ROME – Kei Nishikori put up a brave fight before succumbing to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Italian Open on Saturday.
The 26-year-old Nishikori took the first set but Djokovic fought back in a three-hour thriller to win 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) and book a meeting in a final with Andy Murray for the second week in a row.
“I think I would have had a chance to win if I had continued to play aggressive tennis like I did in the first set,” said Nishikori. “It was a shame I made mistakes in the tie break.”
“(But) having a close match against Djokovic is something I would like to think of as a positive.”
Nishikori took advantage of Djokovic’s compromised movement after the Serb received a medical timeout for a cut on his left ankle and broke to take a 2-1 lead in the first set with a forehand drop shot.
Sixth-ranked Nishikori ripped a backhand down the line to secure a double break for a 5-2 lead and closed out the set after 43 minutes.
“From the beginning, he (Nishikori) 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,” Djokovic, who beat Nishikori in the semifinals of last week’s Madrid Open, told atptour.com.
“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.”
A rejuvenated Djokovic raised his level at a critical moment in the second set, forcing a decider with a clutch break on his first set point in the 10th game.
Djokovic grabbed a quick break in the second game of the third set but Nishikori broke back for 4-4.
A forehand winner saw Nishikori save match point at 5-4 and he forced a deciding tie-break. After saving two additional match points, the Japanese was unable to survive a fourth, as Djokovic prevailed to set up a rerun of the Madrid final he won against Britain’s Murray.
Murray maintained his focus through two rain delays to beat French qualifier Lucas Pouille 6-2, 6-1.
The start of the Murray-Pouille match was delayed for nearly an hour due to rain. Then there was a suspension of about 10 minutes midway through the first set due to a brief downpour.
The match time was less than an hour.
Murray, who hasn’t dropped a set this week, will return to No. 2 in the rankings ahead of Roger Federer on Monday.
The 52nd-ranked Pouille gained a spot in the tournament as a lucky loser after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew because of an adductor injury. He advanced to the final when Argentine opponent Juan Monaco withdrew because of injury.
Against Murray, however, Pouille’s luck ran out.
In the women’s tournament, top-ranked Serena Williams will meet 21-year-old Madison Keys on Sunday to mark the first time two American women have met in a final on clay since Serena beat older sister Venus in the 2002 French Open.
Serena beat 35th-ranked Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4, 6-1 and the 24th-ranked Keys defeated Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 Saturday after several rain delays.
The last all-American women’s final in Rome was in 1970, when Billie Jean King beat Julie Heldman.
“It will be wonderful,” Serena said. “I feel like Madison is one of the players that really can be great and she has that potential, and now she’s showing that on all surfaces.”
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