Djokovic Has Found His Mojo In Rome This Week

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Now it can be said that after 18th-ranked Novak Djokovic‘s satisfying 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 quarterfinal win over No. 24 Kei Nishikori, the four-time Italian Open champion has found his mojo in Rome this week – he’s starting to play better – and it’s a nice thing to see the Serbian celebrating in front of big crowds, such as he did Friday evening on the Centrale at Foro Italico. Novak simply smiling – as he did, again and again, after disposing of Nishikori – and, then, showing his appreciation toward each side of the arena by raising his arms and racket, is something that’s been missing for much of this season.

“The best thing about the match was the fire that Novak showed,” said Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport, in analyzing the Djokovic-Nishikori match for Tennis Channel in the United States.

The 11th-seeded Djokovic found it in himself to overcome Nishikori, thanks largely to winning 66 percent of his second-serve return points – even though it took him 2 hours and 21 minutes to do it – and his win over the Japanese improved his record in Internazionali BNL d’Italia quarterfinals to 9-3. It was Djokovic’s tenth tour-level win of the season in just 16 matches, and it was his first match this week in Rome that went the distance.

“I’m really happy that I mentally stayed strong,” Djokovic explained during his post-match media session. “In the ending of the third set I really fought and showed some resilience. This victory means a lot to me on different levels, mostly mental.”

Next, Djokovic, who will be playing in his first ATP World Tour semifinal of the year since returning from a right elbow injury, will face World No. 2 Rafael Nadal for the 51st time in their respective careers in Saturday’s first semifinal (not before 3 p.m. Central European Summer Time). Then, No. 4 seed Marin Cilic will face defending champion and No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev in the second semifinal (not before 8 p.m. CEST).

“It means a lot to me to be able to play (in the) semifinals of a tournament again,” said Djokovic. “This is what I was looking forward to. This is what I was hoping to achieve.”

Meanwhile, Nadal advanced to his 10th Italian Open semifinal – and first in four years – with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over Italy’s favorite son, No. 21 Fabio Fognini, in the opening quarterfinal of the day. It was the first time this year that Nadal had come back to win after losing the first set – and it keeps Nadal in pursuit of returning to No. 1 in the ATP world rankings if he wins his eighth Italian Open crown on Sunday. Should he be successful in garnering No. 8 in Rome, it would be the first time since 2012 that Nadal would head into Roland Garros with only one class loss on the season.

“I believe (in the) first set, I think it started well with both of us playing well,” said Nadal, looking back on his match against Fognini during his post-match press conference. “I think I had an opportunity on return at 4-1, but he played some great shots in that game… He played great tennis, hit a lot of winners, taking the ball very early.” Later, Nadal admitted, “When I’m playing these kind of matches, I need to be aggressive. And that was an important change for me… It’s important to be able to change the dynamic of the match in the middle of the match.”

While Djokovic leads Nadal in their career head-to-head by 26-24, they are 3-3 in Rome. Breaking it down further, Nadal owns a 15-7 edge on clay and Djokovic leads 16-10 in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events. In their last meeting, in the 2017 Mutua Madrid Open semifinals, Nadal won, which snapped a seven-match losing streak against Djokovic.

Cilic, Zverev advance to semifinals

Marin Cilic earned a place in his first Masters 1000 clay-court semifinal by beating No. 10 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, 6-3, 6-3, in just 66 minutes during Friday’s second quarterfinal. The win improved his season win-loss record to 18-7. The No. 4 seed from Croatia relied on a solid serve, winning 22 of 23 first-serve points and 14 of 20 second-serve points, Also, he played good defense on his returns, and faced no break points.

“I’m feeling great (after reaching) my first semifinal on clay at a Masters 1000 event,” Cilic told reporters after his victory. “That’s a good achievement. I was waiting many years for it to happen, so it’s definitely a happy moment for sure.”

Defending champion and World No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany won 13 of the last 15 points to beat No. 9 seed David Goffin of Belgium, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, to secure a semifinal berth against Marin Cilic. The final quarterfinal match didn’t take court at the Centrale until 10:52 p.m. Friday night, thanks to the backup during the day session caused by the three hour and 10 minute WTA Premier Mandatory quarterfinal match between Maria Sharapova of Russia and reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, which was won by Sharapova, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 7-5. It was sandwiched in between the Nadal-Fognini and Djokovic-Nishikori quarterfinal matches. Then, the night session began with another WTA quarterfinal match, which was won by World No. 1 and top seed Simona Halep of Romania over No. 7 Caroline Garcia of France, 6-2, 6-3, before it was time for Zverev and Goffin to finally begin play.

Although Zverev’s 23-set win streak ended, he has won 12 matches in the last 17 days, dropping only two sets during that run. After Goffin won the second set, it prompted David Law of BBC5 Live and co-host of The Tennis Podcast to tweet about Zverev: “Looks really fatigued. Goffin looks as if he’d like to suggest they do a triathlon together afterwards.”

As it turned out, Zverev and Goffin battled for one hour and 47 minutes. Their match ended about 12:50 a.m. local time.

“Just happy to be in another semifinals,” the 21-year-old Zverev, who is 16-2 on clay this season and going after his eighth ATP World Tour title, was quoted by ATPWorldTour.com as saying. “It’s my third week in a row. Of course, I’m a little bit tired. But this is part of the game and in the important moments you have to find a way. And that’s what I did tonight. I came up with unbelievable shots at the end and I’m in the semifinals. That’s all that matters.”

Looking ahead to his semifinal match against Cilic, whom he owns a 4-2 head-to-head advantage, Zverev said, “It’s going to be a very tough one. We’re not dissimilar players. We’re actually quite similar, both around two meters tall. Both serving well and actually moving quite well on this surface… It’s going to be a fun one.”

New No. 1 in ATP Doubles Rankings

With the top seeded team of Lukasz Kubot of Poland and Marcelo Melo of Brazil losing their quarterfinal match on Friday, 24-year-old Mate Pavic of Croatia will become the 52nd player to reach No. 1 in the history of the ATP Doubles Rankings – and the youngest doubles No. 1 since Australia’s Todd Woodbridge in February 1996 – on Monday. Kubot was World No. 1 (or tied for the top spot) for 19 total weeks.