For the last two years Novak Djokovic has run Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer close in the clay court season.
This year there are signs of a changing of the guard. While nobody would dream of writing off Federer, despite the world No 1's defeat on his seasonal debut on clay earlier this week, Djokovic's difficulties were underlined when he was beaten 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 here yesterday by Fernando Verdasco in the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters.
It was Djokovic's second successive defeat by the Spaniard, who brushed him aside for the loss of four games in an hour and a half in the Monte Carlo semi-finals a fortnight ago. This was a much closer contest, Verdasco winning after three and a quarter hours in the heat of the day, but Djokovic does not appear to be the force he was.
Verdasco, in contrast, is going from strength to strength. The 26-year-old left-hander from Madrid has had an outstanding clay-court season so far, winning last week's tournament in Barcelona and reaching the final in Monte Carlo, where he lost to Nadal.
Djokovic's frustrations were evident in the seventh game, when he hurled his racket as Verdasco made the first break. The world No 9 failed to serve out for the first set but played a good tie-break, which he won 7-4. Djokovic responded well, breaking serve three times in the second set, but Verdasco remained strong in the decider and converted his first match point with an ace.
Although Djokovic was disappointed with the result, he said he was happy with his performance and his form in the build-up to the French Open, which starts in three weeks' time.
Like Andy Murray, Djokovic was also below par in the recent Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami, winning only two matches at what have been productive tournaments for him in the past. "You can't have the best year of your career every year – except if you are Nadal or Federer,'' Djokovic said.
Verdasco, meanwhile, could not explain his new-found success on clay. "I've been doing everything as I've always done before,'' he said. "Beating Djokovic in the semi-finals in Monte Carlo was important for me, as was beating [David] Ferrer and [Robin] Soderling in Barcelona. Beating top players like that makes you believe in yourself.''
In today's semi-finals Verdasco will again meet Ferrer, Murray's conqueror in the third round. The world No 17's consistency quickly wore down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who lost 6-4, 6-1 in an hour and 12 minutes. Nadal, who hit top form to beat Stanislas Wawrinka 6-4, 6-1, will face Ernests Gulbis, a 7-6, 6-1 winner over Feliciano Lopez, in the other semi-final.Reuse content