He is an impenetrable force and figure these days, unshakable in his pursuit of victory after victory, focused ceaselessly on his primary goals, carrying himself in a manner befitting a champion excelling on all surfaces and made for all occasions. The feeling grows that Djokovic is performing now with a completeness, versatility and virtuosity that stretches above and beyond anything he has ever produced before, even in his sterling 2011 season when he secured ten of the fifteen tournaments he entered, winning 70 of 76 matches, taking three of the four majors.
Djokovic made a smooth and superb transition from hard courts to clay to win the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters. His peak performance was undoubtedly a 6-3, 6-3 triumph over eight-time champion Rafael Nadal, the fellow universally revered as the best ever on the dirt. They collided in the semifinals for the 43rd time in their illustrious careers, with the Serbian closing the gap in that celebrated series to 23-20 in favor of the inimitable Spaniard. We will get to that match later, but let’s examine now the unexpectedly close final round clash between Djokovic and No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych. Djokovic was nowhere near the zenith of his game in this confrontation, but he came through with immense mental toughness, supreme discipline, and phenomenal defense.
That title round clash pointed on paper to a decisive victory for the world No. 1. He walked on court with a commanding 18-2 lead in his head to head career skirmishes with the big man from the Czech Republic, having lost to his adversary only once on clay and once on grass across their careers. Last autumn in the final of Beijing, Berdych was perilously close to bowing 6-0, 6-0 against Djokovic in the final before salvaging two face saving games. In fairness, Berdych had acquitted himself well in their most recent duel a few months ago in Dubai, when he pushed Djokovic down to the wire before losing that battle 6-0, 5-7, 6-4.
And yet, Berdych has long been a somewhat brittle competitor, and his final round losses to David Ferrer earlier this year in Doha and to Stan Wawrinka at Rotterdam were indicative of too many crucial moments during his career. Berdych has won only one Masters 1000 title despite his impressive credentials, and that triumph was back in the autumn of 2005 at the indoor Paris-Bercy event. Moreover, he had lost 16 of 26 career title round matches overall prior to this appointment with Djokovic, a record that paled in comparison alongside the accomplished Serbian, who had won 51 of 74 career finals and was searching for a 23rd Masters 1000 final round victory in 33 outings. As formidable a player as Berdych irrefutably is, the man has been to only one major final in the course of his career.
To say that the numbers stood starkly against Berdych heading into this contest would be to put it mildly. But he is a consummate professional, and at 29 his game is bigger, more nuanced and better than it has ever been before. Berdych clearly approached this meeting with Djokovic in the right frame of mind. He was not consumed by the size of his opponent’s reputation or the Serbian’s magnificent 2015 campaign. Berdych came out of the blocks thoroughly ready to play and determined to gain control of the backcourt rallies. He was not going to allow the Serbian to settle into a comfortable rhythm.
From the outset, Berdych was striking the ball mightily off both sides. His overwhelming pace and remarkable precision kept Djokovic largely at bay. Over the entire opening set, Djokovic was constantly reacting, trying to find ways to contain Berdych’s immense power, defending as only he can. But he was unable to gain the upper hand in the baseline exchanges with any frequency. Djokovic missed three out of five first serves in the opening game of the match, and Berdych went immediately to work. He broke at 15 with a barrage of scorching shots, and then held at 15 for 2-0. Berdych had swept eight of ten points.
Djokovic inevitably responded with heightened intensity, holding at 15 for 1-2. Although Berdych held confidently for 3-1 after unleashing a pair of winners off the backhand, Djokovic found his best defensive mode and elevated his play across the board. He held at 30 with an ace out wide for 2-3 and broke for 3-3 as Berdych made four unforced errors off the forehand and one off the backhand in an eight point game. Djokovic was still often at Berdych’s mercy, but he held at 15 for 4-3 with solid percentage play. Berdych was not disheartened but he realized that Djokovic was making all the necessary adjustments to blunt his power.
The Serbian broke for 5-3. Berdych aced his way out of one break point at 15-40 but Djokovic stung him on the following point with a solid backhand return eliciting a backhand error down the line from a harried Berdych. Now Djokovic had collected four games in a row, and he served for the set in the ninth game. He rallied from 0-30 to 30-30 with a patented backhand drop shot creating an avenue for a topspin lob winner landing smack on the sideline. Two points from sealing the set, however, he released a weak second delivery to the forehand, and Berdych walloped the return ferociously down the line to draw an error. Berdych sensed Djokovic’s discomfort, and defended skillfully on the next point to break back.
