I joined many close followers of the game who believed that Djokovic would be brimming with confidence after Roland Garros and, feeling relaxed and exhilarated, capture Wimbledon for the third year in a row. That did not happen. After reaching at least the quarterfinals in his previous 28 major championship appearances, Djokovic was startlingly upended by Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon. Less than a month after his euphoric run in Paris, Djokovic had suffered a deeply wounding setback on the lawns of London. It was arguably the worst big match he had played in at least seven years.
The world No. 1 had visited the two emotional extremes of top flight competition in a short span. That is why I was so intrigued to find out how well the 29-year-old would respond in his first tournament since Wimbledon. Would the scars from that jarring setback still be apparent? Could he rebuild his self conviction swiftly? Was Djokovic going to be ready for a Masters 1000 hard court event, or would he still be lamenting what happened in Great Britain?
Djokovic answered these questions robustly and with clarity this past week. Although he struggled with his form and particularly his serve early in the tournament, he came on strong at the end to secure the Rogers Cup title in Toronto, casting aside Kei Nishikori 6-3, 7-5 in the final. By virtue of that triumph, Djokovic took away his 30th career Masters 1000 title, his seventh tournament win of 2016, and his 66th career singles crown on the ATP World Tour. This masterful craftsman was back in his element, moving past his recent disappointment, and looking forward to a journey to Rio de Janeiro and a chance to garner his first gold medal at the Olympic Games.
Most impressive about Djokovic’s performance against Nishikori was the stellar quality of his serving. His deadly accuracy on that delivery was often astounding. Across an impeccable first set, he put 22 of 26 first serves in play, winning 86% of those points. That was no mean feat against a gifted individual who in my view rates as the third best returner in tennis behind Djokovic himself and Andy Murray. In the second set, Djokovic came slightly down to earth, connecting with 69% of his first serves, taking 77% of those points. But the fact remained that his location was strikingly precise and his variety was so remarkable in both sets that the best player in the world was able to raise the rest of his game decidedly, most importantly from the backcourt but also in his soundness, anticipation and agility at the net.
The first game of the match was symbolic in many ways of everything that followed. Djokovic did not miss a first serve, releasing an ace down the T to hold at love. A message had been sent, and Nishikori unmistakably received it. The No. 3 seed held on comfortably at 15 for 1-1, but Djokovic made good on three out of four first serves in another love hold for 2-1. Nishikori remained calm, holding at 30 with an ace out wide to make it 2-2. And yet, despite the 26-year-old’s resolve, it seemed only a matter of time before Djokovic would make his move.
That is exactly what he did. Serving in the fifth game, the top seed was tested on his delivery for the first time as a determined Nishikori took the favorite to 30-30. The Serbian passed that test, and then some. He sent a beautifully placed first serve down the T, got the short return he wanted, and stepped in for a cleanly struck forehand crosscourt winner: 40-30. He followed with an unstoppable first serve down the T to gain the hold for 3-2. Finding increasing length off the ground, Djokovic broke at 15 in the next game, drawing a pair or forehand and backhand errors from a beleaguered Nishikori.
There was Djokovic, right where he wanted to be, ahead 4-2. He surged to 40-0 in the seventh game, but dropped the next two points. At 40-30, however, he flaunted his outstanding athleticism. Chasing down a deep ball from Nishikori, Djokovic kept his crosscourt backhand deep, coaxing an error from Nishikori. It was 5-2 for the Serbian, who nearly sealed the set right then and there. Nishikori stood precariously at 30-40. Djokovic laced an inside out forehand with accelerated pace, and moved forward, anticipating a short reply from his adversary. But Nishikori caught Djokovic off guard with a backhand down the line slice that stayed low. The Serbian misfired off the forehand. Nishikori was back to deuce. He won the next point and then aced Djokovic down the T.
Having missed out on that set point opportunity, Djokovic could have been agitated and apprehensive, but clearly that was not the case. Serving for the set at 5-3, he played the first point with certitude, controlling the rally with pace and purpose, ending it with a penetrating and unanswerable backhand down the line. He went to 40-15, lost the next point on a stupendous winning return from Nishikori, and then concluded the set with his patented defense allowing him to win an exchange that looked lost. Nishikori pulled Djokovic wide with a heavy forehand, and then approached the net behind a forehand swing volley down the line. Djokovic raced across the court and lofted a high lob off the backhand. Nishikori retreated, surely hoping that shot would land long. But the Djokovic lob was letter perfect, landing in the corner.
Nishikori rolled a backhand crosscourt, and Djokovic stepped in to take his forehand early. A confounded Nishikori miss-hit a forehand long. An exultant Djokovic had finished off the 6-3 set with that bit of ingenuity and inspiration. Rejoicing, he raised his arms, imploring the crowd to appreciate the moment. They answered his gesture with a fitting round of applause.
