But, above all, Djokovic will forever recollect this past week for one simple and joyous reason: it was his first tournament appearance since his wife Jelena gave birth to their son Stefan. Becoming a father made Djokovic incalculably proud, and the presence of his parents in the stands at Paris was another reason why he was so determined to succeed. He cast aside Philipp Kohlschreiber, Gael Monfils, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Raonic without the loss of a set. Only Monfils took him into a tie-break. To be sure, no one pushed him particularly hard with the exception of a reckless yet sensational Monfils in the second set of their clash, but the fact remained that all week Djokovic was enterprising, purposeful, unyielding, clear-eyed, and totally professional. In this frame of mind, he is awfully tough to beat. No wonder he has been victorious in 27 consecutive indoor matches.
In the final, Djokovic never allowed Raonic to breathe comfortably. Facing Djokovic indoors on the heels of morale boosting victories over Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych was not a bad place for Raonic to be. And yet, from the outset, the signs were strikingly evident that Djokovic was primed for battle, eager to assert his authority, and ready to combat the Canadian in every way.
Djokovic returned ineffably well. Here was one of the sports two or three premier servers in Raonic with the benefit of a roof over his head, a growing sense of self and a deep determination to win. But the Serbian essentially took that overwhelming service weapon away from Raonic. The constancy of high quality Djokovic returns was breathtaking.
Djokovic came out of the blocks forcefully, pouring in three out of four first serves, holding at love. Raonic started the second game with an ace down the T. He moved ahead 30-15. But Djokovic began smothering his adversary with his sparkling ground game. He reached 30-30 with a very deep second serve return down the middle drawing an error. On the following point, he stretched wide for an arduous forehand return, drove it crosscourt with interest, and provoked an errant forehand down the line from the Canadian. At 30-40, Djokovic kept his backhand passing shot low, causing Raonic to net a backhand volley.
Just like that, the Serbian had the immediate break, setting the tone for the afternoon. Djokovic consolidated that break briskly, holding at 15 for 3-0, missing only one of six first serves. He had won 12 of 15 points. Djokovic had a break point for 4-0, but Raonic released a scorching service winner out wide to the backhand. The Canadian held on with an ace out wide in the ad court.
Perhaps disconcerted by that lost opportunity, Djokovic struggled in the fifth game. The Canadian competitor had one break point to get back on serve, but drove an inside-out forehand way wide after pulling Djokovic off the court. Djokovic held on his third game point as Raonic narrowly missed another inside out forehand. Djokovics elasticity was destroying Raonic; it was as simple as that.
Djokovic moved to 4-1. He was 10 for 12 on first serves, sticking to his policy of not allowing Raonic to get many looks at second deliveries. In the sixth game, Raonic trailed 0-40 after a cluster of forehand mistakes, but served his way out it. An ace out wide at 222 kilometers took Raonic to 15-40. Djokovic then made one of his few glaring errors, sending a two-hander crosscourt wide after opening up the court for what should have been a winner. Raonic served another ace out wide, put away an overhead and released another unstoppable first serve, holding on for 2-4 with a run of five points in a row.
Djokovic had been denied a second chance for an insurance break, and that was bothersome. He was behind 0-40 in the seventh game. Raonic over-anxiously flailed at a forehand on the first break point and found the net. Now Djokovic settled back into a groove, moving Raonic from side to side to induce an error: 30-40. He released a devastatingly accurate first serve down the T that was unanswerable: deuce. An ace out wide in the deuce court gave Djokovic game point, and Raonic followed with an errant forehand inside in. On that five point run, Djokovic stood at 5-2.
After a visit from the trainer to examine a minor problem in his lower right leg, Djokovic broke serve again to seal the set. Raonic led 40-15 in the eighth game, but inexplicably went for a huge second serve ace down the T. The gamble backfired into a double fault. Djokovic collected three more points in a row. The set belonged to him, 6-2.
In the opening game of the second set, Djokovic served an ace for 40-30, but Raonic climbed back to deuce with a backhand down the line return winner. Unperturbed, Djokovic produced an un-returnable first serve for a second game point, and then surged to 1-0 spectacularly. Raonic accidentally rolled an inside out forehand exceedingly short, drawing Djokovic in. The Serbian had virtually no choice but to drop shot down the line. Raonic tracked that ball tenaciously, going crosscourt off the forehand with good pace. But a sprightly Djokovic athletically lunged to his right, making a terrific forehand volley down the line winner.
Raonic knew he was up against an unwavering opponent who was on top of his game. The Canadian led 30-0 in the second game, but two excellent returns off first serves helped Djokovic reach 30-30. Raonic missed with an inside out forehand for 30-40, and then double faulted into the netthe tell-tale sign of an uncomfortable player. Djokovic was ahead 2-0, and swiftly held for 3-0 at 15. At 15-15 in that game, he challenged Raonic with the wide slice serve in the deuce court (a tactic that worked throughout the match), drawing a return error. Djokovic served an ace out wide for 40-15 and then masterfully seized control from the baseline to close out that game.
