Three-Hour Thriller! Djokovic Survives Nishikori To Reach Rome Final
Not even a cut foot can stop Novak Djokovic.
The World No. 1 overcame a dogged effort from Kei Nishikori and an ankle abrasion to reach the final at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(5) on Saturday. Bidding for his third consecutive Rome title and fifth overall (2008, '11, '14-15), Djokovic will battle rival Andy Murray in his 42nd ATP World Tour Masters 1000 final. He took sole possession of the all-time title lead with a 29th crown a week ago at the Mutua Madrid Open.
How do you beat Djokovic? Taking away his movement goes a long way. The Serb, who received a medical timeout for a cut on his left ankle after the first game, was on the back foot from the start. Nishikori turned in an exhibition in agility, taking the initiative from the back of the court and tracking down everything Djokovic fired his way.
Taking advantage of the World No. 1's compromised movement, the Japanese provided a heavy dose of drop shots. A forehand drop shot winner would give him a break for 2-1 and a rifled backhand down-the-line saw him secure a double break for 5-2. He closed out the set after 43 minutes. One week removed from a semi-final encounter on the clay of Madrid, won by Djokovic, Nishikori snapped the Serb's streak of 10 consecutive sets won in their FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry.
"From the beginning, he was showing that he knew what his game plan is and he came out on the court with intent, hitting the ball along lines, cross-courts, both sides, being aggressive on the return. It was a flawless first set," said Djokovic. "And then I knew that I'm going to have a little opening where I'm supposed to step in and try to use that, which I did."
Nishikori was poised to carry the surge in momentum into the second set, saving four break points (from 0/40) in his first service game and denying two more later in the set. He would bring his total to a perfect 9/9 saved, turning defence into offence in a blink. But a rejuvenated Djokovic raised his level at a critical moment, forcing a decider with a clutch break on his first set point in the 10th game. Keeping points short, with 21 won under five shots, the top seed sent the semi-final the distance.
With the momentum now firmly in his corner, Djokovic lost his limp from the foot abrasion and rediscovered his range, grabbing a quick break in the second game of the third set. But Nishikori battled hard, throwing everything in his arsenal at the World No. 1 to break back for 4-4. A body serve and inside-out forehand winner saw the 26 year old save match point at 5-4 and he would force a deciding tie-break, which was Djokovic's first in nearly two years. After saving two additional match points, including a lasered forehand down the line, the Japanese was unable to survive a fourth, as the two-time defending champion returned to the final after three hours and two minutes.
"One point [was the difference]," said Djokovic. "Today it was 112 to 111 points won. So one point. At this level, this particular match is a great example of how it can be decided, in clutch moments and very few shots. Sometimes the luck can go your way, sometimes not. But the only thing you can do is influence your own capabilities on the court and your own focus and things that you can do best."
Djokovic extended his FedEx ATP Head2Head lead over Nishikori to 9-2 overall and 4-0 in 2016 and will look to build on a 23-9 advantage over Murray in Sunday's final. He has claimed 12 of the previous 13 encounters against the Scot.
"I'm really disappointed," said Nishikori. "I was playing really good tennis in the first set. I was playing aggressive. I think I stopped doing that in second set. Also, he started playing better. In the third, I think I could have been a little better and he was giving me a lot of pressure and I wasn't making many first serves. So that was costing me a lot of points.
"In the tie-break I made too many unforced errors and three in a row from 3-all. That was the biggest mistake today."
It has been an adventurous week for Djokovic, who rallied from a 0-6 opening set against Thomaz Bellucci in the third round and survived a thrilling clash against Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals. The 28 year old has now won 17 straight meetings against Top 10 opponents. In total, Djokovic is appearing in his 91st tour-level final, bidding for title No. 65.