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Steve Flink: Djokovic Back In Stride

4/2/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Upon the conclusion of 2011, after he had captured ten of the fifteen tournaments he played during that year, after he had been victorious in 70 of 76 matches, after he had won all but one of the four major championships, Novak Djokovic surely realized that in 2012 he would not replicate the astounding record he produced a year ago. He had improbably succeeded in winning his first seven tournaments of 2011, sweeping 41 consecutive matches before Roger Federer stopped him in the semifinals at Roland Garros. He lost only one more match through the U.S. Open. He was masterful, soaring and unshakable.

But the view here is that Djokovic simply decided that he would hold onto as many prizes as possible this year, and dedicate himself as rigorously as he did a year ago to the task of remaining the best player in the world. In defending his Australian Open crown at the start of the season, he was nothing short of heroic, eclipsing Andy Murray in a stupendous five set semifinal before overcoming the redoubtable Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in a gripping final at Melbourne. Understandably, Djokovic had a slight letdown after that landmark victory in Australia, losing to Murray 6-2, 7-5 in the semifinals of Dubai and then bowing in the semifinals against John Isner at Indian Wells in a final set tie-break.

Having lost in the penultimate round of two tournaments in a row, Djokovic came to the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami with deep seriousness and heightened determination. Suffering defeats in three straight hard court tournaments with the clay court campaign just around the corner was something Djokovic clearly wanted to avoid at all costs. It could have eroded at least a layer of his confidence. It would have stung particularly hard. It might have sent him to Europe in the wrong frame of mind. And yet, the Serbian, despite some difficulty closing out matches down the stretch, came through handsomely in the end. Djokovic defended his Masters 1000 title without the loss of a set in six matches, striking down Murray 6-1, 7-6 (4) in the final. Now his outlook and disposition will be bright as he prepares for the clay court circuit. His self-conviction is back, and he should be ready for the big stretch ahead.

In the Miami final, Djokovic was primed for his meeting with Murray. On a scorching afternoon with the thermometer soaring through the 80’s, the defending champion was ready for anything Murray might throw at him in the first set. In the opening game of the match, Murray rolled a topspin lob winner off the backhand for 30-30, but Djokovic released two beautifully placed service winners in a row to hold for 1-0. Murray held easily to make it 1-1, but Djokovic took his delivery at 15 for 2-1. When Murray moved swiftly to 40-0 in the fourth game, he seemed nearly certain to hold.

But the depth of Djokovic’s shots on the next two points closed the gap to 40-30. The Serbian then concluded a 24 stroke exchange with an emphatic forehand inside-in winner for deuce. That game would go to deuce no fewer than five times. Both men fought inordinately hard, realizing how much was at stake. On his second break point, Djokovic took matters into his own hands, sending a penetrating backhand down the line to open up the court, then approaching behind a forehand down the line. Murray had no alternative but to throw up a lob, and Djokovic directed his overhead down the line with a good safety net. Murray went for a backhand pass crosscourt but missed it wide. Djokovic had the break for 3-1. His uncanny knack for breaking serve early and taking control of a first set had surfaced again.

Yet there was more work to be done. Djokovic moved to 3-1, 40-15, but made three unforced errors in a row as Murray defended marvelously. The British player had a break point, and a chance to climb right back into the set. But Djokovic took that opportunity away briskly. He served wide to the Murray backhand, sensed the return was weak, and moved in for an inside-out forehand drive volley winner behind his opponent. Djokovic took the next two points for 4-1, and never looked back. Murray was not serving with the consistency he had found in Dubai, and the slower court in Miami was not helping his cause either. At 1-4, he made good on only five of ten first serves, and Djokovic kept his returns coming back deep and solidly. He broke for 5-1 and then served the set out at 15 in the seventh game, connecting with all five of his first serves, closing it out with an ace wide in the deuce court.

