by Steve Flink
He had captured the first Grand Slam championship of 2008 at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Two months later, he recorded an impressive tournament victory at the Masters Series event in Indian Wells, California. And then in May, he secured the Italian Open crown on the red clay of Rome. At that stage of the season, Novak Djokovic had the best record of any player for the year, and he seemed entirely capable of making a serious run at the No. 1 world ranking. I believed then that Djokovic might well win another major before the season was over, and thought he was heading into a golden stretch in his career.
But then Rafael Nadal exploded into supremacy, dominating on the clay, taking his fourth French Open in a row, winning Wimbledon in an almost ineffable encounter against Roger Federer, capturing a gold medal at the Olympic Games, and establishing himself unequivocally as the game’s greatest player for 2008. Nadal, battling tendinitis in his right knee, worn out after a stupendous campaign, pulled out of last week’s season ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and this week’s Davis Cup Final. Nadal had already sealed the year-end No. 1 ranking, and was wise to put his long term ambitions ahead of any short term pursuits.
And yet, even with Nadal out of the picture, not many people were paying much attention to Djokovic as the week began for the eight leading players at Shanghai. After Rome, Djokovic had played some first rate tennis on all surfaces, but had not been rewarded with another tournament victory. Nadal had upended Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open, the ever enigmatic Marat Safin had toppled the Serbian in the second round of Wimbledon, and Roger Federer had accounted for the world No. 3 in the penultimate round at the U.S. Open.
Moreover, Djokovic had been beaten in three finals after his Rome triumph, which only added to his woes. He bowed in title round matches against Nadal on the grass at Queen’s Club in London, against Andy Murray on hard courts in Cincinnati, and against a revitalized Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Bangkok. On top of that, Djokovic had often looked like a beleaguered figure, becoming embroiled in a controversy of his own making at the U.S. Open, losing the joy of competing that he had so frequently displayed across 2007 and in the early stages of 2008.
That joy was unmistakably rekindled as he ruled in Shanghai. Winning that tournament— arguably the fifth biggest title in tennis— was a terrific achievement for a player who was slowly losing his self conviction. To be sure, he had some luck on his side. He was joined in his round robin group by Nikolay Davydenko, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Tsonga. The other group— a stronger contingent-featured the four times champion Federer, Andy Murray, Gilles Simon and Andy Roddick. Djokovic went right to work, ousting Del Potro 7-5, 6-3, and then defeating Davydenko 7-6, 0-6, 7-5. Although he lost 1-6, 7-5, 6-1 to Tsonga in his last round robin clash, Djokovic had already reserved his place in the semifinal lineup.
Djokovic battled admirably during his three set semifinal confrontation with Simon, overcoming the fleet-footed Frenchman 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 with immense poise. Djokovic was ahead 3-1, 0-40 in the final set of that clash, poised to add an insurance break to his lead and pull out of reach. He started cramping and lost that game with a stream of unforced errors. Nevertheless, he served for the match at 5-4 in that third set, but was broken when he went for a huge second serve down the middle at 30-40. He was well off the mark, double faulting that game away. Simon was back to 5-5, but Djokovic proceeded to play a superb return game, breaking again for 6-5, then serving out the match the second time around.
In the final, Djokovic was pitted against Davydenko again. Their round robin contest could have gone either way, but the title round showdown was seldom in doubt. Djokovic was playing with a sustained, controlled aggression off the ground that we had not seen from him for a long while. His first serve was excellent as he found the corners in both the deuce and advantage courts with striking regularity, and his intensity and ball control were impeccable. In racing to a 5-0 first set lead, Djokovic won 20 of 26 points, and he took that set commandingly.
Djokovic maintained his mastery in the second set, and reached double match point with Davydenko serving at 3-5, 15-40. Davydenko released an ace, and then Davydenko saved a second match point with an inside-out forehand that Djokovic could not handle. The Russian held on for 4-5. Djokovic played a jittery game at 5-4, losing his serve for the only time in the match with a double fault at break point down.
The setback was brief. At 5-5, buoyed by a couple of dazzling forehand winners, he allowed Davydenko only one point, and then held at love to win 6-1, 7-5. Djokovic was a worthy victor of the Tennis Masters Cup, with or without good fortune. His sidespin backhand drop shot down the line was as stellar as it gets, and his match playing instincts seldom let him down. It did not hurt him in the least to have Nadal out of action, to not face Federer or Murray, and to play Davydenko in the championship match. The fact remains that he was surrounded by top ten players who all sensed a chance to do something substantial. In the end, Djokovic surpassed them all, and was not found wanting.
The story of the week was undoubtedly the revival of Djokovic, who now approaches next year with clear eyed enthusiasm and renewed vigor. Before Shanghai, his stature as a front line competitor appeared to be severely diminished, with his status at No. 3 in the world in jeopardy as Murray came on with such force over the second half of the year. Murray remains a serious threat to everyone in the game’s upper regions, and a genuine candidate for No. 1 in the world in 2009. But, by virtue of his large triumph indoors at Shanghai, Djokovic has in many ways reclaimed his greatness and has reminded everyone that his Australian Open victory was no accident.
