Djokovic was granted all of those wishes speedily as he cut down an injury plagued Raonic 6-2, 6-0 with an immaculate performance. The game’s pace setter was guilty of a mere four unforced errors across two sets and 14 games while unleashing no fewer than 15 winners. He handed the Canadian the most lopsided loss of his career, breaking serve an astounding five times in seven service games. Raonic was under such siege that Djokovic won 27 of 30 points on the Canadian’s customarily effective second serve. Frankly, injured or not, Raonic never had a chance with Djokovic at the peak of his powers.
And so the tournament served as a showcase for the best tennis player in the world, who has now been the champion for three consecutive years. He was fittingly the closing act on the last afternoon of an event that seems to have now set itself apart as the most popular of all in the Masters 1000 category. Meanwhile, not to be upstaged, and certain to benefit immeasurably from her hard earned success, Victoria Azarenka toppled Serena Williams for only the fourth time in 21 career head to head appointments. A strategically sound and disciplined Azarenka moved past an off form Williams with firm resolve and largely unwavering conviction, carving out a 6-4, 6-4 victory to win her first title since she upended Williams in the final of Cincinnati back in the summer of 2013.
But let’s return to Azarenka’s important, morale boosting triumph later. First, Djokovic’s victory must be addressed more thoroughly. He was ready from the outset to deal with anything the No.12 seed threw at him, and then some. Djokovic made his intentions clear from the outset. Raonic served the opening game of the match, and he was immediately trapped. The 25-year-old missed seven of fourteen first serves and, after three deuces, he was broken when Djokovic coaxed an error with a running forehand crosscourt. Raonic missed with a forehand down the line.
The heavy favorite was off and running. Djokovic was made to work hard again in a two deuce second game, but he held on sternly for 2-0 with a pair of unanswerable deliveries—a slice serve wide in the deuce court, and a heavy kicking first serve in the ad court. It was 2-0 for the Serbian, and now he took it all up another notch. He broke at love in the third game as Raonic missed three out of four first serves, and then held at 15 for 4-0, opening that game with a pair of dazzling winners, starting with a crosscourt forehand that clipped the line, following with a backhand down the line placement behind his adversary.
At long last, Raonic got on the scoreboard, but he was stretched to deuce three times before holding tenuously for 1-4 with a winning forehand volley and a service winner out wide. Both men held to make it 5-2 for the top seed, and then Djokovic closed out the set comfortably in the eighth game. Raonic then left the court to deal with an injury, and when he returned his plight only worsened.
After Raonic rallied from 0-40 to 30-40 in the opening game, Djokovic broke him as the Canadian faltered off the backhand. The Serbian rolled to 40-0 in the following game with two unstoppable first serves and an ace. An ideally located first serve set up a forehand winner on the next point. On went Djokovic to 2-0 with that love hold. Raonic simply could not impose himself with Djokovic so unerring, finely prepared and assertive. The Canadian erased one break point in the third game but Djokovic gained the insurance break on his second opportunity by provoking another errant backhand from his opponent.
Djokovic trailed 15-30 when he was ahead 3-0, but connected with a backhand down the line winner and a forehand inside-in winner before producing a first serve to the forehand that Raonic drove long. Raonic fought hard to salvage a measure of pride. He had a game point when he served at 0-4, but Djokovic sent a 138 MPH first serve back with interest. Djokovic soon had the break, and promptly held at love to complete a 6-2, 6-0 victory.
Thus a week concluded on a much higher note than it had commenced for Djokovic, who arrived in California with serious concerns after the developments of the preceding weeks. Having won his first two tournaments of 2016—and seven titles in a row starting with the 2015 U.S. Open—he had retired after a set against Feliciano Lopez in the quarterfinals of Dubai with an eye infection. In a Davis Cup contest nine days later, he was surprisingly pushed to five sets in a four hour, 57 minute confrontation with Mikhail Kukishkin before prevailing.
