Rome Masters: Gasquet gears up for Nadal showdown
Richard Gasquet prepares to face Rafael Nadal, while Andy Murray takes on Novak Djokovic in the semis
Marin Cilic has had a strange run in Rome. First he lost his opening opponent, Ivo Karlovic, with a back injury and then he faced a lucky loser when last year’s finalist, David Ferrer -one of the form men on clay this year -withdrew with illness.
And while the 22-year-old Croat’s precocious talent has taken a beating in the last year, he next took out No11 seed Mardy Fish.
So it fell on the unlikely shoulders of Cilic to try to deprive Nadal of the No1 ranking ahead of the French Open. Should the Spaniard lose this match and Novak Djokovic go on to win the title, the Serb could become the top ranked player for the first time.
Cilic, however, was out of his depth from start -a rabbit caught in Nadal’s blinding tennis headlights. With just one loss in Rome in six years, Nadal is enough to scare anyone. Cilic was unable to read his game and constantly fired his forehands wide.
It was the sixth game before he got on the scoreboard with a smart change of tactics, including a couple of drop-shot winners. But the line was drawn at 6-1 and, despite holding level until the seventh game, Cilic then rapidly lost serve, set and match, 6-3.
Nadal’s next opponent is another player who showed his prodigious talent at a very tender age, announcing his arrival at the highest level when he beat the then-invincible Federer in Monte Carlo as an 18-year-old.
Richard Gasquet reached the quarters with his first win over that same man in eight subsequent attempts. It was a performance that recalled the Monte Carlo match, full of attack, slight of hand, sharpness of reaction and a quality and variety of shot that reminded his growing band of doubters just what this man can do.
Still just 24, Gasquet’s steady growth in confidence has been matched by a steady rise up the rankings in the last 12 months, from 86 to his current 16.
His run of form continued through his match against No7 Tomas Berdych and, for two days in succession, he pulled back from a set down to take the second and then make an early break in the third.
Berdych broke back, which that would -not so long ago -have signalled a wavering of purpose in the Gasquet game, but not a bit of it. He broke again and served out the match, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, to reach his second semi-final of the year.
If he has climbed a couple of mountains in Rome thus far, he now has an Everest to conquer in the shape of Nadal, a man he has failed to beat in nine attempts. The last occasion was only last month in Monte Carlo, a routine 6-2, 6-4 win for the Spaniard.
But Rome has been something of a revelation for Gasquet. Not only has his game begun to resemble the kind of tennis that had him dubbed the “new Federer” years ago but he has shown a mettle that has been sadly lacking since 2006 when he reached the second of only two Masters finals.
The signs of a renaissance have been there: He won his first title in three years on the Nice clay last year. But even if he maintains the glittering style and execution of the last two days, he will be muscle-weary and mentally exhausted from two demanding three-setters.
So Rome may not deliver Gasquet’s third Masters final but it has put Gasquet back on the map and, possibly, heading for the top-10 for the first time in four years.
Andy Murray has been enjoying a very benign draw. He watched every seed in his quarter fall before his appointed meeting.
It may be just as well, since Murray has needed some court time to get back the match-fitness and clay-sensibility that were delayed by his recent elbow injury.
He laboured to a three-set win against Xavier Malisse but showed better form in beating Potito Starace, 6-2 6-3.
He was put under serious threat again in this quarter-final match by Florian Mayer, who reached the final in Munich last month and is enjoying his highest ever ranking of 28.
The German played a near perfect opening set and, despite Murray playing some solid and patient tennis, Meyer broke in the opening game. Murray then had a chance to break back in the fourth but was run ragged by a brilliant drop shot-lob combination and Mayer went on to break again in the fifth with a rapier backhand winner down the line.
Murray failed to convert two more break chances as Mayer’s slick ground strokes and good volley finishing forced errors from a dejected-looking Scot. Another winning lob confirmed the set for Mayer: 6-1.
But after the crowd-silencing opener, Murray composed himself and took up a patiently aggressive stance, playing a waiting game of cat and mouse slice and drop shot. He broke in the opening game, only for Mayer to return the favour. Still Murray stayed focused and broke again, and the tempo of his game began visibly to increase.
With his first 130mph delivery, he held serve and gradually cranked up the pace through the rest of the set. It was a pace that Mayer could not quite contain and the errors began to come from the German racket. Murray’s retort? A 6-1 set of his own.
Now in a groove, Murray ran to a 3-0 lead in the decider, mixing up his spin, direction and speed, and advanced to the semis with a 6-1 stamp of authority.
He also took one notable record in the process, even if he advances no further in the tournament -and looking at Novak Djokovic’s trouncing of No5 seed Robin Soderling, 6-3, 6-0, it seems unlikely that he will.
Murray became the first British male since 1932 to reach the Rome semi-finals, and he did so in his 100th Masters match win.
It’s a good improvement for a man who has never reached a clay-court final: He’s now in his second clay Masters semi-final in the space of a month. Whatever the outcome against Djokovic, therefore, he has built a good platform for Roland Garros.
On the women’s side, Francesca Schiavone’s dream of winning her home tournament was brought to an end by a powerful and confident looking Sam Stosur -lifted, no doubt, by the presence of Australian tennis hero, Ken Rosewall. Stosur now plays Li Na.
Maria Sharapova was a fortunate winner, from a set down, when Victoria Azarenka was forced to retire with an elbow injury.
The Russian now plays the top seed Caroline Wozniacki, who had to draw on all her staying-power to fight past Jelena Jankovic in what was, at times, a tetchy three-setter.
So it’s semi-final time and the big question across the Foro Italico is: Can Murray avenge his defeat in the Australian Open final at the hands of Djokovic and end the Serb’s 37-match winning streak? No-one is betting their house on it.