But Djokovic took some much needed time off after the Open, returning with an uncluttered mind, a revitalized spirit and a match playing clarity that was striking. Djokovic swept through the field at the China Open in Beijing to capture his fifth title of the year. In securing that ATP World Tour 500 event for the fifth time, Djokovic did not concede a set in five matches. He granted his opponents a grand total of 26 games in ten sets, cutting down Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, taking apart Andy Murray in the penultimate round, and then obliterating a gracious Tomas Berdych 6-0, 6-2 in the final for his 46th career singles title. Djokovic is not prone to speaking hyperbolically when commenting on his matches, and so it is well worth taking stock that he said after this surpassing effort against Berdych that it may well have been the greatest final he has ever played.
Plainly, he walked on court for this title round clash understandably in a good frame of mind. Djokovic had, after all, toppled Berdych in 15 of 17 previous career head to head clashes. He has always been comfortable competing against the 65 man from the Czech Republic. The matchup is almost entirely favorable to Djokovic because he is so adept at diffusing Berdychs power and feeding off the predictable pace being thrown his way. Djokovic is quicker, more cunning and consistent from the baseline, and less vulnerable to bad patches. That he is a better tennis player across the board than Berdych is beyond dispute.
And yet, the China Open final was another story altogether. It was one of those days when Djokovic could do no wrong, when his game was flowing so freely that he seemed to have all the time in the world to line up every shot, when his options and shotmaking capabilities were virtually limitless. So sublime was Djokovic that he was within a whisker of winning 6-0, 6-0 over a Berdych who realized precisely what he was up against on this occasion. Berdych explored every avenue that could have led him out of precarious territory, but there was nothing he could do to impose himself more than fleetingly. Novak Djokovic was in the zone, controlling his destiny majestically, leaving Berdych helpless on the other side of the net; it was just about as simple as that.
The bad omens for Berdych were apparent from the outset. Serving in the opening game of the contest, he double faulted for 15-15. Djokovic pounced on that small opening, lacing a two-hander down the line for a winner, forcing an error with a typically deep return of serve, and then coaxing another error from a beleaguered Berdych. Djokovic had the break for 1-0 at 15. In the second game, he served an ace out wide for 30-15, followed by an ace down the T for 40-15. Although Berdych rallied to deuce, Djokovic was unrelenting. He held on from there for 2-0. Berdych led 30-15 in the third game before dropping three points in a row. With Djokovic striking the ball so cleanly, Berdych was pressing. The Serbian marched to 3-0 with his second service break. Despite trailing 0-30 in the fourth game, Djokovic turned up the volume of his talent once more, collecting four points in a row, reaching 4-0 with an excellent forehand down the line approach setting up a well-executed backhand volley down the line that was unanswerable.
Berdych was fighting to get his teeth into the battle, but to no avail. He led 40-15 in the fifth game, and released an inside out forehand with good pace. But with his unmatchable dexterity and athleticism Djokovic sent a nifty low backhand down the line at full stretch. Berdych netted a difficult forehand. Djokovic made it to deuce with a heavy forehand down the line drawing an error. Berdych would garner one more game point, but Djokovic erased it commandingly with a backhand return winner up the line. Djokovic soon sealed the break for 5-0, and then held at love for the set, underlining his supremacy by not missing a first serve in that immaculate game.
Clearly wanting to start anew, Berdych travelled into more troubled territory. He was broken at love in the opening game of the second set, double faulting wildly at 0-40. Djokovics returns were so impossibly deep and penetrating that Berdych went for far too much on that second serve at 0-40, which was not surprising. Djokovic promptly held at love for 2-0, putting every first serve in play, producing two aces. Berdych was under siege, and his problems were mounting. Djokovic broke once more for 3-0 at 30. He had won 12 of 14 points, and he wore the expression of a man in complete command of his powers.
Djokovic surged to 4-0 at the cost of only one more point, and then broke Berdych at 15 for 5-0. He had now taken 20 of 25 points to move within a game of a so-called double bagel. Serving for the match in the sixth game, Djokovic was down 30-40 but he drove a backhand down the line for an outright winner, and then stifled Berdych with a kick serve into the body that elicited an errant return. It was match point for Djokovic. His first serve to the backhand was a good one, but Berdych managed to direct his return deep down the middle. Djokovic netted a forehand. The Serbian then pulled a forehand wide, and was provoked into another error off that side.
To the delight of the audience, Berdych was on the scoreboard. He then held at love for 2-5 with two unreturnable first serves, a forehand winner, and an ace. Djokovic marched to 40-15 in the eighth game, but an assertive Berdych saved two more match points from that juncture. His brief resurgence was admirable, but it was over. Djokovic swung his first serve out wide to force Berdych into a return error. Now at match point for the fourth time, Djokovic converted as Berdych missed an arduous forehand return. Djokovic had every reason to be proud of his scintillating display, which had been set up at least to a degree by the two wins he recorded leading up to the final.
In the semifinals, he outfoxed Andy Murray 6-3, 6-4, defeating his old and formidable rival for the 14th time in 22 career confrontations. Murray, of course, was on a good roll heading into Beijing. The previous week, he had won his first tournament since Wimbledon in 2013 when he secured the Shenzhen Open title. Murray earned his appointment with Djokovic in Beijing with an impressive straight set win over U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. He stayed with the Serbian until 3-3, but Djokovic collected three games in a row to take that opening set.
