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Steve Flink: Misfortune Rampant in Toronto

8/13/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

What we celebrate the most about the Masters 1000 events on the ATP World Tour is the showcase they provide for the leading players to face each other with regularity on prestigious stages. A quick review of this year’s events that are classified in that elite category tells you everything you need to know about how much the leading players care about performing at peak efficiency in those settings. Roger Federer was victorious at Indian Wells, toppling John Isner in the championship match after Isner had narrowly upended Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Federer stopped Rafael Nadal in the penultimate round. In Miami, Djokovic was the victor over Andy Murray in the finals. Shifting onto the clay in Monte Carlo, Nadal defeated Djokovic in the final. Federer halted Tomas Berdych to win Madrid. And then Nadal was the champion in Rome, cutting down Djokovic again for that crown.

Djokovic found himself back in the final of the Rogers Cup this past week in Toronto, meeting the gifted Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the final of that event. The mere presence of Djokovic in the title round of that tournament was a very good thing for the event. Djokovic was the defending champion, and the world No. 2 needed a strong showing in Canada to restore his self-conviction after a string of considerable disappointments in recent weeks. As for Gasquet, he was appearing in his first Masters 1000 final since he was beaten by Federer in 2006 at Toronto. Gasquet had a terrific run this time around in Canada, striking down Berdych, 2011 finalist Mardy Fish and Isner to earn his right to confront Djokovic. Gasquet boasts one of the game’s greatest one-handed backhands and an outstanding range of shot-making talent. Djokovic is Djokovic. They deserved the chance to play for the title.

But the Rogers Cup was hit hard on a number of fronts this year. Coming the week after the Olympic Games was the worst possible timing for this highly regarded tournament to be held. Federer understandably announced he would not play, realizing he had to take a week off before commencing his campaign on the hard courts. Nadal was still nursing a knee injury, and he pulled out. Olympic gold medalist Murray—fresh from his triumph in London over Federer—was beset by a knee injury as well, and withdrew after his second round win over Flavio Cipolla. Meanwhile, Olympic bronze medalist Juan Martin Del Potro lost in the second round to Radek Stepanek, and the effervescent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—the No. 3 seed—was upset in the second round by Jeremy Chardy. Making matters even worse for Tsonga was a freak accident after his defeat as the Frenchman banged his knee against a fire hydrant, a bizarre moment that led to his withdrawal from Cincinnati this week.

As if those developments were not injurious enough to the Rogers Cup, the weather was terribly disruptive as well. With most of the round of 16 rained out on Thursday, the players were on double duty Friday, forced to play two matches to get the tournament back on course. That meant both Djokovic and Gasquet needed to play four matches over the last three days to claim the title. The sport’s premier competitors are, by and large, in excellent physical condition. But that is far too much tennis for the preeminent players to endure over a three day stretch.

What made the task even tougher for Djokovic and company was that the weather on Friday and Saturday was not much better. Djokovic was the largest victim of all. He played Sam Querrey in the round of 16 on Friday and led by a set and a break, leaving the court with a 6-4, 4-3 lead. After a long delay, he returned to finish that match off 6-4, 6-4, but then had to return for a contest against the revitalized Tommy Haas. The 34-year-old German pushed the Serbian almost to the hilt before Djokovic prevailed in a two-and-a-half hour struggle 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. That battle lasted until around midnight. It was the sternest test Djokovic would endure all week long.

And yet, the inclement weather tested Djokovic again on Saturday. His semifinal duel with Janko Tipsarevic was delayed for over an hour. Then it was stopped again at 3-2 in the opening set for more than an hour. In the end, Djokovic got the win 6-4, 6-1 after an exceedingly long day at the office. Earlier in the day, Gasquet took care of Isner 7-6 (3), 6-3. To be sure, Gasquet was first rate across the board, returning well, making the big man work awfully hard, giving the American no openings to break serve. Surprisingly, Isner was trounced in that tie-break. It is standard procedure for the 27-year-old American to conclude opening sets with tie-break victories, and then march to victory. But Gasquet outperformed him. Isner was probably worn out after overcoming Philipp Kohlschreiber in a three set round of 16 contest and then clipping Milos Raonic 7-6 (9), 6-4 in the quarters on Friday.

The bottom line is that something needs to be done to improve the schedule for the top players in Olympic years. Having Canada and Cincinnati in back to back weeks is already a severe challenge for all of the competitors in an ordinary year. To win both titles requires playing no fewer than ten matches in a twelve or thirteen day stretch for one of the 16 seeded players. But this year, the situation became more complicated. The Olympics stretches out over nine days and two weekends for the leading players. To ask them to then show up for Toronto and Cincinnati means they have to be ready to commit to four consecutive weekends and more than three weeks of tennis in a row. That is a nearly impossible task in a short span. It is asking too much of the game’s foremost players. It was no wonder that the schedule led to some serious problems across the board, for both the tournaments and the players.

Be that as it may, Djokovic knew how much was riding on the outcome of the Rogers Cup from his perspective. Here was a man who won nine tournaments en route to the U.S. Open in 2011, and then, of course, he flourished in New York and collected that Grand Slam title to cap a year that he could not possibly replicate for the rest of his career. But in 2012, he did win a third straight Grand Slam championship to commence the season, somehow overcoming Murray and Nadal in exhausting five set confrontations at the end. Djokovic won his second title of 2012 in Miami. But he had not won a tournament since. Since Miami, he had lost three clay court finals to Nadal, including a four set defeat in the French Open final. He subsequently was unimpressive in a four set semifinal loss at Wimbledon against a top of the line Federer, and then was ousted in straight sets by Murray in the semifinals of the Olympic Games before dropping the third place match to Del Potro on the grass.