This fascinating set remained unpredictable. Berdych missed three out of four first serves in the tenth game but Djokovic missed a couple of returns that are normally routine for him. Berdych was back to 5-5 after that love hold, but Djokovic has an astonishing knack for late set heroics. He trailed 15-30 in the eleventh game, but a deep crosscourt backhand that was unanswerable knotted the score at 30-30. Djokovic opened up the court with a wide deuce court serve, forcing Berdych into an error with a forehand. He then aced Berdych down the T, and thus moved to 6-5.
With the conditions damp and cool, both players were struggling inordinately to reach acceptable first serve percentage levels. Berdych put only three of eight first deliveries in when he served to stay in the set. He was hoping to fight his way into a tie-break, but a resolute Djokovic would not let him get there. The No. 6 seed saved two set points after falling behind 15-40 but the Serbian was determined to wrap up the set without engaging in a tie-break. A forehand down the line approach that coaxed Berdych into an errant lob allowed Djokovic a third set point opportunity, and this time he converted with an intelligent mixture off the ground. He rolled a couple of higher trajectory shots with good depth to take Berdych out of his commanding rhythm, and then pounded a deep ball to the Berdych forehand. Berdych was rushed into an error. Set to Djokovic, 7-5.
Berdych had connected with only 39% of his first serves and unsurprisingly he was broken three times. Djokovic was not much better at 48% but he willed his way through the set with outstanding defense and some customarily terrific returning. Berdych, too, returned beautifully in the slow, heavy conditions. Even when confronted by Djokovic’s first delivery, Berdych was seldom found wanting. Meanwhile, Djokovic had gained only a small confidence boost after winning the first set, although in the back of his mind he surely knew that in his last forty finals, he had suffered only one defeat (to Nadal at the 2014 French Open) after prevailing in the opening set. Moreover, his winning percentage of .955 (554 match wins and only 26 losses) after taking the opening set in matches of all kinds across his career is better than anyone else’s in the Open Era, including the redoubtable cast of Borg and Nadal, McEnroe and Connors, Lendl and Laver, Federer and Sampras.
Yet Berdych was not going away. His heart and head remained fully in the battle, and Djokovic could feel his adversary’s quietly fierce determination. Djokovic found himself down 0-30 before holding for 1-0 in the second set and then Berdych promptly held at love. By the time Djokovic moved to 2-1, rain was falling harder and the slipperiness of the court was becoming a larger burden for both competitors. Berdych held from break point down in the fourth game and then Djokovic rallied from 0-40 to establish a 3-2 lead. The match was halted for more than an hour, but when play resumed Djokovic immediately had a break point for 4-2 that Berdych erased with an overhead winner, and gamely held on for 3-3. Djokovic was soon under siege again on his own serve.
Berdych was returning with supreme power, depth and control. Djokovic’s wide serve in the deuce court was not working as well as usual, and he was not winning his usual share of first serve points because Berdych was striking the returns with so much force, clarity and conviction. At 3-3, Djokovic fought off a couple of break points—one with an astounding forehand passing shot off an impeccable Berdych approach—but then the Serbian served a double fault to give Berdych a third chance. Berdych got the break by moving Djokovic side to side with regal authority. He was up 4-3. At 5-4, he served out the set at 15 with sustained depth and unrelenting aggression.
It was one set all. Berdych was looking strong and purposeful, but Djokovic was unruffled. As he has done all year, Djokovic started playing with renewed vigor and certitude. He opened that third and final set with a love hold, missing only one first serve, closing out that game with a trademark down the line backhand drop shot that was unmanageable for Berdych. Berdych led 40-15 in the second game but a highly concentrated Djokovic collected four points in a row to reach 2-0. On break point, Berdych made one of his few wild shots of the match, driving a forehand down the line way beyond the baseline. Djokovic played a solid game to hold at 30 for 3-0, and then exploited Berdych’s slim margin for error to break at 30 for 4-0; every point Berdych conceded in that game was with mistakes off his forehand flank.Djokovic seemed capable of winning his eleventh love set of the year. Most notably, he had won a 6-0 fifth set from Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open semifinals, and a 6-0 fourth set from Andy Murray in the final. On top of that, he had split sets with Murray in the Miami final but then claimed the last set in that clash 6-0. The Serbian has made a habit out of these breakaway final sets. But, serving at 4-0 against Berdych, he squandered the first point with an uncharacteristic errant forehand when he had Berdych at bay. Djokovic double faulted for 15-30 in that game, made it to 30-30, but lost the next two points as if suddenly in a fog.