Arriving at Indian Wells for the start of the tournament less than a week later, he opened against an American qualifier with whom he was clearly unfamiliar. Bjorn Fratangelo caught Djokovic off guard and went toe to toe with the 28-year-old from the baseline, taking the opening set deservedly 6-2. Djokovic retaliated swiftly and won 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, but joylessly. He then faced Philipp Kohlschreiber and served for the match with a 7-5, 5-3, 40-0 lead at his disposal. Somehow, Djokovic lost his serve but then reassembled his game to win 7-5, 7-5. He easily dissected Lopez 6-3, 6-3 but then was pushed exceedingly hard by an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic was serving at 5-4, 30-0 in the first set but missed a routine backhand. Tsonga pounced and broke back with a cluster of spectacular forehands. Djokovic then needed to bail himself out from 5-6, 0-30. He took the set 7-2 in a tie-break. At 4-5 in the second set, a resolute Tsonga saved two match points with sparkling forehand winners but Djokovic was unbeatable in another tie-break, winning the entertaining encounter 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) with his clutch play.
Now Djokovic collided with Nadal in an eagerly awaited semifinal. Nadal had nearly bowed out of the tournament in the round of 16, trailing 2-5 in the third against the enormously promising 18-year-old, 6’6″ German Alexander Zverev. Zverev served for the match at 5-3, and advanced to match point. He hit behind Nadal to the Spaniard’s backhand. All Nadal could do was lift a weak backhand high over the net crosscourt. Zverev approached the net and seemed in a very favorable position, only to bungle a forehand down the line volley into the net. Nadal came through 6-7 (8), 6-0, 7-5, winning five games in a row at the end. From match point down, he collected 15 of the last 16 points as the teenager collapsed.
Nadal followed up with his finest performance of the year, dissecting Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3 after escaping from 1-3, 15-40 in the first set. That uplifting showing propelled Nadal buoyantly into his meeting with Djokovic, and the conditions were decidedly in his favor. It was a scorching day in the nineties, with heavy winds. That meant that the Spaniard could employ his heavy topspin off the forehand with larger benefits, and he was able to frequently keep an uncertain Djokovic at bay with high bounding shots. Moreover, the Spaniard moved with alacrity and served with surprisingly regular success into his opponent’s body. Djokovic missed an inordinate number of returns and struggled to fins his range (particularly with the wind) off his backhand.
In any case, Nadal came out of the blocks with gusto. That he did so was all the more impressive in light of the recent stream of setbacks he had endured. Djokovic had not only won their previous five showdowns to take a 24-23 lead in a fascinating rivalry, but in that span he had not dropped even a set. In their most recent duel, Djokovic had given one of the signature displays of his career, taking apart Nadal 6-1, 6-2 with a clinical efficiency and sustained brilliance; in their last eight sets, the left-hander had not extended his rival beyond 6-3 in any set.
This time around, Nadal was crackling at the outset. The contest started with Djokovic coming out on top in a riveting 24 stroke exchange, but Nadal moved past that moment swiftly, holding serve at 30. Djokovic was serving into the sun in the second game and served consecutive double faults to fall behind 15-30. Nadal seized the initiative to take the next two points, breaking for 2-0. He served an ace out wide for a 30-15 lead in the third game but Djokovic released a forehand down the line winner and took the next two points with controlled aggression.
Djokovic was back on serve at 1-2, but Nadal was essentially undismayed. At 3-3, he struck back from 15-40 down, holding on gamely, putting all 14 first serves in play during that game. The outcome of the first set was always going to be critical. In their personal series, Nadal had won 20 of 24 clashes against Djokovic when winning the first set. Djokovic was even more convincing, taking 20 of 23 encounters under those circumstances.
Both men were sedulously holding serve, but at 4-5 Djokovic confronted a precarious situation on his own delivery. He was set point down at 30-40, but met that moment with typical clarity of mind and tactical acuity. He went boldly yet not recklessly for an inside out forehand, provoking a running forehand error from Nadal. The Serbian took the next two points to reach 5-5. Two holds later, it was 6-6, and, fittingly, time for the tie-break.
Djokovic built commanding leads of 4-1 and 5-2 in that critical sequence, but Nadal’s resilience and perspicacity brought him back to 5-5. Djokovic realized the importance of the next point, knowing he would be down set point if he did not win it. He responded forthrightly, sending his first serve wide to the Nadal backhand in the deuce court with impeccable placement. Nadal missed his down the line return. That pivotal point meant that the Spaniard had to serve at 5-6, and he cracked at that juncture, netting a routine backhand down the line under little pressure. Set to Djokovic, 7-6 (5).
