Novak Djokovic kept his hopes of defending his crown in Doha alive after he saved five match points to see off Fernando Verdasco in a thrilling match at the Qatar Exxon Mobil Open 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-3.
Verdasco was much the better player in windy conditions in the latter stages of the first set and throughout the second. However, it was the 12-time Grand Slam champion’s sheer will and desire to win which kept him afloat in the tiebreak at 6-2 down as he stayed patient and waited for his opponent to make the errors in the big moments, sealing the tiebreak 9-7 and breaking the Spaniard twice in the final set to secure the win.
Heading into the match both players had started the year strongly at this event, advancing to the quarterfinals without dropping a set. Djokovic saw off 38-year-old Radek Stepanek in the previous round 6-3, 6-3, while Verdasco ousted sixth seed Ivo Karlovic 6-2, 7-5. The world number two was the heavy favorite to win the tie, leading their head to head 8-4, including a straight sets win in the second round at this tournament last year 6-2, 6-2.
Djokovic dominant in the early exchanges
In windy conditions in the desert, Verdasco looked to make an early move as he brought up a break point opportunity in the opening game. The defending champion saved the point with a forehand winner before the Spaniard misfired on two forehands, conceding the game. A 23 stroke rally earned the Serb half a chance at earning an early break himself, but the world number 42 responded well, drawing errors from his opponent to level at 1-1.
In the fourth game, some untimely unforced errors from the former world number seven left him facing a break point. However, the Spaniard came out on top in one of the best rallies of the week, demonstrating excellent defensive skills before hitting a backhand cross court pass which the Serb could only hit the top of the tape with his follow up volley. After coming close to the break there the world number two did not have to wait long to have another chance at breaking the Spaniard’s serve, an opportunity which he took this time to take a 4-2 lead.
The Spaniard wins four games in a row to seal the set
With the break advantage, the Serb threw in an unexpected poor service game, struggling to find first serves as a backhand error dumped into the net sealed a break back to love for Verdasco. Djokovic’s game went to pieces as he dropped serve to love for the second game in a row, handing his opponent the chance to serve out the set. Winning 15 of the last 18 contested points, Verdasco moved to two set points before his forehand broke down twice, handing the world number two a lifeline at deuce. The defending champion had a break back point, but the world number 42 stood firm and having made 87 percent of his first serves he closed it out with a forehand winner to secure the set 6-4.
Verdasco moves up a break
Having dropped his first set at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in two years, the Serb was looking to respond and stop the rot on serve, moving to a 30-0 advantage. That was not to be the case as Verdasco demonstrated a clear ability to hit through the wind, working the Serb over as he struggled to hit groundstrokes which would penetrate through the court. The Spaniard, who now resides in Qatar, powered through to break point and secured it after the former world number one went long with a backhand.
Verdasco sealed a first hold to love to make it six games in a row before the 12-time Grand Slam champion was able to finally hold serve, having been broken in his three previous service games. That was the start of a streak which turned the set around for the world number two, winning 12 out of 15 points since the start of the third game to break back and hold once again to move 3-2 in front.
Nail biting ninth game
The ninth game was a pivotal one as the world number two squandered a game point before the Spaniard got a chance to earn a crucial break. The world number 42 netted a backhand to spurn that opportunity and could not find a way through his opponent on his second try as the Serb outlasted him, getting the crowd going. An ace brought a second game point for Djokovic, but errors granted Verdasco a third chance. The 11-minute game appeared to take its toll on the 33-year-old as he produced three unforced errors to fall 5-4 behind. The former world number seven swiftly put the disappointment of not stepping up to the line to serve for the match behind him as he held to level at 5-5.
The defending champion saves five match points to force a decider
This dramatic set went into a tiebreak and it was the Serb who gained the first mini-break after Verdasco challenged a call during the point incorrectly to trail 2-1. The Spaniard responded immediately with a forehand winner down the line followed by a backhand error wide as the world number 42 took a 4-2 lead at the change of ends. The wind had an increasingly negative effect on the defending champions game as the tiebreak developed, with it causing another backhand error from the world number two as he fell 6-2 down, facing four match points. Djokovic saved the first on his own serve before his opponent snatched at what was a nervy looking forehand to pull it back to 6-4. An incredibly tense 31 stroke rally resulted in Verdasco getting punished for his patience as a third match point slipped by.
A backhand cross-court winner from the Serb drew him level as they headed to the change of ends at 6-6. Verdasco learned from his mistakes and went back to going for his shots in the rally that ensued, bringing up a fifth match point with a forehand winner down the line. Agonisingly the Spaniard put a cross-court attempted forehand winner just wide before a poorly executed slice flew over the baseline leaving him set point down. The world number two needed no second chance as he forced another error from the Spaniard to seal a thrilling set of tennis 7-6(7).
Having come back from the brink, Djokovic breezes through the decider
With momentum firmly on his side, Djokovic dug deep and began to produce dominant tennis, breaking in the fifth game having made no unforced errors compared to Verdasco’s eight. Much to the Spaniard’s anguish, he felt the match start to slip away from him as three more consecutive unforced errors helped his opponent seal another hold and edge closer to sealing a brilliant comeback victory.
A comfortable hold to love moved the defending champion one game away from the final at 5-3. The exertions of this match appeared to be all catching up to Verdasco as he made some poor unforced errors in the final game, dropping serve and succumbing to the defending champion 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-3. Djokovic advances to Saturday’s final where he will face either two-time champion and current world number one Andy Murray or former runner-up Tomas Berdych.