Murray, despite losing in the semifinals to Davydenko, was heroic in Shanghai himself. His round robin collision with Federer was easily the match of the week, and was surely one of the top five battles of the entire year in the men’s game. Federer, hoping for a third consecutive Masters Cup title, had injured his back two weeks earlier during the Masters Series event in Paris. He defaulted to James Blake in the quarterfinals, the first time in 763 career matches that he had pulled out during a tournament. He then lost his opening round robin match to Simon in Shanghai, the second straight time he had been beaten by the Frenchman in 2008. Federer next beat Radek Stepanek— a replacement for an injured Roddick-before taking on Murray.
Murray had already earned his semifinal place by winning his first two matches, while Federer had to beat his rival from Great Britain to make it to the weekend. Murray had to weigh the ramifications of a long, hard fought meeting with Federer, knowing that it could cost him dearly. The two groups had played on alternate days all week, but Federer and Murray were slated for a Friday duel, so there would be no recovery time for the semifinals and final. The circumstances were awkward for Murray but absolutely clear for Federer.
In any case, the deep mutual respect between the two players was showcased brilliantly, and the importance of their rivalry was evident to one and all as they conducted their business as if their lives depended on the outcome. The two competitors were spurred on all the more by a vociferous, pro-Federer crowd dazzled by the shot making mastery they were witnessing on both sides of the net.
It all began innocently enough. Federer— perhaps compensating for his ailing back but also recognizing that he had to raise the level of his aggression— went forward frequently in the early stages, mixed in some serve-and-volley tactics, and used the drop shot judiciously. He had a 3-1 lead before Murray caught him, but from 4-4 in that opening set Federer conceded only one more point in collecting the last two games. He grabbed the first set convincingly.
Murray surged to a 5-2, 40-15 lead in the second set. He impatiently went for a backhand down the line winner without a clear opening and missed it wide. Then Federer approached behind a drop shot, putting away Murray’s response with ease. Federer broke back, held, then broke Murray again when the 21-year-old served for the set a second time at 5-4. Not long after, Murray inexplicably found himself serving at 5-6 to save the set and the match. Federer was three points away from a straight set win when Murray served at 15-15 in the twelfth game, but Murray took control to reach the tie-break.
Murray led 3-1 in that sequence, but then Federer took the next point by winning a spectacular 36 stroke exchange with a leaping backhand overhead that lured Murray into a netted forehand pass. Federer drew level at 3-3, standing only four points from victory. But Murray realized he needed to be the aggressor, and he became just that as he ran off four points in a row to win the tie-break. Twice in that span he came to the net to produce sparkling backhand volleys that were too much for Federer.
After losing that set, Federer was visited by the trainer as the Swiss maestro got treatment on his back. Murray promptly went ahead 3-0— after the second game Federer briefly sat down behind the court-but there was much drama ahead. Federer saw the trainer again at 3-0 down, and looked shaky as he fell behind 15-30 in the fourth game. But he sent out an un-returnable serve, threw in an ace, and held on with a forehand drop shot winner.
Murray had game points on his serve at 3-1 and 3-3 in that final set, but failed to hold either time. A resolute Federer— sweeping four games in a row– took a 4-3, 40-15 lead, now standing five points from an improbable win. But the Swiss missed a running forehand down the line, and then Murray passed him cleanly with a two-hander crosscourt. Murray broke back for 4-4, and held easily in the ninth game.
The next game was magical. With Federer serving at 4-5, he saved no fewer than seven match points. The game went to ten deuces. The crowd was almost delirious. Murray surprisingly missed a sliced forehand on the first match point, and bungled a forehand return into the net on the second off a second serve. Federer played astounding defense on the third, eventually winning that point with a trademark forehand winner off a short ball. On match point No. 4, Murray buckled again, netting a routine backhand return off another second serve.
Facing match point for the fifth time, Federer served-and-volleyed and provoked an errant topspin lob from Murray. On the sixth and seventh match points, Federer aced his adversary, and soon he was back even at 5-5. Murray should have been a spent force after that defiant stand from Federer, but he was not at all. He took the last two games at the cost of only two points, as Federer was off the mark with a running forehand down the line on the eighth match point. Match to Murray 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-5. Only in the Wimbledon final has Federer gone down to a more gallant defeat.
It was painfully apparent the following day that Murray had done himself in with his heroics against Federer. He normally moves from defense to offense in a heartbeat, and cuts down his opponents with an irresistible combination of boldness and persistence. Against Davydenko in the semifinals, he could never get off of defense, and he was trapped too often far behind the baseline. He had one good opening to win the first set with Davydenko serving at 3-4, 0-30. On a second serve return off the backhand, Murray failed to keep the ball in play. Predictably, the Russian marched to a 7-5, 6-2 win over the debilitated Murray.
It was too bad Murray was unable to perform at peak efficiency against Davydenko, because it would have been stirring to watch him take on Djokovic in the championship match. But he seemed to have no regrets about his decision to go all out against Federer, whom he defeated for the third time in four meetings this season. Murray was looking beyond Shanghai toward the future, and to him it was well worth the price he paid to gain success against the 13 time Grand Slam tournament champion. Murray still came away from Shanghai knowing he had made immense progress across the year, setting the stage for an even bigger 2009 campaign.
As for Djokovic, he has big plans as well in the immediate years ahead. If he manages to defy the odds and successfully defend his Australian Open crown in January, Djokovic will know that Shanghai was where he righted himself, recovered his confidence, and remembered who he is and what he could still accomplish. Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com Steve Flink Archive
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