For the second time in two weeks, the top 2 seeds will battle it our for an ATP Masters 1000 title. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will bring to termination their contrasting paths to the title in the Italian capital. While Djokovic has had to battle it out in each and every round of the tournament, Murray has not dropped more than 6 games in any of his four matches, thus far.
The contrast in paths was at its starkest on the semifinals day, yesterday, as the world No.1 got taken to the extreme limits by an in-form Kei Nishikori, compared to the British No.1 who routinely dismissed the young Frenchman who was making his debut in a Masters 1000 semifinal. Djokovic edged through his marathon match with Nishikori 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(5). Murray registered a comfortable 6-2, 6-1 win over Lucas Pouille, earlier in the day.
The first semifinal was rescheduled to be the first match on Center Court and Murray continued his impressive clay court form and ensured there was no let off on the pressure on the younger Pouille, who was playing in the biggest match of his career. Murray was leading 4-2 when the rains forced a break. One would think this break would have disadvantaged the nervous Pouille even further as evidenced by the fact that he only won one game after the break.
Murray put up an impressive show of serving losing only 5 points on serve, the entire match. In the four matches that he has played on his road to the championship match, Murray has dropped a sum total of 19 games in 4 matches and 8 sets. He will be hoping his relatively easier path to the final will prove an asset and not a disadvantage in the final.
As Murray awaited for his opponent in the final, Djokovic got himself into a battle royale with the Japanese No.1 – Kei Nishikori. In many senses, Djokovic’s titanic struggle was a self inflicted one as he hurt himself with an awkward injury to his ankle as he tried to clean his shoes off the clay. The situation required a medical time-out and the distraction seemed to put him off physically and mentally.
Nishikori made the 4 time Italian Open champ pay for that indiscretion by breaking serve twice and closing out the first set 6-2. As the second set progressed, the Serbian started finding his bearings and after being unable to convert his first 9 break points, Djokovic stopped the hemorrhage by delivering on the the 10th opportunity in the 10th game of the second set as Nishikori was serving to stay in the set.
As in the second set, Djokovic had the advantage of serving first in the third set and he continued his momentum from the end of the second set to jump to a 3-0 lead with a break of serve. However, the world No.6 who has an outstanding deciding set record, pulled things back with a break of serve to level the match at 4-4 in the third set. The world No.1 kept up the pressure and created a match point in the 10th game of the final set.
Nishikori held his nerve to erase the match point and after another round of holding serves, the match headed to a deserved final set tie-break. The 2014 Madrid Masters finalist jumped into a quick lead with a mini break to lead 3-1 in the breaker, but Djokovic reeled off 5 points in a row – with some help from his opponent one must say. Nishikori staved off 2 match points, but Djokovic ensured that there was no further drama by converting on his 4th match point with a big serve down the T.
The victory means a 33rd showdown between the Serbian and British superstars. Djokovic leads the rivalry 23-9 including 12 of the last 13 matches. The relatively brutal draw Djokovic had to navigate means Murray will be the fresher of the two and the 2 time Grandslam champion will be hoping he can use the physical and mental weariness of the defending champion to his advantage.
The other side of the coin is that Murray has not been battle tested and might not be up to the physical and mental demands of taking on the 11 time Grandslam champion who will not want to go to Paris with a loss to his closest rival. Given that Murray is assured of the 2nd seeding at French Open, this could be a preview of the final at Roland Garros, 3 sundays from now.
Given the returning abilities these two possess and the slow nature of clay courts, the match could be decided on how well the players serve and Murray will be hoping his impressive serving from the semifinal will continue in the final, as well. Djokovic, for his part, will not want to start slowly like he has done all tournament. As resilient as Djokovic is, going down early against Murray might not only put the final at risk, but his entire 2016 clay court campaign.
That will not be a situation Djokovic will want to put himself in given his quest for that elusive Grandslam on the red dirt. Expect Djokovic to come out all guns blazing and make sure he sets the tempo for the match from the get-go.
Murray could not have picked a better way for the week to have unfolded thus far (short of Djokovic losing to some other player) and he will be eager to use this opportunity to land his 2nd Masters 1000 on clay, however Djokovic will be too keen to ensure his clay court campaign stays on track. Djokovic to win in 2 hard fought sets.