Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are, according to the rankings, the two best players in the world but, when the combative Serb followed the Scot out of the Rolex Masters on Friday, that looked to be an assumption worth challenging.
Roger Federer, a major champion again and winner of 20 of his 21 matches this year, is the most feared player on the Tour at 35, and the 30-year-old Rafael Nadal, rebuilding his game with relentless application after a disappointing 2017, is back and comfortable on the surface he has dominated as no player in the history of the game.
The Spaniard did have more than a few anxious moments against the stubborn Diego Schwartzman but survived the loss of four straight games in the second set to win 6-4, 6-4 and plays David Goffin, rather than Djokovic, in the semi-finals. He remains on track to do “La Decima” and win an unprecedented 10th title at the same venue.
When Djokovic, who did not play at all badly, lost again – over three outstanding sets against a highly motivated Goffin – it was his third tough match of the week and, after back-to-back defeats by Nick Kyrgios before coming here, there is cause for at least minor alarm on his way to Paris, where he completed the career grand slam last year.
It was Goffin’s first win over a top-three opponent in 14 attempts and he was well worth it. Djokovic beat him in under an hour the last time they met. This one went two hours and 37 minutes, the last game stretched over nearly a quarter of an hour.
Nursing a sore serving elbow, Djokovic is taking next week off, which might be no bad thing, while Murray has decided to play in Barcelona rather than Budapest – or nowhere – plainly confident that his own troublesome right elbow needs no further rest before the French Open.
Although wins would be easier to come by in the new ATP 250 tournament in Budapest, Murray is more familiar with the Spanish surroundings, having learned his clay-court skills there since he was a teenager, and is keen to test himself against tougher opposition after a shock defeat by the world No 24, Albert Ramos-Viñolas on Thursday.
Friday’s tennis raised the standard a notch. Against Goffin, Djokovic did brilliantly to recover his rhythm and push the Belgian all the way.
Serving into the wickedly slanting sun to stay in the match, he saved four match points in the 13th game of the third set, the first courtesy of a second-serve ace and three from forced errors by his weary opponent. But, as the shadow of the Monte Carlo Club finally gobbled up the intruding light on the fifth match point, the never-say-die Serb could not lift his final forehand from deep over the net and the deed was done.
Djokovic was scathing about the intrusion of the light. “It was terrible. It was almost unplayable.” Goffin agreed. “I couldn’t see the ball well. But I needed to hang in there. It was tough.” It is a long-standing issue here, obviously – but the sun has been around a while.
It would be difficult to say who should be more concerned about his form: Djokovic or Murray. Over the past three years the only players outside the Big Four to win again immediately after beating Murray have been Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Radek Stepanek and Ramos-Viñolas, who on Friday reached his first Masters semi-final by beating the former US Open champion Marin Cilic.
For most of the two-and-half hours of their quarter-final, he bossed the nervous world No 8, breaking him six times to win 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-2. Cilic, like Murray the day before, found the aggressive Spaniard a dog who would not get out of the fight and, after fighting back from 3-5 down in the tie-break, he collapsed in the deciding set, his final effort a lame double-fault.
Waiting for the winner of the second semi-final will be either Ramos-Vinolas – who lost to Djokovic in Davis Cup last weekend – or the exciting Frenchman Lucas Pouille.
Pouille, who has been honing his skills in practice with the absent Roger Federer in Dubai, was heading for an embarrassingly lop-sided win over Pablo Cuevas until the Uruguayan clay-courter found some game and took it down to the last few exchanges. Pouille won 6-0, 3-6, 7-5 in just under two hours.
In a result nobody saw coming, Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares – not so long ago the best doubles team in the world – lost to two players with a combined ranking of 1,032. For the record, Romain Arneodo and Hugo Nys – in the tournament on a wild card – won 6-2, 6-5 (3), 10-3, to bring a disappointing week for the Murray family to a merciful end.