Murray had the luxury of serving first in the second set, but he was down 0-30 in the first game. He sent an unstoppable first serve out wide for 15-30 and eventually held on from deuce. At 1-1, the world No. 4 and 2009 Miami champion trailed 15-40. Djokovic had complete control of the next rally, pulling Murray out of position with two inside-out forehands. But the Serbian misfired on a forehand inside-in with a wide opening. At 30-40, Murray outmaneuvered Djokovic in a 25 stroke backcourt exchange. An overwrought Djokovic followed with two more mistakes off the ground. Murray’s tenacity took him to 2-1. At 2-2, the pattern continued as Murray fell behind break point. Surprisingly, Djokovic missed flagrantly off the backhand on a routine crosscourt shot. Murray held on for 3-2. And yet, he was living dangerously, putting only 46% of his first serves in play at that stage of the second set, standing only at 51% for the match.

Djokovic, meanwhile, was serving as purposefully as he can, changing his speeds and spins craftily, keeping one of the game’s great returners very much off balance and ill at ease. Djokovic held at love for 3-3. Murray had only one break point in the first set. In the second, he had none. But Djokovic was down 0-30 at 3-4. His response was a service winner wide to the Murray forehand, an ace down the T, and another service winner wide for 40-30. He served his first double fault for deuce, but swiftly took the next two points for 4-4. At 4-5, Djokovic served to stay in the set, but he held at 30. When Murray double faulted long in the eleventh game to give Djokovic a break point, he was in a bind, but an excellent wide serve set the British competitor up for a forehand inside-in winner. He held on after a second deuce for 6-5.

Once more, Djokovic had to fight his way out of danger. Serving at 5-6, 30-30, he defended magnificently. Murray drilled a crosscourt forehand with tremendous pace, but Djokovic flicked it back deep, drawing an error from his confounded opponent. Murray pushed that game to deuce twice, but Djokovic was too tough when it counted. He held for 6-6. In eleven of the previous 12 contests between these two distinguished rivals, the player who had won the first set went on to victory. This would be no exception to that rule. In the second set tie-break, Murray handed Djokovic the first point with a tame backhand down the line error into the net. Djokovic served his way to 2-0, but Murray landed a big punch, stinging Djokovic with an inside-in forehand that the Serbian could not handle.

Murray rallied to 2-2 with an astonishing play. Djokovic had clipped the sideline with a skidding sliced backhand, but Murray somehow answered with a short backhand slice of his own that turned accidentally into a drop shot winner. He followed with a double fault long, giving Djokovic a 3-2 lead. That was costly, but Murray is to be commended for the work he has put in on his second serve. He is hitting it harder with more kick and better depth, and by the time he gets to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later this year, he will be winning more and more points when he misses his first delivery.

Be that as it may, Djokovic took that double fault from Murray, and never looked back. A pinpoint first serve down the T set Djokovic up for an inside-out forehand winner off a high ball. It was 4-2 for the top seed. He aced Murray out wide in the deuce court at 121 MPH for 5-2. To his credit, Murray persisted and stayed in the battle, taking both of his service points to make it 5-4 for the favorite. Djokovic was unflustered, releasing another precise first serve down the T, opening up the court for an inside-out forehand winner. It was double match point for the Serbian. He closed the account on the next point when Murray overcooked a forehand down the line, sending that shot long. Djokovic had bested Murray 6-1, 7-6 (4) for his second title of 2012. He had concluded the tournament in style. To beat Andy Murray without losing your serve—while facing only one break point—is a substantial feat.  

Across the board, Miami was an intriguing tournament for the men. The first major surprise was Andy Roddick’s spirited three set triumph over the surging Roger Federer. Federer, of course, was in search of a fourth consecutive tournament victory. Moreover, he had captured six of his last eight tournaments since bowing out in the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open against Djokovic, losing that riveting skirmish after serving at 5-3, 40-15, double match point in the fifth set at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Federer had been gathering considerable steam this season after a pair of penetrating losses against Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open and John Isner in Davis Cup.