Raonic held at love for 1-3, but Djokovic clearly envisioned the finish line, holding at 15 for 4-1 before Raonic held on in the sixth game. Djokovic was serving with cagey precision. He held at love for 5-2, concentrating on the body serve to the forehand, closing out that impeccable game with an elegant backhand drop volley winner. Soon Raonic was down double match point, serving at 2-5, 15-40, knowing he was in a terrible bind. Yet the 23-year-old sent out a thunderbolt down the T to reach 30-40, and connected with a running forehand passing shot down the line for a winner. Raonic held on for 3-5 with a service winner and an ace, forcing Djokovic to serve it out.
Djokovic raced to 30-0, missed a forehand down the line, but arrived at 40-15 after lacing an inside out forehand that Raonic could not counter. On his third match point, Djokovic finished his task stylishly, swinging his first serve out wide with slice in the deuce court, clearing a wide avenue for a forehand down the line winner. Djokovic took apart Raonic 6-2, 6-3 without losing his serve, erasing all four break points against him. His 75% first serve percentage was impressive, and Djokovic backed up his delivery tremendously. Raonic finished at 66% on first serves, which would have been good enough to get the job done against just about anyone else. But Djokovic is the games greatest returner. He broke three times. In the entire tournament up until then, Raonic had only lost his serve four times in four matches.
Meanwhile, Djokovic made only 10 unforced errors, 19 less than Raonic. The facts were incontestable: Djokovic was too good, just as he had been all week long. Now Djokovic has put himself within striking distance of securing the year-end Emirates ATP No. 1 world ranking for the third time in the last four years. He leads Roger Federer by 1310 points in the Race to London. When the week began, Djokovic was ahead of the Swiss by only 490 points. A great deal was at stake for both players as they pursued the BNP Paribas Masters crown. But Djokovic was fresher in Paris after taking a few weeks off following his semifinal loss to a top of the line Federer in Shanghai. Federer won that Masters 1000 title, had a week off, then secured the crown in Basel. He went straight to Paris from his homeland, hoping to maintain his momentum. He was well aware of how close the race for No. 1 had become. Federer did not win a major this year, which would tarnish his achievement if he were to finish the 2014 season at No. 1 in the world. But he has reached more finals (10) than any of the leading players, and his remarkable consistency is the primary reason Federer is still in contention for the top spot.
But Federer may have been fatigued when he went to Paris on the heels of his recent triumphs in Shanghai and especially Basel. In his opening match against Jeremy Chardy, Federer was pushed hard by the free-wheeling Frenchman. Chardy saved a match point to topple Federer at Rome in a final set tie-break back in May.
Chardy was highly charged in front of the French fans, and should have won the first set. He served for it at 5-3, got broken, but then had four set points in the following game. Federer was off key, but willed his way back to 5-5. He served for the set at 6-5 but faltered, yet still came through in a tie-break. In the second set, Federer had a chance to wrap it up with Chardy serving at 4-5, 15-40. But Chardy escaped with an unstoppable first serve and then a drive volley approach. Federer had an opening for his passing shot down the line but missed it wide. Two match points had eluded Federer. Chardy stole that set in a tie-break, just as Federer had stolen the opening set. The Swiss served prodigiously the rest of the way to complete a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-4 victory.
But that two-and-a-half hour assignment took something out of him. He won his next match against the entertaining French qualifier Lucas Pouille in straight sets, and walked on court against Raonic with a 6-0 career winning record against the Canadian. In their first three career head to head skirmishes back in 2012, Raonic had stretched Federer close to his limits on three different surfaces. Two of those showdowns went to final set tie-breaks, and the other was close as well. But since then, particularly in the semifinals of Wimbledon and Cincinnati this past summer, Raonic had been decisively outclassed by Federer. Raonic lost his opening service games in London and Cincinnati and never really recovered. On serve, he did not keep up his end of the bargain on those occasions.
This time around, indoors in Paris, confident and comfortable, Raonic was ready. In the opening set of this servers confrontation, Raonic was unshakable. On his way to 6-6, he conceded only six points in six service games. In the ensuing tie-break, Raonic opened the sequence by losing the first point on serve but quickly retaliated by winning the next two on Federers serve with a forehand drop volley winner and an inside our forehand winner from the backcourt. Raonic took the tie-break seven points to five with an ace out wide in the ad court, his eleventh of the set. Raonic hit both lines in the corner with that booming delivery. The deadly ad court serve on critical points was the tipping point for Raonic in the match.
