After two vastly different semifinals in Rome, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will square off in the final of a Masters 1000 event on clay for the second straight week. While Murray breezed through his semifinal at the Italian Open in less than an hour, the world No. 1 was made to fight for more than three hours in a titanic battle with Kei Nishikori.
Djokovic, arriving in the Italian capital after beating Murray in the final in Madrid, was pushed all the way by Nishikori deep into Saturday evening. Having got off to a troubled start when requiring a medical timeout after suffering an apparently self-inflicted wound to his ankle, the Serbian dropped the opening set.
Despite still showing obvious signs of frustration, Djokovic fought back to level the match but let a lead and a match point slip in a third set of thrilling quality. Yet, while Nishikori forced a decisive tiebreak and even saved two more match points, Djokovic survived to breath a considerable sigh of relief.
It means Djokovic avoids just a second loss in a completed match this year and remains on track to enter the second Grand Slam of the season at the French Open as very much the man to beat. Still, Murray will undoubtedly have been looking on at the second semifinal with considerable intrigue and perhaps even a wry smile.
By that time Murray will have had his feet up with his place in the final long since secured. In contrast to Djokovic, the biggest hurdle Murray faced on Saturday was the weather.
Rain delayed the start of his match with Lucas Pouille and again interrupted proceedings in the first set. But when the showers relented, the Scot, who will return to second place in the rankings regardless of the result in the final, had far too much for the Frenchman, who only gained his place in the draw when Jo-Wilfired Tsonga withdrew. It took just 59 minutes on court for Murray to win 6-2 6-1, after which he credited his serve for the ease of the victory.
"I think I have made some improvements in my game [in the past year]," he said. "Last year I was winning a lot of matches at this time of the year, but I do think I'm playing better tennis this year. I think my serve has been a big improvement for me. That's why in matches like today, Lucas had no opportunities on my serve. I had a few matches like that over the past few weeks, and that hasn't always been the case.”
It means that Murray could now earn his first title in Rome on his 29th birthday.
"I don't remember winning any matches, really, on my birthday which isn't a great sign," Murray joked. "Hopefully tomorrow that will change.”
To make it change, Murray will not only have to prevent Djokovic from winning a third straight Rome Masters title and fifth overall, but also improve on a run that has seen him beat Djokovic just once in their last 13 meetings.
Match time: Not before 11 a.m. EDT
TV channel: Tennis Channel
Live stream: Tennis Channel Everywhere