Murray had worked hard and played well, but had nothing to show for it. He lost the first two games of the second set at love, but soon regained his bearings, winning three games in a row from 1-3 down. But Djokovic was the aggressor more often than not, more willing to come forward, serving-and-volleying selectively, keeping his adversary frequently off guard. Djokovic held at love for 4-4, and then broke Murray at 15 for 5-4 by prevailing in a 27 stroke exchange, defending stupendously on that point, making one terrific save off each side during that gripping point. Djokovic held at love to wrap up a 6-3, 6-4 triumph, sweeping 12 of the last 13 points.
In the quarterfinals, Djokovic took on Grigor Dimitrov for the first time since their hard fought, four set Wimbledon semifinal. Djokovic took the first set comfortably. He put an inordinate amount of pressure on Dimitrovs one-handed backhand with his own impeccable two-hander, and that was the biggest difference between the two players. Djokovic led 5-2 in the second set, but Dimitrov saved two match points and broke Djokovic to get back on serve. Yet the Serbian persisted, closing out a 6-2, 6-4 victory. Djokovic played remarkably well in that match, even better against Murray, and saved his best for last in crushing Berdych to win the tournament. Djokovic has won one Grand Slam event this season (on grass) along with three Masters 1000 crowns (two on hard courts at Indian Wells and Miami, and one on clay in Rome). But his week in Beijing was the most consistently high quality work he has done all year longbar none.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal came to Beijing for his first tournament appearance in 13 weeks. The Spaniard struck down Richard Gasquet 6-4, 6-0 and then defeated Peter Gojowczyk 6-3, 6-4. Nadal then confronted the qualifier Martin Klizan, a left-hander who had twice given the Spaniard stern tests at the French Open in 2013, and earlier this year at Wimbledon. Klizan served for the first set at 5-4 but Nadal pulled that one out in a tie-break. Nadal led 4-2 in the second set and had a break point for 5-2, but Klizans first serve out wide set up a punishing forehand, and Nadals half-volley lob landed long. Klizan went on a tear, winning five games in a row to lead 1-0 in the third set.
Nadal broke for 3-2 in the final set, but Klizanwho bowed out in straight sets against Berdych in the semifinalsblasted away almost unconsciously off his explosive forehand and he took 16 of 18 points to engineer a major upset over the world No. 2, winning 6-7 (7), 6-4, 6-3. Nadal suffered considerably from not having enough match play recently, and thus did not close the account when he should have. Klizans returns were lethal, and Nadal won only 32% of his second serve points. Nadal knows he needs to keep plugging away and he will rebuild his confidence over time. In the all-lefty matchup with Klizan, Nadal did not adjust his game or his serving patterns as well as he normally does.
In the womens China Open, French Open champion Maria Sharapova took her fourth singles crown of 2014 with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 victory in the final over Wimbledon victor Petra Kvitova. Sharapova had not lost a set all week. She was down 3-1 in the opening set against the dynamic left-hander, but captured five of six games to seal the set. Plagued as usual by double faultsshe would serve ten in the match-Sharapova dropped the second set as Kvitova won five of six games to break a 1-1 deadlock. But Sharapova returned beautifully in the third set. The crucial pattern throughout this meeting was Kvitovas crosscourt forehand versus the great two-handed backhand of Sharapova. To a large extent, Sharapova got the better of those exchanges. Sharapova bolted to a 3-0 final set lead, dropped the next two games, broke again for 4-2 and never looked back. She came through 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, and now stands at No. 2 in the world behind Serena Williams. She has indisputably earned that status.
While Djokovic was rediscovering the depth of his competitive appetite and Sharapova was playing her best hard court tennis of the year, Nishikori was in the process of winning his second tournament in a row. Having ruled in Kuala Lumpur the week before, he was victorious at the Japan Open. In the final, Nishikori maintained his mastery of Milos Raonic, defeating the big Canadian 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 in the final for his fourth victory in five appointments against his esteemed rival. Raonic could hardly have played better, and yet it was not enough to win.
The first set was played mightily by both competitors. In six service games on his way to the tie-break, Raonic lost only five points; Nishikori dropped only four points in six games on his delivery. Raonic served an ace to move ahead 5-4 in the tie-break, but netted a backhand return and then erred on a forehand return that he could well have made. Serving at 5-6, Raonic sent out an enormous delivery wide to the Nishikori backhand that the U.S. Open finalist had no business getting back. Somehow Nishikori angled his return sharply crosscourt and kept the ball very low, drawing Raonic in. Nishikori drove a forehand crosscourt passing shot for a dazzling winner to seal the set.
Raonic broke Nishikori for a 4-3 second set lead and made it count. Serving at 4-5 in the final set, Raonic could not have asked much more of himself. He missed only one of five first serves, but Nishikori made astounding returns off three thunderbolts to win the match and take his second tournament in a row. The tennis from beginning to end from both players was outstanding.
Now the leading men are all competing in Shanghai. Roger Federer is in the field. Nadal hopes to recover his winning ways. Murray may have to do battle with Djokovic again in the quarterfinals. Nishikori will attempt to sustain his brilliance for the third week in a row, but can his body hold up? There are so many imponderables, but the feeling grows that Novak Djokovic will be awfully tough to beat.
<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.
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