Saturday, 14 May 2016

Novak beats Rafa in a thriller

Quarter final day in Rome saw seven matches played, four women's and three men's,  one less from the men's draw due to Juan Monaco giving Lucas Pouille a walkover into the semis, something the French player grabbed with relish.  The only reason Lucas is playing in the main draw of this Masters event is thanks to the late withdrawal of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  He replaced Tsonga as the lucky loser from qualifying.
Now he had become the beneficiary of another player's misfortune.  Could this lucky streak extend beyond the semi final ?  I seriously doubt it,  but strange things can happen.

I won't bother detailing much about any of the support matches other than saying the favourites won.  Murray defeated Goffin, Nishikori eliminated Thiem,  Williams smashed Kuznetsova, Muguruza fixed up Bacsinszky,  Keys locked out Strycova, and Begu overcame Doi.

Semi finals will be Williams v Begu, Muguruza v Keys, Murray v Pouille and Nishikori v the winner of the only quarter final that people were interested in - Djokovic v Nadal.

The expectations were fulfilled many times over as the two best clay courters in the world delivered one of the best matches of the year.

In tricky conditions effected by a variable and uncaring wind, the two stars held their early serves and at 2–2 no clue was offered as to which player, if any had started the better.  Nadal answered that question with a break of the Serb serve in the fifth game, worrying Djokovic with well planned execution of ground strokes from both wings, knowing precisely when to produce the power and where to place the shot containing it.
Djokovic managed to hold his next serve, though not with any great authority and after a long time, but was quick to snap up the break opportunity that arrived unexpectedly in the eighth game.
At 4-4, and then 5-4, the dynamic of the match had altered, a change which Novak, far more than any other player, can produce when seemingly down for the count.

Rafa was still playing some wonderful shots.  In fact both were responsible for rallies of the highest calibre, regularly featuring shots which have no right to be played by human hand alone.
Nadal levelled at 5-5, before the top seed rapidly placed the pressure back on him at 5-6 to hold to stay in the set.
Alas for the fifth seed, he eventually dropped serve a second time and Djokovic had somehow taken a one set lead 7-5.

The momentum and confidence clearly with Djokovic, and serving first in set two, the world number one had everything in his favour.  So what did he do ?  Played a shocker of a service game to immediately be down a break, Rafa leading 1-0. 
As much as Novak tried to break back, he couldn't achieve a break point with Nadal solid as a rock.  Djokovic too did not appear likely to surrender his serve again, but at 5-4 Rafa had that break from the first game in his pocket, and was serving to level the match.
Djokovic saved multiple set points, but each time it seemed more inevitable that Nadal would eventually complete the task.  However after returning to deuce for yet another time, Novak changed the recording and set up his first break point of the set - and promptly converted it.  5-5 and now Rafa was suddenly miles away from levelling the match, and probably closer to losing it.
Djokovic took the lead 6-5 and as in set one, the nine time Roland Garros champ needed to hold to keep the set (and match now) alive.  To his credit Nadal held easily and a tie break began.
Djokovic took the early advantage leading 2-1 with two serves to come.  Nadal fought back, but each time he did, Djokovic was able to eat into one of the Spaniard's serves.
At 5-3, a nervous Novak lost the point on his serve which would have provided him three match points had it gone his way.
He steadied in time to grab the next two points, both off the Nadal serve to win the tie break 7 points to 4 and the quarter final 7-5 7-6 (4).

The match was terrific, high standard from start to finish, with no clear winner to be easily determined from the contest being viewed.  In fact this was a match where  Djokovic had to come back from scoreboard adversity in both sets - he proved yet again that the scoreboard doesn't dictate what he does on court, and that there aren't many sticky situations from which he can't extract himself.

So the semi final to which Novak has found himself propelled is the one featuring Kei Nishikori.  The two have met three times already this year with Djokovic winning each time in straight sets, most recently last week in the Madrid semi finals.  In fact Djokovic has a 13-0 record this year against top ten players.

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