Since that time, the Swiss had collected titles in Rotterdam, Dubai and, most significantly, at Indian Wells. By the time he arrived for his appointment with Roddick under the lights in Miami, Federer had secured 16 match victories in a row. There is no sharper tonic for a player of Federer’s stature than building a streak of triumphs under a diversity of conditions, which he had clearly done. But he had played decidedly more than usual heading into Miami. His duel with Roddick was his 26th match of the year, and the accumulated strain of the competition caught up with Federer in many ways. Physically, he seemed fine, but mentally he was slightly off his game.

Conversely, Roddick displayed an exuberance and court coverage that had been missing for a long while. In 21 of 23 previous meetings, the American had come out second best against his revered rival from Switzerland in a series which commenced way back in 2001. They had clashed at least once every year since that first time appointment in Basle, which went to Federer in a final set tie-break. Tie-breaks have played a critical role in the outcome of many Federer-Roddick collisions. In fact, going into Miami, Federer had prevailed in 12 of 15 during their storied rivalry.

But on this occasion—as was the case in the American’s most recent win over Federer four years ago on the same court—the first set was taken in a tie-break by Roddick. On the pivotal point of that sequence, Federer was serving at 3-4 when he approached the net. Roddick hoisted up a deep, high defensive lob, and Federer sent his overly cautious overhead down the middle. Roddick drilled a forehand passing shot crosscourt into the clear. He secured the tie-break, seven points to four.

But Federer elevated his game thoroughly in the second set. Applying increasing pressure on the American by both chipping and charging and sometimes coming over his backhand returns, following those shots in, Federer astoundingly broke Roddick three times in a row from 1-1 in the second set. He held on quickly for 1-0 in the final set. He had won six straight games and was close to breaking Roddick for the fourth time in a row. The 29-year-old American was 0-40 down in the second game of the third set. Had he been broken at that juncture, Roddick was surely destined to lose the match.

And yet, he refused to buckle at that crucial moment. From 0-40 down, Roddick aced Federer, provoked an errant forehand pass from the Swiss, and put away a confident overhead taken on the bounce. Roddick moved to game point, but soon was down break point for the fourth time. Once more, he took the offensive. Federer lobbed high down the middle, and Roddick dispatched another remarkable overhead, letting the ball bounce and then directing his smash inside out for a dazzling winner. Roddick held on for 1-1, and then broke Federer for 2-1 with four majestic forehand winners in that game. Federer twice inexplicably chose to send his forehand approach shots to the forehand rather than the American’s more vulnerable backhand side, but the fact remains that Roddick played a terrific game. He had achieved his lone service break against Federer all evening, but it was enough to get him across the finish line. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set, Roddick trailed 15-30, but aced the Swiss for 30-30 at 135 MPH out wide, then cracked a mighty service winner down the T, and closed the account with another ace out wide in the Ad Court. Match to Roddick 7-6 (5), 1-6, 6-4. Even if Federer was not at his best, it was a victory well deserved for the American.

Nevertheless, he could not savor that gratifying moment for long. The next afternoon, Roddick was beaten to a pulp from the baseline by Juan Monaco, who rallied from 2-4 down in the first set and took eleven of the last twelve games to win 7-5, 6-0. Roddick freely conceded after the fourth round setback against Monaco that his litany of injuries and absences from the game has left him out of shape. Monaco took full advantage, and then took apart an abysmal Mardy Fish 6-1, 6-3 in the quarterfinals.

The Argentinian stepped into a different league when he met Djokovic in the semifinals, collecting only six points in the opening set as the Serbian operated at full efficiency and controlled the tempo almost entirely. Djokovic lost some of his fine-tuned edge in the second set, but held on from 0-40 down to reach 5-3, and served for the match two games later. A seemingly unsettled Djokovic fell behind 0-40 in that tenth game of the second, made it back to deuce, but double faulted. Monaco was swinging much more freely off the forehand. The No. 21 seed took the world No. 1 into a tie-break, but a disciplined Djokovic got the win 6-0, 7-6 (5). Djokovic had withstood a similar second set comeback from David Ferrer in the previous round after crushing the Spaniard 6-2 with impeccable stroke play in the opening set. He served for the match in that contest as well at 5-4, but was broken. Nevertheless, Djokovic played a first rate tie-break to oust the Spaniard 6-2, 7-6 (1).

