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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fast footsteps of Borna Coric echoed in Novak Djokovic's ears as the 21-year-old Croatian closed the gap on his boyhood hero.

The pair practiced side-by-side before today's Monte-Carlo showdown then Coric clung closer fighting off nine match points.

Watch: By The Numbers Match Points & Milestones

A resilient Djokovic kept calm and shook off his shadow converting his 10th match point to subdue Coric, 7-6 (2), 7-5, and set up a blockbuster Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters showdown vs. Dominic Thiem.

Reuniting with former coach Marian Vajda this week, Djokovic reconfirmed his commitment to regaining the top spot.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could come back to No. 1," Djokovic told the media in Monte-Carlo. "I've always wanted to be and feel I have the energy and will."

Playing his grittiest tennis of the season, Djokovic stood up to a stiff test from Coric, who denied seven of the 10 match points when the Serbian served for the match at 5-4.

Undaunted the two-time champion broke right back in the 11th game then closed a gripping two hour, 15-minute conquest in the next game.

Despite his complications closing the match, Djokovic should be pleased with his performance. He struck with conviction, changed direction down the lines sharply, broke down the Coric forehand at key moments and even came up with some timely aces in his final service games.

The ninth-seeded Serbian will face Thiem for a quarterfinal spot and possible shot at world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who opened today against Aljaz Bedene.

Djokovic can walk to work in Monte-Carlo—he's rode his bicycle to the Monte-Carlo Country Club in the past—but Coric made him grind throughout much of today's match.

The 30-time Masters champion was tested in an eight-minute hold to open. Spreading the court, Djokovic tossed up a lob and broke for 3-1 when Coric bungled a smash off the top of his Wilson frame.

The Indian Wells semifinalist was playing his 22nd match of the season—three times as many matches as his opponent—and Coric showed his problem-solving skills breaking back in the seventh game.

Winless in three prior tie breaks this season, Djokovic played this breaker with more clarity and conviction than Coric.

The Serbian spun a diagonal forehand to open. Coric answered with a clean backhand strike down the line.

A full-stretch forehand return drew an error giving Djokovic the mini break and momentum sparking a four-point spurt.

Matters degenerated from bad to worse for Coric, who caused a gasp from fans when he tapped a point-blank drop shot into net, falling behind 1-5. Djokovic drew successive backhands from the Croatian to close the 64-minute opener, in which he denied four of five break points.

Changing direction more effectively down the line, Djokovic did more damage with his forehand firing seven more winners (9 to 2) from that wing in the opening set.

Feeling lingering stress, Coric coughed up his second double fault to gift the break in the opening game of the second set.

The former No. 1 repaid the favor floating a forehand to immediately give back the break.

The depth of Djokovic's returns rattled his opponent in the third game. Coric built a 40-love lead only to be pushed off his back foot by twisting returns as Djokovic reeled off five points in a row scoring the third straight break.

Quick off the mark, the 39th-ranked Coric had his moments on the move.

Streaking forward to run down a drop shot in the sixth game, Coric was a few feet from net when he lifted an impeccable backhand lob winner.

That seldom-seen shot drew applause from Djokovic, who went right back to work deconstructing the 21-year-old Croatian, extending rallies and forcing him to play one more ball.

A stubborn Coric erased two match points, including prevailing in a a 23-shot rally, holding for 4-5.

Serving for the quarterfinals, Djokovic saw three more match points slip away, including mis-hitting a tight forehand. Djokovic barely missed the baseline on a deep drive to face break point at the one hour, 58-minute mark.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion slid his second ace down the T to save it then stuck a slick volley off a sinking pass for a sixth match point. A stretched backhand missed the mark as the game stretched passed the eight-minute mark.

On his seventh match point, Djokovic slid into a drop shot that flirted with the top of the tape only to crawl back on his side.

Curling his third ace of the game out wide, Djokovic gained an eighth match point only to see Coric crank a forehand down the line to deny it.

A diagonal forehand winner brought his ninth match point, but Djokovic netted a backhand. Growing stronger and stepping closer to the line, Coric was turning his shoulders into his shots pushing the Serbian back. Djokovic committed successive errors as a resilient Coric stared down seven match points in the game breaking back for 5-all.

The most decisive move Djokovic made in this match was shrugging off frustration of failed match-point moments and digging in to pressure Coric right back. The Coric forehand malfunctioned against Djokovic's unerring baseline assault as the former No. 1 broke back for 6-5.

Deadlocked at 30-all, Djokovic was in no mood for more drama. He dragged ace wide for his 10th match point, finally closing a battle on a Coric error. The physicality of rallies should help prepare Djokovic for Thiem, who won the final three games rallying past Andrey Rublev to win his first match in five weeks in his opener.

The 13th-ranked Djokovic has won five of six meetings vs. Thiem, including a 6-1, 6-0, thrashing in the Rome semifinals last May before the Austrian gained a measure of revenge routing Djokovic, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0, to reach his second straight Roland Garros semifinal.


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