ROME — Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray line up in a major final today for the second straight week after taking contrasting routes into the Italian Open title match Saturday.
Second seed Murray, who lost the Madrid Open final a week ago to Djokovic, needed less than an hour to dispatch qualifier Lucas Poulille 6-2, 6-1 on the red clay.
Djokovic spent just more than three hours in holding off sixth seed Kei Nishikori 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) in a thriller, which put the world No. 1 a victory away from a sixth trophy of 2016. Djokovic came from behind and needed four match points to win.
"The first set was flawless from (Nishikori's) side, and in the third set he had a couple of break points," Djokovic said. "Maybe a couple of opportunities I could have done better. But big credit to Kei. I saw the stats. I only had one more point than him, and that says everything."
Nishikori said he was very disappointed with his loss.
"I think in the tiebreak I made too many unforced errors," he said. "That was the biggest mistake I made."
Djokovic appeared to injure his left foot during the first game. Attempting to knock the clay out of his shoe with his racket, Djokovic hit his ankle instead, and there was a deep bruise.
On the changeover, Djokovic had a trainer come out and clean the bruise, but it took him until the second set to really regain his footing.
"It hurt for a while, and though the pain faded, it returned toward the end of the match," Djokovic said.
"A message to all the kids out there: don't hit your own ankle when you're cleaning your shoes."
The final comes on Murray's 29th birthday.
"I don't remember winning any matches on my birthday, which isn't a great sign," Murray said.
Murray hasn't dropped a set in the tournament.
"I think I have made some improvements in my game (in the past year)," he said. "Last year I was winning a lot of matches at this time of the year, but I do think I'm playing better tennis this year. I think my serve has been a big improvement for me.
"That's why in matches like (Saturday), Lucas had no opportunities on my serve. I had a few matches like that over the past few weeks, and that hasn't always been the case."
Murray will return to No. 2 in the rankings ahead of Roger Federer on Monday.
Serena, Keys set up rare all-American clay final
Top-ranked Serena Williams meets 21-year-old Madison Keys today in the Italian Open final, the first time two American women have met in a final on clay since Serena beat older sister Venus in the 2002 French Open.
Williams beat 35th-ranked Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4, 6-1, and 24th-ranked Keys defeated 2015 Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 after several rain delays.
The last all-American women's final in Rome was in 1970, when Billie Jean King beat Julie Heldman.
"It will be wonderful," Williams said. "I feel like Madison is one of the players that really can be great, and she has that potential, and now she's showing that on all surfaces."
Two Americans hadn't even been in the Rome semifinals since Jennifer Capriati beat Williams in 2004.
Williams is 15-0 against Americans since losing to her sister in the Montreal semifinals in 2014. Her last loss to an American in a final came against Venus at Wimbledon in 2008.
The championship match is the third meeting between Williams, 34, and Keys, and comes exactly a week before the French Open begins. Williams beat Keys in straight sets in the Australian Open semifinals and U.S. Open round of 16 last year.
"I played her pretty close the first set of the Australian Open," Keys said, "so (that) definitely made me realize that I can stay in it.
"If you're able to weather the storm and stay with her, every once in a while you get one or two opportunities, and it's (all about) taking those opportunities."
Williams goes for her 70th career title. Keys looks for her second.
Williams hasn't won a title since a U.S. Open tuneup in Cincinnati in August. She's a three-time Rome champion, in 2002, 2013 and 2014.