Slowly, inevitably, with growing self assurance, Djokovic pressed his advantage convincingly. Although Nadal survived a break point in a five deuce game to hold for 1-1 in the second set—sticking with his strategy of serving into the body at moderate speeds and making 14 of 16 first serves—it was apparent that Djokovic had the upper hand. The Spaniard was thrice taken to deuce before holding for 2-2. He never won another game. Djokovic broke Nadal for 4-2 on a forehand unforced error from his adversary. He held at love for 5-2, opening and closing that game with backhand down the line winners. With Nadal serving to stay in the match, Djokovic opened up a 0-40 lead.
Unsurprisingly, Nadal refused to depart tamely. He saved five match points but Djokovic was blasting away freely, sweepingly and unrelentingly. On the sixth match point, he elicited an error from Nadal with a stinging forehand down the line. Djokovic extended his lead over Nadal in their career series to 25-23 with his 7-6 (5), 6-2 triumph. He had been considerably below his highest standards, and Nadal had elevated his level of play decidedly. It was a significant step in the right direction for Nadal, who forced Djokovic to defend more than he would have liked and did more damage off his forehand than he has for a long while against his chief rival. But the fact remains that Djokovic—despite not finding his range off the backhand until late in the proceedings, seldom swinging freely until the end, and infrequently striking his backhand with his usual power and accuracy—still found his way to victory, the way great champions do.
Let’s get back to the remarkable Azarenka, and her admirable win over Williams. She had been working toward this goal for a long time after injuries had hindered her often over the last few years. In 2015, she suffered three jarring defeats at the hands of Williams in the spring and summer. In Madrid, the woman from Belarus served for the match at 6-5 in third set and led 40-0. Williams hit an audacious winner to save the first match point and then Azarenka double faulted three times in a row. She lost the match in a final set tiebreak. She then was ahead of Williams by a set and 4-2 at Roland Garros before losing in three sets, and, despite winning the opening set again, was beaten by the spirited American at Wimbledon.
In many ways, that string of losses prevented Azarenka from gaining the momentum she needed to be a force in the upper levels of the game the way she had in her salad days of 2012 and 2013, when she won a pair of Australian Opens and twice got to the U.S. Open final before losing bruising three set skirmishes with Williams. Now, here she was in the Indian Wells final, getting another chance to overcome her toughest rival on a significant occasion, poised to record one of her most significant victories.
Azarenka came out blazing. From the beginning, her ball striking was much better than that of Williams. She fended off the biggest blows delivered by Williams, defending magnificently. She was sounder and savvier. Serena was having an abysmal day off the forehand, making the most flagrant of errors, misfiring repeatedly off that side. And her serve was not functioning well, partially because Azarenka is such a formidable returner. Williams realized she would need to be more precise and purposeful than usual, and on this occasion she was not up to that task.
The tone was set immediately. Williams served the opening game of the match and was broken at love, double faulting twice in that game. Azarenka moved to 2-0 by holding at 30, boosted by an ace at 30-30. She was unbending on the biggest points. She was able to stand up on the baseline and fend off innumerable scorching shots from Serena to stay alive in points, and that was another key to her success.
Neither player lost a point on serve in the next two games to make it 3-1 for Azarenka. Then Serena held at 15 and threatened Azarenka in the following game. But Azarenka was not buckling. She saved two break points on her way to 4-2, one with an ace down the T and the other on an errant forehand return from an overly aggressive Williams. Serena rescued herself from 0-30 to hold for 3-4, and once more she seemed certain to get the break back. In the eighth game, Azarenka double faulted to trail 15-40. Azarenka dealt with one of those sizzling returns from Williams, defended well twice, and then exploited a poor backhand approach from Serena, sending a forehand passing shot crosscourt into an empty space. She provoked a backhand error from Williams with a high trajectory shot to make it to deuce, but soon faced a third break point. Williams squandered that one with an elementary forehand mistake.
