Monte Carlo: Djokovic d. Nieminen

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Novak Djokovic lives within walking distance of Court Central in Monte Carlo, and for one set this quarterfinal with Jarkko Nieminen felt as festive as a block party. Then Djokovic began to command the center of the court and take charge of the neighborhood, reeling off five straight games to show Nieminen the door, 6-4, 6-3.

It was Djokovic’s first straight-sets win of the tournament as the world No. 1, showing sharper movement and no signs of pain after twisting his ankle earlier this month, rolled into his fifth Monte Carlo semifinal. But it wasn’t quite as straightforward as the score suggests.

The 31-year-old Nieminen walked onto court clutching his Wilson racquet in his left hand like a man fully ready to forgo the formalities and get down to business. Contesting his fourth quarterfinal of the year, Nieminen is the type of guy who is usually content to grind out rallies while disrupting an opponent’s rhythm playing with varying paces and angles, but he surprised Djokovic with sudden strikes down the line. The Finn fought off four break points, weathering a nine-minute opening game with a hard-fought hold.

Ruing an opportunity lost, Djokovic played a tentative second game, facing triple break point. Rising on one-leg, Marcelo Rios-style, Nieminen knifed an off-angled backhand return winner to break at love for 2-0. Shrugging off the lapse, Djokovic broke back at love.

If you told me beforehand that Nieminen, coming off draining successive three-setters and playing his first Masters quarterfinal since 2006, would test Djokovic in baseline exchanges, I would have said there’s a better chance of you partnering Prince Albert in the club doubles tournament. Yet Nieminen stayed right in step with the top seed until 4-all, 30-all. A rapid-fire net exchange ended with Djokovic blocking a backhand volley winner cross-court for break point. Sweeping a series of topspin forehands cross-court, Djokovic had Nieminen on his heels anticipating the deep ball when he shrewdly pulled the string on a short-angled forehand winner crosscourt for the break and a 5-4 lead.

Djokovic dipped a backhand smack on the baseline that sent the ball scurrying wildly like a runaway from the roulette table, and Nieminen’s shanked reply gave the Serbian double set point. Two points later, Djokovic sealed the 39-minute first set on a Nieminen backhand error. Djokovic’s net game was a horror show in a blustery loss to Tommy Haas in Miami, but he won all eight trips to net in today's opening set volleying with both subtlety and accuracy.

Lingering hangover from the first set plagued Nieminen at the start of the second: His double fault handed Djokovic the break and a 1-0 lead. The Nieminen second serve is his most suspect shot and Djokovic made him feel the pressure winning 17 of the 24 points (71 percent) played on the left-hander’s second serve. It wasn’t a flawless performance. A distracted Djokovic bungled the lead and littered three consecutive errors to donate the break for 1-3 before stretching the lead to 5-1 only to cause complications again as Nieminen broke at 30 for 3-5.

When Djokovic plays forehand combinations—hitting the heavy topspin deep to set up the short-angled crosscourt or inside-out forehand—he gives himself many more options while simultaneously spreading the court. At times he was impatient and lost a bit of control trying to flatten out the forehand, finding the middle of the net instead. But he settled down, hitting a couple of exquisite drop shots in the final stages to earn the win in 76 minutes. Djokovic, who raised his record to 24-2 on the year, carries a 4-0 career record against semifinal opponent Fabio Fognini.

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