ROME, Italy May 13- Finding an “extra gear” proved key as Novak Djokovic took his winning streak over Rafael Nadal to seven matches on Friday as Serbia’s world number one surged into the semi-finals of the Rome Masters.
Between them, Nadal and Djokovic have won the last 11 titles in the Italian capital, the Spaniard claiming his maiden win in 2005 only two years after Andre Agassi’s last win in the ‘Eternal City’.
But on Sunday it could be Djokovic, the defending champion and tennis’s man of the moment, who will be looking to continue his winning run at the Foro Italico after a gutsy 7-5, 7-6 (7/4) win over Spain’s seven-time champion.
Djokovic will play the winner of Friday’s last quarter-final, between Kei Nishikori of Japan and Austrian Dominic Thiem, ahead of a possible second final against Britain’s Andy Murray in successive weeks.
Murray, the second seed, swept Belgium’s David Goffin aside earlier in the day to make the last four in Rome for the first time since 2011.
If the Scot overcomes French lucky loser Lucas Pouille in their semi-final on Saturday, he will have a rapid chance to take revenge on Djokovic having succumbed to the Serbian in Madrid last Sunday.
Admitting he had a slow start to both sets, Djokovic said: “Towards the end of both sets I managed to find an extra gear, to play with a little bit more purpose, and come up with some aggressive play.
“I didn’t take the initiative first, I wanted to be more aggressive. But that’s easier said than done.”
Despite the “windy conditions” on Centre Court, Djokovic rallied from a break down in both sets to thwart Nadal in a pulsating two hours and 25 minutes that gave fans their money’s worth.
He has now won 15 straight sets against Nadal since the Spaniard prevailed in Paris two years ago, but Djokovic said it was far from straightforward.
“Winning against Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay courts and one of the toughest challenges we have in sport,” he added.
“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.”
Djokovic, stunned by Swiss star Stanislas Wawrinka in the final of Roland Garros last year, added: “That gives me confidence for the rest of this tournament.”
Nadal, meanwhile, has suffered a small setback just over a week ahead of his bid for a 10th title at Roland Garros, but he will be keen to remedy the mistakes that led him to lose key points at crucial moments.
Notably, with Nadal leading 5-4 in the second set, Djokovic saved no less than five set points before breaking back on his first break point to level the set 5-5 and then going on to win the tie break.
“I think I’m playing well in the clay court season, except my last two matches in Madrid,” said Nadal, who squeezed past Portugal’s Joao Sousa in the Madrid quarters before falling to Murray in the semis.
“Today I was there mentally, hitting good shots. I was very close this afternoon, and that’s positive.
“Obviously, when you feel you’re so close to taking both sets and you exit the tournament you can’t be 100 percent happy.
“But overall I’ve competed at the highest level against the best player in the world. That gives me confidence that I’m ready for other things.”