Djokovic, it must be said, is playing like a man on fire. He has won 18 of 20 sets through his first six matches and now has won 11 matches in a row. Even though Nadal has lost only once on these hallowed grounds, Djokovic is technically the favorite.
He is driven by his results in the past three majors, solid efforts for the rank and file but unacceptable in his mind. He was exhausted in last year's Wimbledon final and Murray took him out in straight sets. Nadal, in the midst of a scintillating hard-court run, beat Djokovic in the US Open final in four sets. At this year's Australian Open, he lost a wrenching four-hour quarterfinal match to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka. That prevented him from winning a fourth consecutive title Down Under and that loss in particular seemed to thrust him forward with a new determination.
The three most important tournaments since? Djokovic won them all -- Indian Wells, Miami and Rome. He beat Nadal in the latter two and you can bet a double cafe crème and a croissant that Djokovic would love to take down the King of Clay in his most natural of habitats and regain that No. 1 ranking.
For the first four games, Gulbis was contained and well-focused. But serving at 2-all, his attention seemed to drift -- perhaps because he had failed to convert two break points in the game before. Djokovic, returning his serves with authority, forged four break opportunities before converting when an off-balance forehand from Gulbis flew long.
The first two forehands in the next game missed by at least 15 feet and Gulbis seemed to have reverted to the hard-partying, under-practicing player whose ranking fell outside the top 100 two years ago. He dropped the first two sets, but cashed in his first break chance of the match with Djokovic serving at 3-4 in the third.
It was characteristic of both men that Djokovic struggled to hold his first service game of the fourth (but did), then broke Gulbis immediately to gain the upper hand. The Latvian returned the favor but lost contact for good serving at 3-4. His listless backhand found the net and Djokovic served out the match.
"It requires a little bit of an adjustment, because we played for over 10 days of the tournament in overcast and a little bit heavier conditions," Djokovic said. "The ball wasn't bouncing as high as it did today. Today the hitting point was a bit higher, so you had to adjust to that.
"And, of course, it was strong sun. That also affects the fatigue of the players. It was a lot of exchanges we had, a lot of long rallies. But at the end of the day, in the end of the match I managed to find a necessary rhythm."
Afterward, Gulbis was completely transparent about what had transpired.
"Difference in the match was, first of all, I'm not used to play these kind of big matches," he said. "It's just normal I felt extra nervous and extra tense. It's just that he was more consistent, especially in the end. He just put the ball twice over the net, and I missed it the third shot. That's it.
"The more I play these kind of matches, the more I'm going to get used to these situations."