Eventually, Azarenka held on for 5-3. Serving at 5-4—after Serena held easily—Azarenka was solid and confident, holding at love, sealing the set 6-4. For the fourth consecutive time in combat against Williams, Azarenka had gone up a set. Now she widened her lead considerably, breaking Williams in the opening game of the second set on a double fault from the American. Williams went one for eight on first serves in that dismal game. Down 15-40 in the second game, Azarenka served an ace out wide. She saved three more break points, advancing to 2-0 with that tough stand.
Now Williams was in utter disarray. She lost her serve again in the third game, double faulting once, making glaring errors off the forehand twice. It was 3-0 for the determined Azarenka. Williams was penalized for racket abuse after venting her frustration at the end of the third game, giving Azarenka a 15-0 start in the fourth.She held briskly at love for 4-0. The two competitors held until Azarenka served for the title at 5-2. Given that she was two breaks up, the underdog seemed to be in a good position to close out the account calmly. She was up 15-0 but drove a two-hander long under little duress and then double faulted twice.A penetrating backhand from Williams allowed her to break, and now her patented survival instincts seemed to kick in. Williams served two aces and held for 4-5.
With a second opportunity to serve it out, Azarenka found herself in serious difficulty. Serena played perhaps her point of the match, moving to 0-15 with a down the line winner off the backhand. A scintillating forehand inside-in return winner lifted the American to 0-30. Azarenka took the next point but then Williams unleashed a thundering forehand return down the middle, hit so hard that Azarenka had no time to react. There was no way for her to answer that shot. Now it was 15-40, double break point for Serena.
This was exceedingly dangerous territory for Azarenka. If Serena had surged back to 5-5, she might well have been unstoppable. Yet Azarenka’s poise under immense pressure was admirable to say the least. She aced Williams out wide in the deuce court, and then handled another aggressive return from Serena, sending it back deep, drawing a backhand error from the top seed. Composed and concentrated, Azarenka released two first serves in a row to the faltering forehand of Williams, and Serena missed both returns. Azarenka had come through ably in the clutch to win 6-4, 6-4. Her tactical awareness was unmistakable. She kept testing the vulnerable forehand side of Williams, and ultimately was rewarded with a win. Above all else, she held her nerve beautifully, saving eleven of twelve break points. Azarenka is now back among the top ten in the world, rising to No. 8 after this triumph.
All across the last couple of years, we have been waiting for a genuine rival for Williams at the top of the women’s game. No one has been able to live up to that billing. Simona Halep—beaten by Williams in a straight set quarterfinal at Indian Wells—has been hurt too frequently. Garbine Muguruza has been inconsistent. Petra Kvitova is ever enigmatic. But a healthy Azarenka might be capable of holding her own with Serena over the next couple of years. They could meet on some big stages later this year. I hope that happens because the women’s game stands to gain substantially if these two players can do battle often when it matters.
Meanwhile, Ray Moore, CEO and tournament director for the BNP Paribas Open, inexplicably made some disparaging comments about the women’s game ” riding the coattails” of the men, and added that if he was a “lady player I would go down on my knees every night and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried the sport. They really have.”
Later in the day on ESPN, Patrick McEnroe called for Moore to step down, and Brad Gilbert supported that point of view. I can’t understand why Moore demeaned the women’s game that way, particularly in his position as a leading figure at a premier event that showcases male and female competitors on an equal basis. He apologized later for his remarks, but the damage had been done. It is hard to imagine that renowned owner Larry Ellison will allow Moore to remain as CEO or tournament director. The WTA and the players will not and should not tolerate such damaging words from a man of his stature and authority who must honor his responsibility and do better than that.
Be that as it may, the players move on now to Miami, with Roger Federer competing for the first time in two months after having knee surgery. Djokovic will be chasing his third crown in a row on the Florida hards courts and his sixth overall. Azarenka will be seeking to back up her Indian Wells triumph with another strong showing. Serena Williams hopes to secure her first title since Cincinnati last summer in her home state. Nadal needs to build on the progress he made at Indian Wells.
The Miami Open is bound to be a captivating tennis tournament across the board, in both the men’s and women’s divisions. I am looking forward to that event immensely.