Novak Djokovic is a man on a mission, seeking to fill the holes in his impressive portfolio of work by winning some of the biggest title on offer this clay season. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, the man who sent Tomas Berdych packing, threatened to derail the defending champion’s mission in the Monte Carlo quarterfinal today. But after a set and a half of brilliant tennis, he fell into the lap of mediocrity and Djokovic took full advantage to come from behind and score a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory in two hours and 11 minutes. The victory takes Djokovic to within two matches of winning a fifth straight Masters Series title, going back to Paris last year.
Garcia-Lopez took off from where he left against Berdych in the round of 16. The Spaniard had come back from a set down to reach the quarters and continued playing the same ferocious, fearless brand of tennis that got him there. He painted the lines with inch perfect strokes off both flanks, to get off to a scorching start over the defending champion.
He broke Djokovic in the third and fifth games of the first set to take a commanding 4-1 lead. The world No. 2 stemmed the tide by breaking in the sixth game and for a while it appeared that the Spaniard’s nerves were going to get the better of him. Djokovic smelled an opportunity and started engaging the 38th-ranked player in attritional exchanges from the baseline.
The 30-year-old from La Roda seemed set to surrender the advantage in the eighth game, but somehow managed to stave off a couple of deuce points to retain the slender edge. Djokovic held comfortably in the next game to test Garcia-Lopez’s nerve by getting him to serve out the set. The Spaniard had never taken a set off Djokovic in three previous meetings and had not met him since Madrid in 2011.
But Garcia-Lopez showed tremendous poise to survive a debilitating break point, and although he needed four set points, he prevailed eventually to take the first set in 45 minutes. The 30-year-old has never got past the third round in Monte Carlo and his best performance came back in 2007. If Djokovic expected a breather from across the net, his opponent was in no mood to relent.
Both players were equally steady at the start of the second, holding serve without incident to keep even at 2-2.The first scent of opportunity came on the Djokovic serve, when the Serb sent a forehand marginally wide to fall to 15-30 in the fifth game. Uncharacteristic as it may seem, Djokovic made another forehand error to offer break point to the Spaniard.
Even as the tension mounted, Garcia-Lopez sent a backhand into the net to surrender a prolonged rally and with it the opportunity to break Djokovic for a third time in the match. The Spaniard though refused to be disheartened as he continued probing Djokovic. Eventually it took five deuce points for the Serb to hold serve and gain a 3-2 lead in the second set.
The opportunities continued to come on the Djokovic serve. The Spaniard enjoyed two break opportunities at 15-40, but failed to take either allowing the Serb to escape unscathed at 4-3. Emboldened by the escape, Djokovic played with aggression in the next game, striking a ferocious forehand winner to earn his first break point of the set. He took it with eagerness, the forehand his tool of choice again, giving him an opportunity to serve and force the match into a decider.
Djokovic had two set points at 40-15 in the next game, and a backhand drive winner, his 12th of the set, brought the Serb back into the match. In contrast, the Spaniard managed just four winners in the entire set, reflecting the change in mindset on the court between the two players. And Djokovic was only just beginning to invade the space between the ears of the Spaniard.
The momentum had clearly shifted – Djokovic won 12 of the last 15 points in the second set – and the Serb rode it well to snatch a break in the very first game of the third set. Brilliant at the beginning of the match, by now the only thing that was brilliant about Garcia-Lopez was the radium green shirt he pulled on for the final stretch.
Djokovic broke twice in quick succession to take a 3-0 lead and the Serb’s fist pump after the third game gave the air a hint of inevitability. Garcia-Lopez got on the score-sheet eventually when he saved a break point in the fifth before holding, but that was to be his last hurrah for the night. Of course, the Spaniard did engage Djokovic in some entertaining rallies and the seventh game stretched to a 12th point, but after saving two match points he succumbed on the third.
In the end, it was a performance to be content for Djokovic who survived the two hour 11 minute test with the help of 39 winners to just 16 from his opponent, most of which came in the first set during which Garcia-Lopez played an incredibly high level of tennis. Djokovic converted 5 of 11 break points as he kept his title defence intact going into his 34th career meeting against Roger Federer.
Djokovic will go in to the semifinals as the heavy favourite to lift the title, after the untimely exit of Rafael Nadal sent tremors through this French principality and beyond. A win will see the Serb get level with Federer in their head-to-head and having won four of their last five meetings, he should walk in on Saturday with a lot of confidence.
The other semifinal will be played between the Nadal slayer David Ferrer and Stanislas Wawrinka.Published 19 Apr 2014, 01:43 IST