For the second time in as many weeks, Novak Djokovic defeated Kei Nishikori in a clay-court semifinal. Seven days removed from a straight-set victory over the Japanese star at the Madrid Open, Djokovic went the distance and captured a 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(5) victory over the world's sixth-ranked player at the Italian Open in Rome.
Djokovic has now won eight straight matches against Nishikori dating back to the 2014 Paris Masters and will meet Andy Murray—who defeated Lucas Pouille 6-2, 6-1 in Saturday's other semifinal—for the championship on Sunday.
Djokovic opened the proceedings with a mundane first-game win on serve, but things took a sour turn when he was forced to the bench for a medical timeout, according to the New York Times' Ben Rothenberg:
Nishikori immediately pounced and sent Djokovic scrambling across the baseline and up to the net, as he held to tie things at 1-1 in the first set before breaking Djokovic on the Serb's second service game.
Not only did the world No. 1 display some lazy shot-making tendencies, as he repeatedly tried to limit movement by attempting slices from behind the baseline, but Nishikori peppered forehands and backhands to the corners, as ESPN's Brad Gilbert observed:
Nishikori calmly closed out the first set on serve, and Rothenberg noted that Djokovic didn't appear to be 100 percent focused on the action occurring between the lines:
Tennis TV on Twitter provided a statistical overview of Nishikori's opening statement:
Djokovic had a golden opportunity to break Nishikori and take a 2-0 lead early in the second set, but he couldn't take advantage of a 40-0 head start and ceded the set's second game to fall to 0-of-7 on break points for the day.
But in true world No. 1 fashion, Djokovic stood tall and flashed tremendous resolve in the closing stages of the frame.
Although he went 0-of-9 on break points through the stanza's first eight games, he captured his first when he needed it most, snatching a service game away from Nishikori and clinching a 6-4 second-set win, as Tennis TV documented on Twitter:
And once Djokovic had a whiff of success, his momentum started to build. The Serb broke Nishikori to take a 2-0 lead right out of the gate in the third set, and a subsequent hold put him in the driver's seat for a brief stretch.
However, Nishikori didn't go quietly.
Djokovic's adversary added an element of drama when he broke back 4-3, before tying things at 4-4, and he didn't stop there. While he was briefly on the ropes, Nishikori put together a power-packed hold to stave off match (and break) point, evened the third set at five games apiece and ultimately forced a tiebreak.
Djokovic and Nishikori traded figurative blows throughout the decisive segment, but it was Djokovic who finally created separation when he went up 6-3 before closing the tiebreak out on serve.
Thanks to Saturday's come-from-behind triumph, Djokovic will now have a shot at capturing back-to-back clay-court championships over Murray.
He prevailed in their last meeting at the Madrid Open on May 8, and consecutive wins over the world No. 3 should give him the confidence boost he needs entering the French Open—which is the only grand slam event he's failed to win.
Considering Djokovic prioritized a championship-caliber performance at Roland Garros all the way back in February, he should be plenty focused entering the year's second slam.
"The French Open. It's the one I never won," Djokovic said on Feb. 1 following his Australian Open final triumph over Murray, according to the Associated Press (via Tennis.com). "I'll try to put myself in a position to get that trophy."
With a win over Murray on Sunday, he can do just that.
Djokovic talked about the injury that slowed him down in the first set, per Giulio Fedele:
Despite the injury, Djoker wasn't going to use it as an excuse for the way he played. Per Fedele, the world's top-ranked player commended his opponent on an excellent performance:
Nishikori was more critical of his performance in the match, specifically everything that happened after the first set, per Fedele:
Also per Fedele, Nishikori singled out his mistake in the decisive third set tiebreak: "I made three unforced (errors) in a row, that was the biggest mistake I made tonight."
Nadal was a wounded animal early in the match, capable of being knocked down. Nishikori took advantage early, but he left a small opening that any top player in the world is going to take advantage of virtually every time, regardless of what kind of condition he or she is in.