On they went into the second set, and Djokovic was no less impressive at the outset. At 1-1, he reached 0-30 on Nishikori’s serve by deftly executing a forehand half volley drop shot, setting up a nifty backhand volley winner down the line. Djokovic broke at 15 and then held at the cost of only one point to reach 3-1. The way he was playing, Djokovic seemed entirely capable of making and inexorable march to victory.
But Nishikori suddenly burst into brilliance, showcasing the full range of his rich shotmaking capabilities. For three games, he lit up the arena, swinging freely from the baseline, rocking Djokovic back on his heels, taking matters almost totally into his own hands. He held at 15 for 2-3, and then reached 0-40 on the Djokovic serve with a stunning second serve backhand return winner into the corner. He dropped the next point but then broke the world No. 1 for the first and only time in the match at 15 with a magnificent forehand passing shot winner down the line. It was 3-3. Nishikori was soaring while a concerned Djokovic recognized the greater challenge that was upon him.
Nishikori held at love for 4-3. Not only had he won three consecutive games, but he had also taken 12 of 14 points in that stretch. Yet Djokovic met that moment admirably. Buoyed by an ace for 30-15, he held at 15 for 4-4 before an assertive Nishikori held at 15 for 5-4. Djokovic had missed a few openings in that game, but, serving to stay in the set, he opened with a gutsy second serve out wide in the deuce court. That sliced delivery clipped the sideline and left Nishikori helpless.Djokovic held at love with an ace down the T to reach 5-5.
The eleventh game was hard fought on both sides of the net. Nishikori had two game points, but an unrelenting Djokovic broke through for 6-5 with a cagily struck, looping forehand down the line. That higher trajectory shot drew a backhand error from Nishikori, giving the Serbian a chance to serve out the match in the twelfth game.
Djokovic quickly negotiated a 30-0 lead, lost the next point, but moved to 40-15 with a strategic gem. For the first time in the entire match, he went with a heavy kick first serve, making the ball bound up high and out wide to the Nishikori backhand. The appealing Japanese competitor had no chance to make the return. It was double match point for Djokovic, who stood on the edge of a fourth Rogers Cup title. But then he drove a two-hander long, followed by another uncharacteristic error off the backhand, this one into the net.
It was deuce. Djokovic was not going to miss again. A sliced forehand crosscourt that stayed low provoked an errant forehand from Nishikori, and Djokovic found himself at match and championship point for the third time. His first serve down the T was well produced, and Nishikori miss-hit the return off the forehand. Victory belonged to Djokovic 6-3, 7-5.
He had overcome some rough patches during the week before saving his best for the homestretch. After a first round bye, Djokovic took on the left-handed Gilles Muller in a second round meeting, winning 7-5, 7-6 (3) after failing to serve out the match at 5-4 in the second set. He then accounted for Radek Stepanek 6-2, 6-4. In the quarterfinals, Djokovic was down triple set point with Tomas Berdych serving at 6-3 in the first set tie-break. Berdych promptly double faulted wide down the T. Djokovic saved the second set point with a superb forehand return that Berdych could not handle, and the third on an errant backhand from the big man. He took the next two points as well to steal the set, and came through to win 7-6,(6), 6-4, defeating the No. 5 seed for the 25th time in 27 career head to head appointments.
In the semifinals, Djokovic raised the stakes considerably, recouping from an early break that put him 2-1 down to oust Gael Monfils 6-3, 6-2, raising his record against the Frenchman to 12-0. Monfils had accounted surprisingly for Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-4 in the quarterfinals, using one break in each set to get across the finish line. Nishikori halted Stan Wawrinka 7-6 (6), 6-1 in a bizarre semifinal. The Swiss led 5-2 in the first set. Nishikori retaliated, winning 12 of 13 points on his way to 5-5.
At 5-6 in that first set, Nishikori was behind 15-40, but he serve-volleyed beautifully to save one set point and aced Wawrinka to save a second set point. Nishikori held on gamely for 6-6, but then Wawrinka took a 6-4 lead in the tie-break. He missed a nice opening for a backhand crosscourt winner and then double faulted for 6-6. Wawrinka had squandered a total of four set points. Nishikori took the tie-break 8-6 and never looked back as a half-hearted Wawrinka tamely surrendered.
For Nishikori, it was the third time he has reached a Masters 1000 final, but he ran up against a top of the line Djokovic. When the Serbian won 82 of 88 matches and 10 of 15 tournaments in 2015, it did not seem likely that he could replicate numbers like that this year. But now he has won seven of eleven tournaments in 2016, and 51 of 55 matches. The Olympics and U.S. Open are right around the corner, not to mention the autumn tournaments that have always been such favorable terrain for Djokovic through most of his sterling career.
So perhaps he will equal or surpass his 2015 achievements. He will need to pace himself over these next few weeks and months. For example, if Djokovic takes the singles gold medal at the Olympic Games, he might want to consider skipping Cincinnati to preserve physical and emotional strength for the U.S. Open. But, for the time being, Djokovic can reflect on his stirring run in Toronto and be delighted he demonstrably displayed that no one can stop him when he is anywhere near his best. No one.