Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse/Icon Sportswire

Novak Djokovic fends off Kei Nishikori in early Match Of The Year

Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse/Icon Sportswire

Saturday’s semifinals in Rome saw impressive performances from three champions, as well as a fourth player with aspirations of becoming one:

-In a match that squeaked over the 3-hour mark, Novak Djokovic outlasted Kei Nishikori, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), in the Match Of The Year thus far in 2016. A week ago in Madrid, Nishikori made a rousing comeback to force a second-set tiebreaker in Djokovic’s semifinal win, but still wasn’t expected to push for the win this time in Rome.

However, the match took a strange twist as Djokovic injured his own foot when the clacking the clay off his shoes with his racket. He missed and hit his ankle/foot area instead, creating a bruise and a cut. His movement was noticeably off and Nishikori made him pay, taking the opening set. Though not quite 100%, Djokovic began to dig his heels in midway the second set. Like some notable NBA players, Djokovic is able to emerge from flat starts by finding motivation in otherwise-mundane moments. When Nishikori was granted a re-do for a first serve, Djokovic chirped at chair umpire Mo Lahyani. It was an innocuous call by Lahyani, but Djokovic has an amazing ability to use the smallest of sleights to get himself emotionally engaged.

Djokovic took the second set and fought for a 3-0 lead in the decider. It looked as if Nishikori, who notably struggles in the clutch against the game’s elite, might fade away as in prior meetings, but instead he broke back and later saved a match point to force a winner-take-all tiebreaker. After delivering powerful groundstrokes all night, Nishikori took a brief lead in the breaker, only to get tight with a couple errors on the ground and a crucial double fault. Though he saved two more match points, Djokovic nailed a big serve down the middle on the ad-side to close out the win.

The World No. 1 simply refuses to yield an inch of territory to his peers, although he’ll have a stiff test in the final, as Andy Murray’s flimsy draw means he’s the fresher of the two by far. Murray swept past Lucas Pouille, who was extremely lucky to be in the semis, and will have a prime opportunity to win a title on his 29th birthday and get back on the board against Djokovic. Not only was Murray’s match completed in under an hour (6-2, 6-1), he played a day match while Djokovic finished after 11 P.M.

This match carries big implications going forward, as Murray won’t get many better chances to knock off his one-time rival, while Djokovic is verging on playing too much tennis before his all-important run at the French Open. He tends to do better at majors with less tennis in the weeks leading up to them, and this will be his 10th match in 12 days, with many of them physical affairs, not to mention the self-inflicted foot bruise.

-On the women’s side, Serena Williams didn’t play near as well as in the quarterfinals, yet only dropped five games to Irina-Camelia Begu. With the 6-4, 6-1 victory, she’s in her third final of the year and seeking her first title of 2016.

-Her opponent in the final? In a stunner, it’s fellow American Madison Keys, who took out Garbine Muguruza, 7-6 (5), 6-4. Until now, clay and Keys did not mix, but she’s shown newfound patience in constructing points and waiting for the right shot. Her worst shot, the down the line backhand, even came up huge, especially on the last point of the first set tiebreaker. The win puts Keys into the first Premier level final of her career, and the matchup with Williams is the first all-American WTA final on clay since the Williams sisters at the 2002 French Open.

Novak Djokovic fends off Kei Nishikori in early Match Of The Year

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