Here's my round-up of the semi-finals at the final clay court Masters 1000 event of the year, and a look forward to tomorrow's final:
Despite dropping sets to Philipp Kohlschreiber and David Ferrer in his last two matches, Djokovic has showed little to no ill effects from the wrist injury that saw him pull out of Madrid last week as he finalises his preparations for Roland Garros. Today he was faced by the ever-improving Milos Raonic, contending his first Masters semi-final on this surface.
Credit has to go to Ivan Ljubicic and Ricardo Piatti, who have combined to get the very best out of their Canadian protege this year. Raonic has reached the last eight in all but one of the Masters 1000 events this year, and he's shown this week that there's more to his game than that booming serve. Despite his reputation as one of the game's best returners of all time, Djokovic has actually struggled in the past against the sport's biggest deliveries, having compiled a losing head to head record with Andy Roddick and twice being beaten by John Isner in the past. The Serb's frustration was plain to see when he slammed his racket into the ground during the opening set, which he eventually lost on a tie break, following a host of break point opportunities that he failed to capitalise on.
The second seed let out a huge roar when he finally broke serve in the fourth game of the next set, only to get broken straight back by a determined Raonic. The 23 year old led the second set tie break, serving at 4-3 up, but he couldn't close it out, and Djokovic won 4 points in a row to force a decider. As Novak secured another break of serve at the start of the final set, there was only one winner from thereon in, and he broke again at the end of the match to book his place in tomorrow's final.
It was a tough test for Djokovic, but few eyebrows were raised when he ultimately passed it. He'll be pretty happy with his form ahead of the French Open, bouncing back in typical style from the injury that dashed his hopes last week. Raonic, meanwhile, can take many positives from Rome - reaching a semi-final at this level on a surface that doesn't suit his game is no mean feat, and as the Canadian continues to improve, there's no reason to believe he can't be a serious contender for big titles on all surfaces in the near future.
A lot of questions have been raised over Nadal's clay court form this year, but he has, inevitably, made it to yet another final at the Foro Italico. In stark contrast to the day's first semi-final, this one was done and dusted, almost from the moment that Rafa secured a break to love in the opening game.
I expected Grigor Dimitrov to come into this match full of confidence having reached his first semi-final in a Masters event, but the Bulgarian fell woefully short of what was hoped of him and failed to give the world number one a meaningful test, in a performance riddled with unforced errors and naive decision-making. A very likeable player, Dimitrov may not enjoy this surface as much as others, and given that his style is very similar to that of Roger Federer, it is perhaps understandable that he'd struggle against Rafael Nadal on a clay court, but Grigor still needs to make big improvements on today's showing if he ever expects to break into the top echelon of the rankings.
The Spaniard, in the meantime, will have taken a confidence boost after his first straight sets win in five matches. He was allowed to play his game very comfortably this evening and secured his place in the final with a much more convincing performance and result than we've seen from him in the last few days.
The men's singles final will take place at 4pm local time on Sunday, with the top two ranked players in the world facing off for what will be their 41st meeting. The pair have met three times in the final here before, Nadal taking top honours in 2009 and 2012, Djokovic in 2011. Their overall head to head stands at 22-18 in the Spaniard's favour, but Novak has won each of their last meetings in straight sets, fairly comfortably too.
Prediction: This is always a tough one to call, and usually it'd take a pretty brave man to bet against Nadal on clay, but that's what I'm going to do here. Rafa's struggles throughout the week may have been put behind him after an easy win today, but Djokovic is more than capable of asking the same questions of the world number one as the likes of Simon, Youzhny and Murray, and if he can get into a winning position, it's very unlikely that he'll squander it. I think Novak will start faster than Rafa and keep him on the back foot for the majority of the match. Djokovic to win in straight sets.