By Ros Satar, in Madrid

  • Andy Murray [2] v Novak Djokovic [1] – H2H: Djokovic leads 22-9
  • Murray def. Rafael Nadal [5] 7-5 6-4
  • Djokovic def. Kei Nishikori [6] 6-3 7-6(4)

MADRID, SPAIN – Andy Murray faces Novak Djokovic in the defence of his title of the Mutua Madrid Open, after beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-final.

There can be no doubt that Nadal’s confidence has returned – back to back titles on the dirt, and his trademark bullishness. Even when players this week had the temerity to take a set off him, he clawed his way back – and the first set was no exception.

Nadal certainly did not start brightly, and while a few eyebrows may have been collectively raised with Murray trading blows with Nadal from the baseline – it seemed to pay off for the Brit who drew first blood with a break.

Lesser mortals may whither – not so Nadal who pressed and pressed, rewarded with two games in a row to peg the Brit to 5-5, his early advantage gone like a puff of clay.

Out of nowhere, Murray dredged his first serves back to edge ahead once more, and maybe it was enough for him to break the Spaniard for the first set – a cruel blow indeed.

It was a punishing first game at the start of the second set, forcing Murray to save three break points to hold. You had a feeling that as soon as that focus dropped – Nadal would pounce.

In the second set Nadal piled the pressure on early – again pushing Murray to a gruelling hold but once more failing to capitalise on the break-points he toiled so hard to bring up.

Maybe that thought was staying with him, as Murray needed no such tribulation, converting on his first chance to break Nadal in the second set. And so the pattern continued. Again he had his chances and once more he could not find a way through the Brit’s defences. Still third time’s the charm as they say and finally, as Murray was serving for the match, Nadal saved the match points and finally broke the Brit’s serve.

But as Murray is wont to do, he came right back at him, breaking for the match and the chance to defend his title. Nadal’s streak had been 13 wins coming into this match, on the clay. Unlucky… for some.

Nadal assessed his performance: “I think I had another positive week. I made it to the semifinals. I think I’m very consistent every week. This is good news. Well, today mentally I think I was okay. I fought a lot until the end. I tried to look for solutions, and I think I did that; it wasn’t enough.”

Murray, who of course took a set off Nadal in the Monte Carlo semi-final at the start of the clay court season, was predictably downplaying the win.

He said, after his match: “Last year Rafa hadn’t been playing as well maybe coming into the match. He had I obviously Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, and had some pretty comfortable wins until yesterday’s match with the roof and stuff. Maybe lost a little bit of his timing there, but the rest of the matches he played here were fairly comfortable.

“I think it was a better win for me this year than last year. I didn’t think he played his best match in the final last year. Not saying he played his best tennis today, but I think he played better than last year.”

Last year of course he got his win over Nadal in the final, but there is still one step to go before he can claim a successful defence of his title on clay, and while they are both very different prospects, the balance shifts in terms of style, as he explained.

“I think the challenge from yesterday to today, you know, playing a right-hander who hits the ball extremely flat and today a left-hander with lots of spin. Tomorrow back to a right-hander again. Both guys hit the ball much flatter than Rafa, so it’s different. Need to make adjustments again tomorrow.

“Obviously enjoy the win today, but prepare as best you can for tomorrow’s match and try and defend the title.”

He will face World No, 1 Djokovic who had to weather some stiff resistance from 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori. Djokovic had not been broken once throughout the tournament but found himself in danger of that right from the get-go as Nishikori brought up three break points in the opening game of the first set.

The crowds wanted a competitive match to lift the cold and the gloom that has settled on the normally sunny Madrid over the weekend, and they were treated to some very sharp play from both, before Djokovic turned the screw juts a little to get the first break towards the end of the first set.

In fact it was largely beginning to look like a fait accompli when he broke Nishikori half way through the second set, but serving for the match, the Japanese player saved four match points before breaking the one-time titlist here in Madrid to put him in contention at least for a tie-break.

Losing the mini-break at the start of it was probably not the best plan but Nishikori redressed the balance. All it took was one more mini-break for Djokovic to open up the lead that should give him a path to the final.

Nishikori remained philosophical about his chances missed, saying:

“I think he started playing better in the second set. After winning first set he was I think more relax and he was hitting better shots. Until 5-3 I think he gets a little bit tight. Yeah, I mean, I saw a little bit chance to go in third set. Yeah, maybe in the tiebreak I little bit get tight, too, also, with the wind and everything.

“Yeah, it’s shame, because I had some chance first and second set, too. But, yeah, I learned many things today.”

Djokovic knows he has the edge but is expecting a tough battle nonetheless:

“He gets the results. I think he’s moving better and sliding better on the court. He is more patient. He constructs the point better, which is very important for clay. Last year we played that five-set match in semifinals of French Open, which was a high-quality matchup. So you know, again, depends really how we both start the match. I think that’s quite crucial for both of us.

“And we have very similar styles of the game. I’m sure that both of us will try to be protecting the baseline and try to be getting in the court and dictating. But it was the case in many previous matches we had against each other. I’m expecting a big challenge.”

Murray will look to snap his current three-match losing streak to the Serbian, having last beaten him in the Canada Masters last year. But there can be no denying that with their overall head to head, perhaps Djokovic has been in his head a little.

Murray needs to take confidence form having beaten arguably the world’s best clay court player in his own dirt. But on the four occasions he has played Djokovic on clay he has lost.

His preparation prior to the tournament was to practice with Nadal and Milos Raonic, in Mallorca before practicing here with Djokovic. But of course nothing compares to the competition, and Djokovic will be looking to lift his game a lot for the final against his rival. So what must Murray do to win?

Mix aggression and variety with patience as he did with Berdych,. Both men hit clean and big, and Djokovic will look to keep Murray pinned at the baseline so that he can dictate his points.

The key will also be for Murray to keep his composure as he did against Nadal, and to a certain extent against Berdych (not that the Czech gave him much to rant about).

This is no easy task, but if the time is right to plant just a few seeds of doubt in the mind of Djokovic, this is the place to do it. He knows that he can stay with Djokovic toe-to-toe, and the Serbian can still be easy to rile.

If the Spanish crowd get behind their champion, then Murray could battle his way to his first clay court title defence, and maybe more importantly a bit of a psychological victory that he can get a win over Djokovic. What could be a better boost ahead of Roland Garros?

Prediction: Murray in three sets.

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