Djokovic Edges Nadal In Thrilling Contest

Serb saves five set points in pulsating second set

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic edged Rafael Nadal 7-5, 7-6(4) in a thrilling quarter-final clash on Friday at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome.

In their closest contest for almost two years, in which the Serb saved five set points when Nadal served for the second set at 5-4, Djokovic rallied from a break down in both sets to thwart Nadal in two hours and 25 minutes. It marked the Serb’s seventh straight win over Nadal and saw him improve to a 26-23 advantage in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series. He has won 15 straight sets against Nadal since the Spaniard prevailed in their 2014 Roland Garros final contest.

"I held my nerve at the clutch moments," said Djokovic in an on-court TV interview. "Even though I had nervy beginnings to both sets, with some good games and good play in the crucial moments, I managed to win. It's a straight-sets win, but it feels like we played five sets.

“Winning against Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay courts and one of the toughest challenges we have in sport. I have to be very pleased with the way I handled myself in the big moments today. I won against one of my biggest rivals on his preferred surface. We must not forget he’s in form. He won Monte-Carlo and Barcelona and has played well the past couple of weeks. That gives me confidence for the rest of this tournament.”

In pursuit of his 30th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown, Djokovic now goes on to face either Kei Nishikori or Dominic Thiem in Saturday’s semi-finals at the Foro Italico.

The Serb had a slow start against Thomaz Bellucci in the third round, and struggled to match Nadal's energy and intensity in the opening exchanges of their 49th tour-level meeting. But Djokovic worked his way into the match, raising his level as the set went on.

Nadal drew first blood with a break to lead 3-2 as Djokovic netted a forehand. But the Belgrade native fired himself up after prevailing in an 11-minute, six-second game to hold serve in the seventh game and stay in touch. Djokovic then levelled in the eighth game, converting his third break point as Nadal miss-fired on a forehand.

In a pulsating 12th game, Djokovic kept the pressure on Nadal and was rewarded on his fourth set point. The Serb hung in the rally with strong defence, before being drawn into the net by a Nadal drop shot and exhibiting superb reflexes to poke away a high forehand volley, stealing the set from the Spaniard.

Nadal again started the stronger of the two in the second set, engineering a 3-1 lead as Djokovic’s frustrations crept to the surface. But at the crunch moment in the set, it was Djokovic who found his best tennis. Nadal served to level the match at 5-4, but failed to convert five set points. Djokovic then took his first break point, attacking Nadal with his backhand to force the error and level at 5-5.

In the ensuing tie-break, Nadal was always behind and despite twice rallying from a mini-break deficit, he couldn’t stop Djokovic sealing victory on his first match point at 6-4.

“I was fortunate in important moments,” said Djokovic. “But I managed to take him out of his comfort zone in important moments and didn’t give him always the same look. I thought he played high quality tennis. He tried to step in. He was trying to play aggressive. But towards the end, I guess I was a bit more fortunate."

Between them, Nadal and Djokovic have accounted for the past 11 editions of this ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament. Nadal has lifted the trophy seven times, with Djokovic winning the title in the past two years to add to his victories in 2008 and 2011.

Djokovic came into Rome on the back of winning his 64th tour-level title in Madrid, where he defeated defending champion Andy Murray in the final. The right-hander is chasing his sixth title of the season, having also triumphed in Doha (d. Nadal), at the Australian Open (d. Murray) and in Indian Wells (d. Raonic) and Miami (d. Nishikori).