For the second week in a row, the top two ranked players in the world will do battle with Masters 1000 title on the line. A week after dueling for the Madrid Open title, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will take to the court with the Italian Open title on the line. Djokovic will look to add his fifth title in the Italian capital while Murray will look to become the first champion not named Djokovic or Nadal since 2004.
The match will follow the women’s final on Centre Court, and will not start until at least 5 pm local time (11 am EST).
How they got here
As hard as it might be to believe, Djokovic is lucky to be in the final. He has struggled in every round of the tournament, even the early rounds. He had to fight to get past a French qualifier in the first round, before overcoming a 0-6 first set loss in the second round against Thomaz Bellucci. He was lucky to survive a spirited effort from Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, which despite ending in straight sets took well over two hours, before having to come back again in the semifinals, eventually sneaking past Kei Nishikori in the third set tiebreak. Through four matches, Djokovic has been on court for just under eight and a half hours and has not played his best tennis.
Murray has been the opposite, seemingly growing in stature with every match. The world number two has yet to drop a set this week in Rome, and the closest set he played was a 7-5 in the quarterfinals. And the Scot has not had an easy draw either. He’s beaten Mikhail Kukushkin, Jeremy Chardy, David Goffin and Lucas Pouille all without very much difficulty. In the same number of matches, Murray has spent three fewer hours on court than Djokovic. He will be well rested and extremely confident going into the final.
This will be their 32nd meeting, with Djokovic holding a massive 23-9 advantage. The Serb has also won all four of their previous meetings on clay. However, their last three matches on clay went to a deciding set, including last week in Madrid. They have played once before in Rome, when Djokovic was in the midst of his 43-match winning streak in 2011. Murray nearly ended the streak on that day, eventually falling in a third set tiebreak. While Djokovic has the historical edge, Murray has been knocking on the door for a while on this surface.
Historically, Djokovic has been the significantly better player on clay, and Rome is his most successful clay court event, having won it four times previously and reaching at least the quarterfinals in every appearance. On the flip side, Rome has generally been Murray’s worst clay court event. The court in Rome is quite slow, which should theoretically help Djokovic.
The fast clay in Madrid would have benefitted Murray more, and if he could not get the job done there, Rome should be a tougher test. That being said, the Scot has been improving rapidly on clay since last year and has been phenomenal all week, while Djokovic has struggled, so perhaps the world number two has figured things out and will have the advantage.
Will Djokovic recover in time?
As if his poor form was not enough to raise questions going into the final, the Serb had to play a three-hour semifinal and will barely have 24 hours to recover before the final. He’s had to play three hours more than his opponent in the final so far in the tournament. He’s looked tired and times in the tournament and things are not going to get easier with such a quick turnaround.
Moreover, it’s just not feeling physically up to playing the final. His game itself will need to be better. If he struggled as much as he did with Robert, Bellucci, Nadal and Nishikori, he will have an even harder time against Murray. He will need to play at a far higher level than he has so far this week if he wants to add a fifth Rome crown.
What will it take for Murray to finally win?
As the defending champion in Madrid, Murray threw the kitchen sink at Djokovic and it was not enough. His game plan worked to a point, but he still needs to do better if he wants to overcome the world number one. At the same time, he knows exactly what to do. He needs to step up, inside the baseline if possible, and keep Djokovic under constant pressure. While he did that at times in Madrid, he let Djokovic off the hook a few too many times. He needs to do it again and make the Serb pay for every mistake, every short shot, everything that is not perfect.
What’s more is that he needs to take advantage of these opportunities. In the final game of the Madrid final, Murray had multiple break points to put the set back on serve but could not convert. When he gets to break point, he needs to break. When he gets a lead, he cannot afford to give it up. Djokovic has been bad about falling behind early in this tournament. Rafael Nadal let him off the hook in both sets of their quarterfinal. If Murray wants to win, he needs to exploit every opportunity, hold every lead and play his best on the big points.
Djokovic will win if: he finds a way to play his best. The fact of the matter is that when Djokovic is on his game, there is probably no one in the world who can beat him. If he comes out and plays his best, which he really has not done on the clay this year, he should win. If he is able to disrupt Murray’s rhythm, he gives himself a chance. But the level he has played at so far probably won’t be enough. If he improves and is at least somewhat close to his baseline best, he can win.
Murray will win if: they both play the way they have all tournament. It’s easy to say Murray will win if he dominates the rallies and takes his chances. But while that is what he needs to do, he could certainly use some help from his opponent. The Scot has been on fire all week, playing some of the best clay court tennis of his career. Winning the title will require nothing less. But if Djokovic comes out playing the way he has all week, it will be a golden opportunity for the Scot to finally score a win over Djokovic on clay.
Prediction: Murray in three sets
Every single round, Djokovic has failed to up his level and has inched closer and closer to defeat every time. Murray, on the other hand, has gotten better and better. He was so close in Madrid and that will give him confidence going into this final. The fact that Djokovic has so little time to recover and has played so much this week means he probably won’t be at his best and if he’s not, Murray is primed to take advantage.