Murray had a bizarre week. The No. 4 seed got a first round bye, and then got a walkover past Milos Raonic. The big Canadian aggravated an ankle injury that had plagued him during Davis Cup earlier in February. Raonic could have troubled Murray on one of his best serving days. At the very least, he would have tested the British No. 1 comprehensively. Then Murray accounted for Gilles Simon—a player he virtually owns—and that put him into the quarterfinals. His assignment in that round was a meeting with the always burdensome Janko Tipsarevic, the No. 9 seed.

Murray commenced that encounter ably, building a 4-2 first set lead. But he wandered into unexpected difficulty, dropping four games in a row to lose the set. Early in the second set, Murray was given a tablet by the trainer to treat an ailing stomach. He fell behind 2-0, broke back for 2-2, then lost his serve again. He seemed preoccupied with whatever ailment was bothering him. But thereafter, the world No. 4 found his range again off the ground, exploiting his greater variety. Murray captured four games in a row to seal the second set, got an early service break in the third, and glided home 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Everyone eagerly awaited a semifinal showdown between Murray and Rafael Nadal. Although Nadal holds a commanding 13-5 lead in their career series, all of Murray’s victories have come on hard courts, including an emphatic 6-0 in the final set triumph last autumn in Tokyo. This one figured to be a blockbuster. But Nadal defaulted a match for only the second time in 777 career matches. He had never looked happy during the tournament, and his quarterfinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was a debilitating contest.

Tsonga had played an abysmal opening set, littering the court with one glaring unforced error after another, particularly off his backhand side. Nadal played reasonably well, but all he needed to do was keep the ball in play until the Frenchman self-destructed in the rallies. Nadal swept through the first set 6-2. Tsonga gradually improved across the second set, but Nadal served for the match at 5-4. In that tenth game, the Spaniard was entirely too apprehensive. He missed all five first serves. He was off target with a backhand passing shot he often makes. He double faulted once, and committed a pair of backhand unforced errors to boot. Boosted by Nadal’s uncharacteristic vulnerability from the front runner’s perch, Tsonga exploded toward another level, taking the second set on a run of four straight games.

Both men produced an exhilarating conclusion to the match in the third set. The best tennis was clearly played in that set, although Nadal was plainly not in peak form, compromising too often off the forehand because his success rate was low whenever he attempted to step around his backhand to unleash an inside-out forehand. Furthermore, Nadal’s first serve had no location or velocity. He was spinning the first delivery in at 95 MPH to 102 MPH most of the time. But the Spaniard competed with typical perspicacity and the deep well of determination that is his trademark.

At 2-3 in the third set, Nadal was break point down. He came forward and punched a backhand volley crosscourt, trying to put that shot away. But he did not angle it with his usual precision. Tsonga had a good look at a forehand passing shot, but netted it. Nadal held on. At 4-4, he broke the Frenchman, who inexplicably complained to the umpire that Nadal was getting preferential treatment. There was absolutely no justification to that claim. When Nadal served for the match at 5-4 in the third, Tsonga hit a ball that was called long on the first point. The Frenchman did not challenge the call, yet the television replay confirmed that his shot had clipped the edge of the baseline. He had only himself to blame for not making a challenge on such a crucial point.

Nevertheless, Nadal had no easy time finishing his task. In a nerve-wracking game, Tsonga had two break points and Nadal needed three match points before the Spaniard saw his way through to a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 victory under the lights. At 15-30 in that game, Nadal made a spectacular play, chasing down a backhand drop shot from Tsonga and directing his approach shot as deep as possible. Tsonga ripped a passing shot but Nadal lunged to his left to making an arduous low forehand volley at full stretch. That magical move set Nadal up for a backhand drop volley winner down the line. This was great theater and good tennis, but Nadal had called for the trainer to rub the muscles above his left knee, and his mood was decidedly downcast for much of the skirmish.

