They say nothing lasts for ever in the Eternal City but this was ridiculous.
In a day of fantasy tennis that might have been scripted by Federico Fellini, the world No1, Novak Djokovic, considered to be approaching invincibility in his sport, went 33 minutes and 47 seconds before he could raise his arms in mock triumph to celebrate winning a game against the world No37, Thomaz Bellucci, in the third round of the Italian Open.
At that point, the Serb had won only 15 points to the Brazilian’s 34 and was struggling to come to terms with having been bagelled for the first time since Roger Federer kept him scoreless in the first set in Cincinnati five years ago.
Federer, too, had his aura punctured. The 34-year-old, still coping with an injured back, lost to the exciting young Austrian Dominic Thiem, to join his Swiss compatriot and French Open champion, Stan Wawrinka, on the way home. Other day-five losers included David Ferrer and the brittle but brilliant Richard Gasquet.
Djokovic, somehow, survived. He played poorly in the first set, fought hard against his own game in the second, then settled into a rhythm in the third-set shootout, to win 0-6, 6-3, 6-2 in one of the strangest matches of his career.
Elsewhere, David Goffin’s first ever win over the eighth seed, Tomas Berdych, took him only 48 minutes, and he completed a rare double bagel with an ace. Goffin will play Andy Murray on Campo Centrale in the second afternoon match on Friday.
The Scot, no stranger to drama on court, had a relatively quiet time getting rid of Jérémy Chardy in an hour and 17 minutes, 6-0, 6-4. Murray, his serve sound and his drop-shot clicking nicely, beat the Frenchman handily to reach the quarter-finals.
Murray v Goffin could be a fascinating reprise of their last encounter on clay last November in Ghent, when Murray beat the Belgian in the best of five sets to win the Davis Cup for Great Britain for the first time in 79 years. There is not quite so much riding on this, although everyone left in the Italian Open has an eye on Roland Garros in 10 days’ time.
“I saw a little bit of Novak’s first set,” Murray said. “Obviously I wasn’t expecting that but it’s not easy. Novak played Bellucci here last year and had a tough match with him.”
As for Goffin trouncing Berdych, Murray, restored to No2 in the world rankings after Federer’s defeat, observed: “He’s been around top 20 in the world for the last couple of years, and this year he’s played very well. I didn’t see any of the match today but to win love and love against one of the best players in the world, you’ve got to be feeling good.”
Goffin was no doubt feeling as good as Berdych probably was feeling bad. Those courtside said it was an abject performance, and the crowd gave the Czech the full benefit of their displeasure as he departed, head down.
Stacked up against this, Rafael Nadal’s progress to the quarter-finals – where he plays Djokovic for the 49th time – was positively serene. He dropped an engrossing first set to the eccentric Australian Nick Kyrgios but then knuckled down – like the world No1 had to later – to fight his way back into the match, winning 6-7 (3-7), 6-2, 6-4 in two hours and 39 minutes, the longest match of the day.
Kyrgios took a medical timeout for a hip injury when trailing 4-1 in the second set but made a decent fight of it all the way to the end.
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