Novak Djokovic's unbeaten record in 2011 is still intact but the 23-year-old Serb was taken to the edge of the precipice by Andy Murray in a gripping semi-final of the Rome Masters here last night. Murray served for the match and came within two points of victory on four occasions before Djokovic fought back to win 6-1 3-6 7-6 after a contest of the highest quality that lasted more than three hours.
In today's final the world No 2 will face the man he has been relentlessly chasing down at the top of the world rankings. Rafael Nadal, who beat Richard Gasquet 7-5 6-1 in the other semi-final, has been fighting a virus this week, but after Djokovic's exertions the Spaniard should fancy his chances of winning the title here for the sixth time in seven years and ending his rival's 38-match winning run, which began at the end of last year.
There have been times in the last four months when you wondered whether Murray's crushing defeat by Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open would have a long-term effect on his self-belief. The world No 4 will have good reason to feel much better about himself after last night.
If there was disappointment at losing in a Masters semi-final for the second time in five weeks – Murray was beaten by Nadal in Monte Carlo after another three-hour marathon – the Scot will take heart from the best clay-court season of his career as he heads for the French Open, which begins next weekend. "I can win the French if I play my best," he said. "This will definitely give me confidence going into it."
Some of the tennis was sensational. Both men hit with enormous power and precision from the baseline, covering every inch of the court with their outstanding athleticism. There were some wonderful rallies of 30 shots or more.
The evening conditions were perfect – cool with almost no wind after a day of glorious sunshine – and Djokovic responded with a perfect opening game, holding serve with an ace followed by three successive winners. Murray clung on in the first three games, which lasted 24 minutes, but won only four points in the next four as Djokovic took the first set with plenty to spare.
Murray, who celebrates his 24th birthday today, had failed to hold serve in the first set – he won only 50 per cent of the points when his first serve found the court and none on second – but his improvement in the second set was instant. He broke in the sixth game and served out for the set, levelling the match with a majestic backhand cross-court winner.
Both men dropped serve twice in the decider before Murray broke to lead 5-4. Luck was not on his side when he served for the match – he broke a string on one point and lost another to a lucky net cord – but two double faults also contributed to his downfall.
Djokovic, who had dropped only 11 games in his three previous matches, looked shattered from the start of the third set, but dug into his seemingly bottomless reserves to win the tie-break 7-2, setting up match point with a superb winning lob and converting it with a well-judged drop shot.
"I had chances to win and I thought I should have done," Murray said. "It was probably partly because I haven't been in that position too many times this year. I've played very few matches. I think I'm one of the best closers in tennis. I've very rarely lost matches, especially against the best players, when I'm serving for it."
Of Djokovic's winning streak, he said: "It's obviously a great run. I'm just disappointed in myself. I should have ended it tonight and I didn't. I had my chances. It's going to be tough for anyone to match a run like that, but I think it will be very tough for him to keep it going tomorrow."
Maria Sharapova will play Australia's Sam Stosur in the women's final. Sharapova beat Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 1, 7-5 6-3. Stosur, runner-up at last year's French Open, reached her first final of this year by beating Li Na 7-6 6-0.