He had a day off after the win over Tsonga, but that reprieve was not enough. He knew he was not ready to play a big semifinal with Murray in his compromised condition. Nadal’s history of knee problems is well documented. He made a very smart decision not to play Murray and thus heal his knee in time for the upcoming clay court campaign. He will be going for an eighth title in a row at Monte Carlo, and playing Murray in a hard fought hard court semifinal could have been a dangerous decision. A few years ago, Nadal might have felt an obligation to play the match, but he is older now, wiser in his ways, and better able to look at the long term rather than obsess over short term objectives.

Meanwhile, the women more than held up their end of the bargain in Miami. World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka suffered her first loss of 2012, falling in the quarterfinals. Venus Williams played her first tournament since the 2011 U.S. Open, and recorded four match victories for a place in the quarterfinals, knocking out No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova and No. 15 Ana Ivanovic before bowing against eventual champion Agnieszka Radwanska. Serena Williams avenged her final round loss at the U.S. Open to Samantha Stosur, reaching the quarterfinals after serving 20 aces in that straight set match with the Australian. She was beaten by Caroline Wozniacki.

In the end, it all came down to a final round showdown between No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova and Radwanska. Sharapova had ousted Radwanska six consecutive times since 2008, and the 24-year-old held a 7-1 head-to-head advantage overall. Sharapova had achieved her first win ever over Li Na, the engaging Chinese player who upended her in the 2011 French Open semifinals. In Miami, Sharapova essentially blew Li off the court with her baseline power and depth, winning 6-3, 6-0. Then she won an absorbing battle from Wozniacki.

Wozniacki concluded both 2010 and 2011 as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world, but her form in 2012 had been anything but stellar. She found herself relegated to the No. 4 seeding in Miami. And yet, admirably and steadily, Wozniacki played her finest tennis of the year on the hard courts in Florida. She was flattening out her forehand frequently and hitting that shot with more authority, driving through her two-handed backhand forcefully, serving purposefully with more pop than usual. She played a terrific match to topple Serena, withstanding a late charge from the American. Down a set and 5-1, Williams put on one of her patented displays of highly charged tennis with her back to the ball. Williams won three games in a row to get back to 5-4. When Wozniacki served for the match a second time at 5-4, Serena got to 30-30, but the Danish player closed it out impressively, succeeding 6-4, 6-4.

That sent Wozniacki into her stirring semifinal duel with Sharapova. Once more, Caroline went for her shots off both sides, upped her level of aggression, refused to slip into a defensive mode for long stretches. And yet, Sharapova was ahead 4-1, 40-30. Wozniacki struck back boldly from there, winning five games in a row to take the first set 6-4. Sharapova raised her game decidedly to build a 4-0 second set lead, and this time would not relinquish the lead. Sharapova then broke twice in the third to move ahead 5-2, but then Wozniacki took the next two games with daring shot making. Sharapova fended her adversary off at last, holding on for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. Yet Wozniacki comported herself exceedingly well, and lost with honor. She seems ready now to shift into another gear.

As for Azarenka, she won the match of the tournament for the women when she somehow held back the diminutive No. 16 seed Dominika Cibulkova 1-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5. Cibulkova led 4-0 and 5-1 in the second set but could not prevent Azarenka from carving out a 26th match win in a row for the 2012 season. But, in the quarterfinals, Azarenka could not find a way to break the rhythm of No. 7 seed Marion Bartoli, a player who has cut down some of the most towering figures in her sport, including Justine Henin in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2007 and Serena Williams on the lawns of the All England Club a year ago. Bartoli was striking the ball ferociously and her two-fisted shots off both sides were too much for Azarenka. Bartoli took the first set comfortably, fell behind 1-3 in the second set, and then swept five games in a row at the cost of only six points to complete a 6-3, 6-3 win over the game’s dominant woman player. But Bartoli was ailing in her semifinal with Radwanska, who took her apart 6-4, 6-2.

