 percent and 63 percent of first serves in and winning 67 percent and 65 percent of points on those first serves, respectively.
A topsy-turvy final set proved to be a contest of nerves more than skill, and Djokovic proved yet again that he seems to have developed a winning habit, no matter how far down the bottom of the barrel he has to scrape through. It was very difficult for either player to hold serve throughout the match as Djokovic won 6-of-13 break points, with Murray nearly returning the favor with 5-of-10 break points converted.
However, the momentum seemed to be with Murray when he broke for 5-4 to earn an opportunity to serve out the match. The pressure, however, told when Murray double-faulted twice in that crucial game to hand Djokovic a lifeline. When both players held serve, albeit shakily, it was off to the lottery of a tiebreak.
After converting his first mini-break during the tiebreaker, Djokovic never looked back and stormed to a 5-1 lead. Murray's attempted comeback earned him just one more point, with Djokovic then closing out the match with a trademark drop shot.
One has to wonder, however, whether the Djokovic fuel tank might not have been overused against Murray. Will the "Djoker" have enough stamina in reserve to take on the might of Rafael Nadal on the slower clay of Rome, as against a pretty straight-forward domination in Madrid?
Nadal might have seen the benefits of being aggressive on the Djokovic serve, as Murray's tactics nearly took him to the brink of ending the Djoker's streak.
However, Nadal will need to be more patient and consistent with his backhand in the long rallies that might ensue in yet another chapter in the ongoing "Raf-okovic" rivalry. Nadal, being left-handed, is likely to receive more serves to his backhand side, and that is where he failed to deliver against Djokovic in Madrid.
It does seem that a draining victory over Murray might have softened up Djokovic for Nadal to feel more confident about a first victory this year over the world No. 2. It will now be up to Djokovic's mental toughness more so than ever, to see whether he can take his winning streak to 39 against the world No. 1 today.
The time might be ripe for Nadal to take out Djokovic in the Rome final to firmly establish himself as the odds-on favorite for yet another Grand Slam win at Roland Garros.