The Serbian’s lead had been cut to one break, but his returning remained top of the line. Twice he had break points for 5-1 but Berdych erased one with a clutch service winner down the T, and cancelled the other with a kick second serve that Djokovic surprisingly netted off the backhand. A composed and unbending Berdych held on persistently for 2-4. Djokovic raced to 40-15 in the seventh game but lost the next three points. Berdych was one point away from getting back on serve, but Djokovic caught him off guard with a very good second serve that drew an error on the backhand return from Berdych. Djokovic collected the next two points for a 5-2 lead.
And yet, Berdych was fighting vigorously. He led 40-0 in the eighth game before Djokovic rallied for deuce, and then Berdych had a fourth game point. Djokovic stepped in boldly for a forehand winner, and then lured Berdych into a forehand mistake. At long last, Djokovic stood at match point, but Berdych made a superb backhand down the line approach and then retreated with admirable agility to put away a bounce smash. Berdych held on steadfastly from there for 3-5.
Serving for the match, Djokovic was clear-eyed and unyielding. Any lapse from the Serbian here and Berdych would have been right back in contention. But Djokovic declared himself unequivocally as the extraordinary champion he is. A perfectly located serve down the T set up a forehand crosscourt winner for the Serbian as he went to 15-0. Berdych forced an error from Djokovic to make it 15-15, but Djokovic advanced to 30-15 as Berdych erred off the backhand. A service winner down the T pushed Djokovic forward to 40-15, and he closed it out in style on the next point with another unstoppable first serve. Djokovic had held commandingly at 15 to close out a hard fought 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 victory, holding back an unswerving Berdych.
It was a memorable, well played and enticing final that lasted just shy of two hours and forty three minutes. Djokovic had been pushed to the hilt, but his response at the tail end of the match was nothing less than stellar. Facing Nadal in the penultimate round, Djokovic shined all the way through after a brief stumble in the beginning. The Spaniard came out firing freely and brimming with intensity at the outset of his appointment with the Serbian. Nadal broke Djokovic in the opening game, surging forward behind a crosscourt forehand approach, punching a short angled backhand volley crosscourt for a winner. He led 2-0 and had a critical break point for 3-0 that might have altered the day substantially had he converted it. But Nadal’s backhand return off a Djokovic first serve was far too short. Djokovic moved forward and cracked a crosscourt forehand approach venomously, and Nadal’s sliced lob off the backhand fell wide as he went down the line.
Djokovic had escaped from a precarious corner. He held on for 1-2 and broke for 2-2. At 3-3, however, Nadal raised the stakes once more in a four deuce game, throwing everything in his arsenal at Djokovic, looking to regain the ascendancy. On the run at 30-30, the Spaniard curled a dazzling forehand down the line for a winner. At break point, Nadal chased down a drop shot from Djokovic. Djokovic lobbed over Nadal, who ran that shot down and threw up a lob. Djokovic was poised as he took his overhead on the bounce, putting that shot away unhesitatingly. Djokovic eventually held on with an inside out forehand winner.
Nadal’s bright outlook darkened marginally after that demoralizing game. Djokovic broke in the following game with a deep return. The Spaniard tried to run around his backhand for one of his whirlwind forehands, but miss-hit that shot badly. Just like that, Djokovic was serving for the set at 5-3, and he glided to 40-0. After Nadal cast aside a couple of set points, Djokovic released a timely and unreturnable first serve to the forehand. He had taken the set 6-3 despite some spirited and high level play from Nadal. The dynamic left-hander saved two break points in the first game of the second set and kept holding to stay in front 3-2. Yet he was losing depth off the ground and getting nowhere on Djokovic’s serve. At 2-3, 30-30, Djokovic closed in beautifully to take Nadal’s backhand down the line pass, punching a backhand volley crosscourt into the clear. He held at 30 for 3-3.
At 3-3, Nadal soared to 40-0, but sent a forehand down the line wide, double faulted and then was stymied by a winning inside out forehand return from the Serbian off a body serve. The tennis here was stupendous. Djokovic advanced to break point but an obstinate Nadal won a 22 stroke exchange, moving brilliantly from defense to offense, approaching with an inside out forehand, drawing an errant lob from Djokovic. Nadal fashioned two more game points but could not take advantage of them. Djokovic garnered a second break point that Nadal wiped away majestically with an ace down the T. But Djokovic quickly earned another break point and Nadal missed another sidespin forehand down the line, sending that shot wide.
Djokovic had the break for 4-3 and did not look back. He held at 15 for 5-3 and then broke Nadal to wrap up the triumph 6-3, 6-3. From 0-2 down in the first set, Djokovic was not far away from letter perfect the rest of the way. He finished the contest with a 75% mark on first serves, winning 72% of his first serve points compared to 58% for Nadal. On second serve points won, the margin was considerable; Djokovic was at 57% with Nadal at only 48%. And yet, although Djokovic was masterful and unmistakably the better player, the battle was much closer than the score would indicate.
Nadal had his early lead in the first set and made a go of it in the second, but Djokovic won 16 of 19 points on serve in that set and broke Nadal a couple of times. The fact remains that Djokovic has probably never played two better back to back sets against Nadal, and the Serbian was energetic, poised, laser sharp off both sides, exploiting every inch of the court. Nadal pressed off the forehand a bit in the latter stages of the second, but Djokovic brought that on with his strategic acumen and pinpoint precision.
Although Nadal might have wanted more out of that semifinal, he was understandably delighted to have reached the semifinals. He needed that essential boost. In the round of 16, Nadal saved a pair of set points against a revitalized John Isner. Nadal produced an ace out wide in the deuce court at 4-6 in the tie-break, and then sent a forehand return short down the line with Isner serving at 6-5. Isner overanxiously netted a forehand down the line. Nadal took the next two points to salvage the set, and then led 4-3, 0-40 in the second set. Isner climbed out of that corner with some excellent serve-volleying to hold on for 4-4. Nadal tightened up slightly and lost his serve in the following game for the only time in the match. Isner soon surged to one set all. But Nadal gained an early break for 3-1 in the third and played a first rate set across the board. He won 20 of 23 points on serve in the final set, found the range with his inside out forehand and wore Isner down to win 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3.
Nadal’s quarterfinal clash with David Ferrer was a critical triumph for him. Ferrer had upset Nadal in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo a year ago. Another loss to his compatriot would have been a deep blow to Nadal’s pride. He bolted to 5-2 with a two service break lead in the first set, which Nadal eventually won 6-4. In the second set, Nadal was ahead by two breaks at 3-0 and served for the match at 5-4, reaching 30-15 in that game. The indefatigable Ferrer ceded no ground, capturing that set 7-5. Nadal cast that disappointment aside and took a 3-1, 15-40 lead in the final set. But Ferrer held on and had a break point in the following game before Nadal pulled away to win 6-4, 5-7, 6-2. It was his biggest victory of the year by far. He should now shift into another gear for the rest of the clay court campaign.
Meanwhile, Roger Federer did not commence his clay court campaign as he would have liked. The 33-year-old skipped Miami to train hard for the start of the circuit on the dirt in Monte Carlo, where he was a finalist a year ago. Federer cut down Jeremy Chardy—the tricky Frenchman who saved a match point and beat the Swiss Maestro a year ago in Rome—but then was upended by the ever confounding Gael Monfils 6-4, 7-6 (5). Monfils has given Federer all kinds of problems as of late, nearly toppling the 17 time Grand Slam tournament champion at the U.S. Open last year (holding two match points before losing in five sets), and then upending Federer in the Davis Cup Final.
In Monte Carlo, Monfils rescued himself from 1-3 down, winning five of six games to seal the first set. In the second set tie-break, he rallied from 3-5 down to take four points in a row as Federer’s ground game—especially the forehand— flagrantly let him down. That opened up the draw for Berdych, who routed Monfils after the charismatic Frenchman had clobbered Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov had just taken apart defending champion Stan Wawrinka. That half of the draw was tumultuous.
But, in the end, the Monte-Carlo Masters was a showcase for Novak Djokovic, who won the tournament for the second time in three years. Unless Djokovic suffers some kind of serious injury, his 2014 season will end up similarly to that splendid 2011 season. Djokovic then won his first seven tournaments and 41 matches in a row before Federer halted him in the penultimate round at Roland Garros. Perhaps he peaked a bit early that year on the clay after defeating Nadal in both the Madrid and Rome finals. This season, Djokovic will surely have his eye on the big prize in Paris. No matter how he fares in Madrid and Rome, his primary goal will be coming through at Roland Garros for the first time to complete a career Grand Slam.
That would put the Serbian in an exclusive club whose only male members are Don Budge, Fred Perry, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal. Djokovic is entirely worthy of joining that lofty company, but he will have to earn it. He can be certain that one Rafael Nadal—who is looking for an unimaginable tenth crown in Paris—will be utterly determined to peak for the world’s premier clay court event as well. He has not only beaten Djokovic three years in a row at Roland Garros (in the 2012 and 2014 finals and an epic 2013 semifinal) on the red clay, but the Spaniard has toppled the Serbian six times altogether on that stage without a loss. I would love to see them meet again at the upcoming French Open (in the final if possible) because history of the highest order would be made, one way or another.
Meanwhile, this much is certain: Novak Djokovic is the ultimate, all surface player in today’s world of tennis. As he fast approaches his 28th birthday next month, Djokovic is moving ever closer to the absolute peak of his powers.
<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.