And so Sharapova seemed ready to collect her first big prize of 2012. She had been spared the need to meet her nemesis Serena Williams, and had been fortunate that Azarenka had also been removed from her path. Azarenka had, after all, stopped Sharapova easily in the Australian Open and Indian Wells finals. Here was Sharapova, up against Radwanska, and history seemed to point to a gratifying day for the Russian. But Radwanska turned the tables on the world No. 2, asserting her authority masterfully at the end of each set, winning the title with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Sharapova.

All through the first set, Sharapova had the openings, but a resolute Radwanska held her ground each time. This was a compelling match-up between one of the game’s greatest big hitters in Sharapova and the sport’s premier defensive stylist in Radwanska, who stands among the cagiest match players in the business. Radwanska slowed Sharapova down the entire match, giving the Russian very little place, yet keeping her own shots deep and low. Under these circumstances, Sharapova was hard pressed to dictate in her customary manner. Moreover, Radwanska stood her ground, standing n tight on the baseline to half-volley some of Sharapova’s deep returns. Sharapova had to be patient and purposeful as Radwanska kept forcing Maria to generate her own pace, find her own angles, and create her own opportunities to finish off points.

Sharapova had a bundle of chances to break serve in the opening set, but could not convert break points at 2-2 and 3-3. At 4-5, Sharapova served to stay in the opening set and acquitted herself well, holding at 30. With Radwanska serving at 5-5, Sharapova went ahead 0-30. Radwanska hit a deep shot that clipped the baseline, provoking an error from a discombobulated Sharapova. Radwanska held on for 6-5. In the twelfth game, Sharapova cracked, missing a forehand approach, driving a two-handed backhand unforced error long, netting a forehand swing volley from close range. Those three expensive errors put Sharapova down 0-40. She gamely got back to 30-40, but then another forehand unprovoked mistake cost Sharapova the set, 7-5.

She had fought hard for just under an hour to win that set, but Sharapova battled on unwaveringly. She had a break point at 3-3 in the second set and seemed to have the point won. But Radwanska managed to keep a high trajectory backhand just inside the sideline. Sharapova should have taken that shot aggressively up the line with interest, but she backed off and went tamely crosscourt. Eventually, Sharapova lost the point with a wild forehand error. At 3-4, Maria was down 0-30 after her first double fault, but she strung together four strong points for 4-4. Radwanska calmly held at love for 5-4, and Sharapova served to stay alive in the tenth game. Here, Sharapova essentially beat herself with four unforced errors. Radwanska prevailed 7-5, 6-4, playing with high intelligence, strategic acumen, wonderful variety and supreme consistency under pressure.

Sharapova’s career record in finals is now a disappointing 24-16. She lost her third final of 2012, and fell for the fourth time in the finals of Miami. Since Wimbledon last July, she has now been beaten in four straight final round appearances, all on big occasions. Yet the fact remains that Radwanska has moved to a loftier level of the game. This was her ninth tournament career win in eleven finals, and her fifth tournament victory since last August. All four of Radwanska’s losses in 2012 have come against Azarenka. That says an awful lot about the kind of tennis she is playing these days. Clearly, the 23-year-old from Poland is going to remain among the top five in her profession for a good long while.

In the end, however, what Djokovic did in Miami overshadowed everything and everyone else. To be sure, he had some anxious moments in the process of closing out the second sets of his contests with Ferrer, Monaco and Murray. But the fact remains that the Serbian was remarkably composed in the tight corners of those battles, unyielding when it mattered, unwilling to give any ground when his authority was threatened. The feeling grows that the world’s best tennis player relishes his place at the top of the mountain, and has no intention of descending anytime soon. There are four immense championships that will be settled across the next five months or so: Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the Olympic Games, and the U.S. Open. Novak Djokovic will almost surely be the victor in at least two of those premier events.