Rome Masters: Murray takes unbeaten Djokovic to the brink
It was nearly the perfect gift as the Scot almost made it to his first clay-court final on the day he turned 24
Short of leaving blood on the court, it’s hard to know what more Andy Murray could have done to avoid his 6-1 3-6 7-6 loss at the hands of Novak Djokovic.
As it is, Murray will spend his birthday just like everyone else – watching the same two men who have contested three of the last four Masters finals battle it out in Rome.
Djokovic and Nadal also contested the 2009 Rome final, when the Spaniard won in straight sets, but much has changed since then. Now it is the Serb who is the man to beat, even on the surface that Nadal has made his own.
He ended Nadal’s winning streak of 37 matches on clay at the Madrid Masters only last week. Indeed he has been, since last December, unbeatable.
So many doubted that Murray, who was made to look ordinary by Djokovic the last time they met in the final of the Australian Open, would make much of an impression in their semifinal showdown.
Murray, however, was bullish about his chances. And his tennis matched his words as he came within a hair’s breadth of terminating the Djokovic run of 37 straight wins.
It looked initially as though Djokovic would hand out the same treatment to Murray as he had already given to No14 seed Stan Wawrinka and, in the quarterfinals, to No5 seed Robin Soderling. Neither of them managed even half a dozen games.
Djokovic broke Murray straight away to lead 2-0, and although Murray immediately broke back, that was his last game from an opponent playing near-flawless baseline tennis. It was starting to look like a repeat of Melbourne.
However, Murray came back calm, strong and with ground stokes the equal of Djokovic’s. When both play their best at the same time, it looks like a mirror image: forehands and backhands fired from corner to corner with not an inch to spare, all broken up by the deftest of drop shots and lobs.
They are also on a par when it comes to defence, and rallies that looked done and dusted often continued to 20 or more shots.
Murray seized an early reward for taking the attack to the Serb with a break in the sixth to lead 4-2. He then had two set point chances in the eighth but finally served out, 6-3, and the packed stadium erupted. Were they chanting Andy or were they chanting Nole? It was impossible to tell.
It was all square, but the excitement was only just beginning. Murray was broken in the third game and Djokovic moved to a 3-1 advantage, but then Murray broke back in the fifth.
At 3-3, Murray found still more reserves -groaning with effort of every shot -just as Djokovic started to look a little tired around the edges.
He broke to love only to have Djokovic return the favour. Yet again, the Scot attacked his opponent and, after a succession of break points, he finally earned the right to serve, at 5-4, for the match and an historic end to the Serb’s unbroken 2011 streak.
At this point, the safe money was on Murray to pull off the result of the year. He was playing aggressive, resilient, high-quality tennis and, in that kind of mood, he has always been hard to beat.
It is how he defeated this very opponent in the quarters of the Toronto Masters and the finals of the Miami and the Cincinnati Masters -the last time they had met until Melbourne this year.
This year’s Djokovic, however, is a different animal and even when tired and muscle weary -as he clearly was -he is never beaten. The pressure told on Murray as Djokovic pressured the Scot with several break points until Murray finally acquiesced with only his second double fault of the match.
He was to rue his missed opportunity. “I’m one of the best closers in tennis and I very rarely, especially against the best players, lose matches when serving. It is the first time it has happened to me and I’ll make sure it is the last,” he said.
He could then do little but watch as Djokovic turned on the heat again in the inevitable tie-break.
The Serb took the first of four match point chances with a perfectly executed drop shot, an appropriate conclusion to more than three hours of nail-biting tennis.
Djokovic, though, had discovered, for a while at least, what it is like to face his own tennis: Murray tested him around the baseline harder than anyone has done for much of the year.
The difference between them was the x-factor: the unquestioning confidence that Djokovic now constantly wears in his bearing and his expression.
So his extraordinary run continues and he will face Rafael Nadal -again -in an attempt to win his seventh title of the year.
The Spaniard was thoroughly tested, at least for the first set, by the blossoming tennis of Richard Gasquet -a set that may have been the best of the tournament but for what came later that same Rome evening.
If truth be told, the Frenchman had the upper hand for much of the first hour, garnering a number of break point chances, but Nadal resisted the bombardment from one of the sweetest yet most punishing backhands in the game. He broke in the 11th game and, despite facing another break point, took the opening set, 7-5.
Gasquet -the giant-killer of this year’s Foro Italico -simply could not sustain his pace and energy levels any longer and Nadal, sensing this, went for the jugular. Serving at 81 percent, he took the set and the match 6-1.
It seems only fitting -for fans and players alike -that the top two seeds, who have shared the spoils at the only Major and all the Masters this year, should face one another in the last big event before the French Open.
The momentum looks ready to tilt Nadal’s way for the first time this year: He is playing better with each match, he has a near-unbroken record in Rome and is going for his sixth title here.
The court, too, suits Nadal better than the fast Madrid one. And of course, Djokovic was playing his long, demanding semifinal well into the night while Nadal put his feet up.
One thing’s for sure, though. The man whose 24th birthday is next week will emulate today’s birthday boy, Murray, and go down fighting.