In the second set, Raonic faced his only break point of the match, which was also a set point for Federer. Raonic met that moment with poise, serving another ace out wide. He held on for 5-5, broke Federer for only the second time in their entire seven match series to lead 6-5 with a magnificent backhand passing shot, and then commandingly served out the match, holding at 15 with consecutive forehand winners off short returns. Raonic served 21 aces, never lost his serve, and won 85% of his first serve points. Federer won 88% of his first serve points, but on second serve points Raonic won 65% and Federer stood at only 54%. For the first time, Raonic comported himself like a man who believed he was going to win against a towering opponent. Federer seemed slightly downcast and philosophical in his outlook, realizing how difficult it is to win back to back tournaments without any rest. But he also knew how dynamically Raonic had performed under considerable pressure in winning 7-6 (5), 7-5.
Had Raonic lost that match, he would have been out of contention for the cast of eight players who qualify for the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Raonic had worked hard all year to earn that honor, but was trailing David Ferrer narrowly. By defeating Federer in a must win situation, he kept his hopes alive. Raonic was guaranteed a place in the eight man field when Nishikori stopped Ferrer later that night in the Paris quarterfinals. Ferrer needed a win to remain in the chase, and Nishikori understood that upending Ferrer would mean he would join Raonic in London for certain.
What a spectacle it was. Nishikori was finding the corners off both sides with uncanny precision. He took a 2-0 lead and had Ferrer down 0-30 in the third game. The Japanese player was controlling the tempo entirely. But Ferrer found his range and was impenetrable the rest of the set, taking six of the last seven games to win it 6-3. The second set was settled in a tie-break, and Ferrer seemed certain to close out the account right then and there. He led 4-0 and then 5-2. Ferrer was two tantalizing points away from a straight set triumph.
But Nishikori lifted his game gigantically. At times like that, it is as if he turns on a switch and his talent irresistibly emerges. From 2-5 down in that tie-break, Nishikori was dazzling. Two forehand winners in a row brought him back to 4-5, and he followed with a forehand volley winner. Nishikori came up to the net again to put away an overhead for a 6-5 lead, and sealed the set with a first serve that stifled Ferrer. Those five clutch points in a row lifted Nishikori into a third and final set. It went to 4-4, but he broke Ferrer there and served it out at love. A steadfast Nishikori prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4.
And yet, he had been pushed to the hilt by both Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in three set confrontations. Meeting Djokovic for the first time since he upset the world No. 1 in the semifinals of the U.S Open, Nishikori was spent. His serve speed was decidedly diminished. Djokovic cast his adversary aside methodically, winning 6-2, 6-3. Nishikori won a mere 13% of his second serve points. It was no contest.
Nishikori knew, of course, that he had booked his ticket for London. He tried to rouse himself but physically did not have it. Raonic had nothing to prove when he faced Berdych in the semifinals of Paris. Berdych had also sealed his place in London the day before with a come from behind quarterfinal victory over Kevin Anderson.
When Berdych and Raonic played for a place in the final, pride was the common currency of the day. Raonic won the opening set on one service break before Berdych struck back boldly in the second set. In the third set, a tie-break seemed almost certain, but suddenly at 5-6 Berdych came apart at the seams, serving consecutive double faults for 15-30, missing a running forehand he normally would make. Down double match point at 15-40, he was passive and Raonic coaxed another error. Raonic won 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, an impressive feat only a day after his breakthrough victory over Federer.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray finished off a thoroughly debilitating stretch by reaching the quarterfinals to ensure his place in the elite London field. Murray did that by clobbering Grigor Dimitrov 6-3, 6-3, but he was ousted 7-5, 6-2 by Djokovic. Murray played a good first set. He went up a break at 2-1 in the second set but haphazardly dropped five straight games from there. Murray was exhausted because this was his sixth consecutive week of competition on the ATP World Tour, and he had won three tournaments in that span. Murray lost his resolve in the last bunch of games against Djokovic, but understandably so. What he did to qualify for London was honorable.
The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals starts in London on November 9th. This could be a dandy. In Group A, Djokovic is joined by Wawrinka, Berdych and Marin Cilic. Federer is in Group B with Nishikori, Murray and Raonic. Djokovic opens against Cilic, while Federer takes on Raonic.
Raonic, Cilic and Nishikori are making their London debuts, but they will surely perform mightily. Murray has qualified for the seventh year in a row but the two-time Grand Slam tournament champion has surprisingly never been to a title round match at the ATP World Tour Finals. Picking the four semifinalistswho will all have to fight furiously if they want make it out of the round robinis difficult.
But, in the end, it should all come down to Djokovic and Federer. The Serbian is going for a third straight crown and a fourth overall. Federer is striving to rule in the preeminent indoor event for the seventh time. They figure to meet in the final, and it would be a beauty. They are two best indoor players in the world. They already met in Great Britain this year once at Wimbledon, with Djokovic overcoming Federer in five stirring sets to claim the title in the single most important match of the 2014 campaign. It would be fitting for the two great players to contest the last tournament singles match of the year in a neutral setting, on a court that suits them both to the hilt. We could do no better than to witness Djokovic and Federer closing the curtain on the season with one of their classics. I, for one, would love to see it.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
<Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve