And yet, Djokovic may well be in the process of eclipsing his 2011 campaign. This year, he has now won 73 of 78 matches for a staggering .936 winning percentage. He has been to 13 consecutive finals since losing in the quarterfinals of his season opening event at Doha to Ivo Karlovic in January. He made it to all four major finals. Most importantly—in stark contrast to 2011 when he did not win a tournament after the U.S. Open and faded decidedly both physically and mentally—Djokovic is roaring through the autumn of 2015 with extraordinary vitality, undiminished purpose and a growing sense of self. He has played an immaculate brand of tennis since winning his second U.S. Open in September, securing back to back championships in China without losing a set, performing at an often breathtaking level.
First, Djokovic thoroughly outclassed the field at Beijing, upending Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-2 in the final. He now stands at 22-23 in his career series with the Spaniard, and is 21-21 versus Federer. This past week, he was victorious at the Rolex Shanghai Masters, crushing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-2, 6-4 in the final. Over the course of those two scintillating weeks, Djokovic was barely conceding games. In Beijing, he cast aside his five adversaries at the cost of 18 games in ten sets. At Shanghai, he conceded only 25 games against five opponents. It was as if coming through under arduous circumstances to oust the perennially popular Federer in the Open final before a capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium removed an enormous weight off the shoulders of the Serbian. Ever since, Djokovic has been just about letter perfect across the board.
In the Shanghai final, Djokovic confronted the charismatic Tsonga for the first time since the Frenchman toppled him at Toronto in the summer of 2014. Yet the fact remained that Djokovic held a commanding 13-6 lead in his career series with Tsonga, and he was primed for this appointment in every way. His mindset was apparent from the outset. His quiet intensity was unmistakable. His determination to capture a 25th career Masters 1000 crown was clearly a sign of his lofty ambitions. By virtue of this victory, he stands in second place among tournament winners in that category, and is only two titles behind Nadal. Djokovic has collected no fewer than five Masters 1000 championships in 2015, matching the total he had in 2011.
Tsonga realized he was going to be hard pressed to win from the opening bell of this hard court encounter. Djokovic needed hardly any time to establish his supremacy; he found his range swiftly, and the Frenchman was under heavy assault from the searing returns of Djokovic every time he missed a first delivery. As was the case all week, Tsonga’s first serve was difficult to answer, but he struggled inordinately to win second serve points. In fact, Djokovic smothered him repeatedly with a barrage of impossibly deep returns, and took control from there. Tsonga finished at 64% on first serves in the one-sided contest, and won a respectable 70% of those points. But his second serve success rate was inordinately low; the 30-year-old took only 4 of 25 points when he missed the first delivery, finishing at an abysmal 16%. Ultimately, that was the primary source of his undoing. Djokovic, meanwhile, put 71% of his first serves in play, winning 86% of them. On his second serve, he claimed 75% of the points. A sharper contrast could not have been found between two players.
Tsonga served reasonably well in the crucial opening game of the confrontation, missing only two of six first serves. But Djokovic was ready for anything that was thrown at him. At 30-30, Tsonga pressed a bit on a backhand down the line, and drove it long. Down break point, he came forward but Djokovic sent a backhand pass down the middle directly at a compromised Tsonga, who netted an awkward backhand volley. Djokovic had the immediate break and then held at love, releasing two aces in that game, racing to 2-0. Tsonga was well aware of his plight. Serving at 0-2, he faltered badly, missing a forehand approach at 30-30 before netting a backhand drop shot off a short return from the Serbian.
Djokovic had soared to 3-0, sweeping 12 of 16 points in the process. He was two breaks up. But he played his only poor game of the match to drop his serve in the fourth game, making a pair of forehand unprovoked mistakes in a row from 30-30. Tsonga had retrieved one of the two breaks against him, but it amounted to nothing. Djokovic prevailed in a 21 stroke exchange on the first point of the fifth game, implementing his renowned backhand down the line skillfully to draw an error from a beleaguered Tsonga. Returning with regal authority, Djokovic broke for the third time in the set, taking that game at love for a 4-1 lead.
The top seed held at 30 for 5-1 and rolled on to 0-40 in the following game. A spirited Tsonga battled back gamely, saving four set points on his way to 2-5. Connecting with seven of eight first serves in that game, Tsonga was resolute. But Djokovic had no need to panic. Serving at 5-2, he opened with an ace out wide, and held at love to seal the set with no hesitation. The famed front runner knew how hard he would be to catch from there. Yet Tsonga fought on with pride and professionalism. He opened the second set with a hold at 15, closing that important game with an ace down the T. Djokovic retaliated with a love hold of his own for 1-1, but Tsonga was now fighting with less insecurity and more conviction.
The Frenchman saved a break point in the third game with a scorching first serve to the backhand, and held for 2-1 with an ace out wide. Djokovic held at love for 2-2, and then looked for an opening to break in the following game. He nearly found it. Tsonga was behind 15-40 after double faulting, but he released consecutive service winners, the first at 128MPH, the next at 129MPH. He advanced to 3-2, but, once more, Djokovic was unshakable, holding at love for 3-3 with an impeccably produced backhand down the line winner.
Tsonga was working exceedingly hard to hold, and barely surviving the challenge. From deuce, he moved to 4-3 but could do no damage with his returns, and the Serbian held at 15 for 4-4. This pattern of escaping danger time and again on his own serve while a serene Djokovic waltzed through on his delivery took its toll at last on the beguiling Frenchman, who saved two more break points in the ninth game by forcing Djokovic into a passing shot error and then exquisitely angling a backhand drop volley into an open space. But Djokovic rifled a forehand passing shot at Tsonga’s feet to garner a third break point. The pressure was mounting, and Tsonga succumbed, double faulting wide down the T. Djokovic had claimed his first break of the second set in timely fashion. He promptly held at love to complete the 6-2, 6-4 triumph, recording his 57th ATP World Tour title in 83 final round appearances.
Watching Djokovic perform at the peak of his considerable powers was the highlight of the Shanghai week. But no match resonated more with the fans than the Tsonga-Nadal semifinal clash. Nadal had elevated his game markedly over the previous ten days. In Beijing, he appeared in his first tournament since an exasperating third round, five set loss to Fabio Fognini at the U.S. Open, reaching the final by upending Fognini in straight sets. Although he lost the championship match 6-2, 6-2 to Djokovic, the score did not accurately reflect the quality of the Spaniard’s play, which was encouraging in many ways.
At Shanghai, Nadal was even more impressive. Facing Karlovic in a second round contest after a first round bye, the 29-year-old came through admirably in the clutch. The 6’11” Croatian was serving at 5-4 in the first set when he went ahead 15-0. Nadal coaxed a forehand volley mistake from his opponent for 15-15. The rest of that game was sheer brilliance from the Spaniard. At full stretch, he made a forehand return winner for 15-30. Fully extended again, he laced another forehand return winner for 15-40. Now pulled wide by another crackling Karlovic serve, Nadal sent a backhand return up the line for another startling winner. He had broken with three straight winning returns off first serves against a 36-year-old adversary who owns one of the game’s biggest and best deliveries.
Nadal broke the big man again to take the opening set 7-5, but dropped the second in a tie-break. On they went to a third set tie-break. Nadal did not lose a point on his serve in that critical sequence. At 4-4, Karlovic double faulted into the net. Nadal took the next two points on serve. It was an uplifting victory for him, taken by scores of 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4).
Next, Nadal accounted for Milos Raonic 6-3, 7-6 (3), avenging a loss to the Canadian at Indian Wells earlier in the year. And then he cut down Stan Wawrinka for the 13th time in 15 career meetings, ending a two match losing streak against the Swiss. From 2-2 in the first set, Nadal swept nine games in a row, playing remarkably well in the 6-2, 6-1 win. As for Wawrinka, he rushed between points in the second set and competed with what seemed to be utter indifference. Only last month, he was less than ferocious over the last set-and-a-half of his loss 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 to Federer. Having witnessed the growth in stature of this two-time major champion over the past two years, the hope here is that he will recover his fighting ways and live up to the higher standards he has set for himself. His half-hearted effort against Nadal must have been disturbing to his wide legion of admirers.
Be that as it may, Nadal found himself with a chance to reach a second straight final in China when he collided with Tsonga in the semifinals of Shanghai. He had been the victor in eight of his eleven previous appointments with the Frenchman, and on form he seemed highly likely to succeed in this skirmish. But Tsonga was in superb form. The number of effective returns he made against Nadal in the opening set was surprisingly high. His two-handed backhand was holding up well. Meanwhile, the burly Frenchman was serving prodigiously all through the first set, and pounding his forehand terrifically. Nadal was almost incessantly under duress. Tsonga passed the Spaniard cleanly with a backhand down the line to break for 3-2 in the first set, saved himself from 15-40 down to hold for 5-3, and took that set deservedly 6-4 without losing his serve. Nadal won the second set 6-0, but the score was somewhat misleading.
The fourth game of that set lasted six deuces before Tsonga double faulted on break point to fall behind 4-0. That was pivotal, and Tsonga recognized it would be nearly impossible to rally from two breaks down against a competitor of Nadal’s gravitas. In the third set, both men played stirring tennis and stretched each other to their limits. Nadal fought back fiercely from 0-40 to hold for 2-1. At 3-4, Tsonga was down 0-30 but he collected four straight points to hold on. It was in the eleventh game that Nadal faltered. At 15-15, he served his first and only double fault of the match. He got back to 30-30 but then left an inside out forehand much too short, and Tsonga made him pay dearly for that lack of depth, driving a forehand down the line for a winner.
Serving at 5-5, 30-40, Nadal pulled Tsonga well off the court with an acutely angled sliced first serve. The return was short, and Nadal—who attacked magnificently in this match—had the ideal opening to get to the net. His approach, however, was not struck with authority. Tsonga easily rolled a forehand pass crosscourt to draw an error on the low volley from Nadal. Serving for the match, Tsonga trailed 15-30, and Nadal’s return was excellent, landing just shy of the baseline. Tsonga’s reply was short. Nadal was stationed perfectly for an inside out forehand, but netted that shot when he had a glaring opening. On the following point, Tsonga made an audacious diving low forehand volley off a chipped backhand pass from Nadal, and that set up a winning volley on his next shot. At match point, Tsonga benefitted from an error off the backhand from the Spaniard. Despite winning three fewer points in the match and taking only 39% of his second serve points, Tsonga cut down Nadal for two reasons: he played his best match of 2015, and Nadal cracked in the end after a commendable showing until then.
The fact remains that Nadal has made some significant progress. After Wimbledon, Nadal sunk to No. 10 in the world, but now he stands at No. 5 in the Race to London and has guaranteed himself a place in the elite eight player field at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. His forehand on balance is much better now than it has been all year long, more reliable and more penetrating. He reverted to a degree against Tsonga in the latter stages, when he tightened up on those crucial points. But, over the fortnight of Beijing and Shanghai combined, Nadal defeated three men—Fognini, Raonic and Wawrinka—who had beaten him this year. He looked like a different player than he has been for most of 2015, but there is more work ahead. The Nadal of yesteryear at the peak of his mental game would not have lost the Tsonga match, but he is edging closer to where he needs to be. This invigorated figure will look to finish 2015 strong, make at least the semifinals in London at the World Tour Finals, and set the stage for a major revival in 2016. I still believe that is entirely possible for this singularly prideful individual.
Roger Federer, meanwhile, was stunned in the second round at Shanghai after a bye, ushered out of the tournament by the left-handed Spanish qualifier Albert Ramos-Vinolas 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-3. Vinolas is reminiscent in some ways of Nadal, although his fine forehand is not released with the same whirlwind topspin displayed by his renowned countryman.
In any event, Federer had nearly fallen in the same round a year ago at Shanghai against Leonardo Mayer, saving five match points in that match, going on to capture the title in the end. This time around, he played a disappointing tie-break to fall behind, secured the second set easily, but lost his serve for the first time at 3-4 in the final set when the Spaniard unleashed a gutsy forehand winner down the line. Ramos-Vinolas was down 15-30 when he served for the match but he did not blink, winning three points in a row (two on errant backhand returns from the Swiss) for the single biggest win of his career, gaining a 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-3 victory over the No. 2 seed. It was Federer’s first tournament singles match since the U.S. Open, and the rust was apparent. But he still figures to finish the year strong despite falling to No. 3 in the world at the moment behind Andy Murray.
As for Novak Djokovic, as astonishing as it seems, he is exploring a new layer and level of his talent. There is growing evidence that he can get even better, make minor modifications that could make a significant difference, and keep dominating tennis for a good long while. The tennis he played against Murray in the semifinals of Shanghai often bordered on the sublime. He had lost his last contest with the British standout on the final of Montreal over the summer after having ousted Murray eight consecutive times. It was strikingly apparent in this Shanghai showdown that Djokovic was fully committed to restoring order. His ball striking was immaculate all the way through that 6-1, 6-3 dissection. Murray had some self-inflicted wounds and finished at a dismal 46% on first serves. But he won only 59% of his first serve points, so the outcome would have been almost the same in any case.
Djokovic has only two tournaments left in 2015: the Masters 1000 event in Paris, and London. He has captured that season-ending event four times, including the past three years. He has won 17 consecutive matches this season, and 22 sets in a row. He is riding on the crest of a wave, and celebrating success in a manner few athletes ever experience. The feeling grows that he will not be descending from the top of the tennis mountain any time soon.