Novak Djokovic stood tall again in Rome on Thursday, as his peers floundered around him.
While Andy Murray was back in London, bracing himself for a back scan on Friday that could determine the direction of his summer, Rafael Nadal won but, for the fifth time in seven matches, he was dragged into a deciding set and came within a point of being bagelled for the first time since Roger Federer embarrassed him in Hamburg six years ago.
Djokovic, in great touch here, advanced to the quarter-finals of the Masters at the Foro Italico with trademark ruthlessness, dismissing the erratic but dangerous Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-1, 6-4 in exactly an hour.
Later, he spared a thought for Murray's injury conundrum and the Scot's thin prospects of entering the lists at Roland Garros in nine days' time, although he was not exactly shedding tears.
"He is a great player and I hope he is fit to play," Djokovic said. "But everyone is different and the grand slams are the most important events in our sport – that's where you want to make your mark. Many occasions in my career where I didn't feel well, I played, but I understand what a tennis player feels when he struggles with injury. It is our worst enemy. You have to handle it the best way you can."
Murray says he will decide in "the next few days" if the lingering back trouble that forced him to quit for only the second time in 529 singles matches on Wednesday will keep him out of the French Open. Having fought back from a set and 1-4 down against the Spaniard Marcel Granollers to level their second-round match in the tie-break on Wednesday, he left Rome a disconsolate figure.
Murray, who is still No2 in the world, less than a thousand points ahead of Federer but nearly 4,000 behind Djokovic, is in a bind: play and risk aggravating a back injury that has been with him since late 2011 and, consequently, jeopardising a good run at Wimbledon, or rest and get fit for the tournament where he has the best chance of emulating his win in New York last year. Time is against the Scot, and he can be no better than an even-money proposition to play before Wimbledon. Although Queen's is a possibility.
Nadal, meanwhile, suffered almost the same embarrassment on Thursday as Federer did here three years ago, when the temperamental, brilliant Latvian Ernests Gulbis ran him ragged in the first set, going within a point of taking it to nil, before the world No5 came through 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 37 minutes.
It was a terrific struggle, rich in muscular ground strokes and artful work around the net. Gulbis who is fitter and more focused since his three-set win over Federer here in 2010, went 24 games into this tournament before he dropped serve on Thursday. Nadal is in excellent form as he prepares to defend his French title. He has won 33 of 35 matches since returning from seven months out with injury, and collected his fifth title of the year when he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in Madrid last weekend.
However, Gulbis, a semi-reformed playboy with way more money than ranking points, went shot for shot with him to thrill the packed Campo Centrale – as did Grigor Dimitrov in Monte Carlo last month, when he too almost bagelled the 26-year-old Spaniard. But, as then, the world No5 found something extra to reach the quarters against his compatriot David Ferrer, who went through without hitting a ball when Philipp Kohlschreiber withdrew with "dizziness".
Djokovic, who is on Nadal's side of the draw and plays ninth seed Tomas Berdych next, has had his own injury concerns, showing admirable grit to nurse a rolled right ankle through the Monte Carlo Open last month, when he ripped away Nadal's Cote d'Azur crown after an unbeaten reign of eight years. "I haven't felt discomfort on the court for a week now," Djokovic said. That could be the first bad news Nadal has had all week.
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