Many players would be exhilarated to have Djokovic’s 2012 record, but he could not have been happy with his results as he approached Toronto. He expects to win a lot of tournaments, and thus build confidence and inner security in the process. So he fully realized that he had a big opportunity in Canada with Nadal and Federer out of circulation, and Murray defaulting his third round match to Raonic. Tsonga and Del Potro were both on his half of the draw in Toronto as well, so their departures were not detrimental to the Serbian’s cause.

Djokovic clearly sensed that this could be a week to restore his pride and recover his conviction. He found his bearings remarkably well match by match. In his final round appointment with Gasquet, he played some of his finest tennis of 2012. It may well have been one of his most clinically efficient and technically flawless performances of the entire year. After a struggle early on, Djokovic soared to an entirely different level, driving the ball immaculately off both flanks, serving with extraordinary precision, picking apart Gasquet systematically.

This was inspirational stuff from the Serbian. In the opening game of the match, Djokovic fell behind 0-15 with an unforced error off the forehand, and then missed a pair of inside-out forehands in a row to trail 0-40. Gasquet needed that early break in the worst possible way. Having not played a Masters 1000 final for six years, he was not nearly as comfortable as his adversary in a match of this importance. Djokovic had saved 24 of 25 break points against him across the week, losing his serve only once in four matches—against Haas in the second set of the quarterfinals. Now, at triple break point down in the first game of his final round duel with Gasquet, Djokovic went to work with clarity, intensity and determination.

He attacked at 0-40 down and Gasquet lobbed long off the backhand. At 15-40, Djokovic seemed to lose his footing as he approached the net, yet he still managed to slide a forehand volley short and low down the line, provoking another mistake from the Frenchman. And then Djokovic powered a forehand deep to the weaker forehand side of Gasquet, drawing another error from his opponent. Djokovic quickly collected the next two points to hold on for 1-0, sweeping five points in a row from his 0-40 deficit. That was a critical game. From that moment on, Djokovic was finely tuned and deeply concentrated, giving little away, making the most of his openings.

Djokovic found a convincing rhythm on his serve after that scare in the first game. On his way to a 3-2 lead, Djokovic served consecutive love games. Although Gasquet managed to stay with the Serbian until 3-3, there was a sense of inevitability in the air; it was only a matter of time before Djokovic would impose himself. Djokovic held at 15 for 4-3, taking the last three points of that game with a forehand winner behind Gasquet, a forehand inside-in winner, and a service winner out wide to the Gasquet forehand. Now he was poised to distance himself from the Frenchman. Although he produced no flamboyance in the eighth game, Djokovic played it masterfully, picking Gasquet apart mercilessly, breaking at love as the Frenchman unraveled under the weight and consistency of the Djokovic ground game.

Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic held at love, underlining his supremacy with a second serve ace down the T at 40-0. Djokovic had swept the last twelve points of the set, but he was in no mood to relinquish his authority. Djokovic was 41-0 for the year after winning the opening set. In the opening set against Gasquet, he won 88% of his second serve while Gasquet took only 27% of his second serve points, a gap of significance. Djokovic broke Gasquet in the opening game of the second set, as the 26-year-old double faulted into the net at 30-40. Djokovic promptly held at love for 2-0, serving another ace down the T at 40-0. He had won five games in a row. Gasquet kept competing as diligently as he could. He held for 1-2 at love, and then had his last chance to get back into the match. Djokovic was serving in the fourth game at 30-40, but he would cede no ground whatsoever, pushing Gasquet far behind the baseline with supreme depth, forcing the Frenchman into a passing shot error off the backhand. Djokovic took the next two points emphatically to move to 3-1, and never really looked back.

After Gasquet held at love for 2-3 with an ace at 40-0, Djokovic was majestic. He held at love for 4-2, closing out that game with a slice serve ace down the T in the Ad Court. In the seventh game, Gasquet appeared to be in reasonably good shape at 30-15, but Djokovic turned up the volume of his talent to a level his opponent could not counter. A backhand return winner down the line took Djokovic to 30-30. He then rolled an inside-out backhand return winner at an acute angle to reach break point, and took the next point in style with a trademark inside-out forehand winner produced with utterly controlled aggression. With those three outright winners in a row, Djokovic went to 5-2, and he held on at love to complete a 6-3, 6-2 triumph in 61 minutes of nearly impeccable play.

The win gave Djokovic a 12th career Masters 1000 singles title, one more than Pete Sampras. Only Federer (20), Nadal (20), and Andre Agassi (17) have won more Masters 1000 crowns than Djokovic. He has won the Rogers Cup crown three times now over the course of his career, twice in Montreal (2007 and 2011), and now in Toronto. But what matters more to Djokovic was that he came through to win his third tournament of the 2012 season after enduring so many bruising setbacks. When he left London after dropping those back to back matches to Murray and Del Potro on the grass courts of Wimbledon, he was surely disheartened. He could not have been optimistic about defending his title in Canada, and was probably hoping to simply win as many matches as possible.

But he leaves Canada with a very different outlook than he had approaching that tournament. It is too early to say if the Rogers Cup will be a crucial turning point for Novak Djokovic in a complicated 2012 campaign. But this much is certain: win or lose in Cincinnati this week, he will head into the U.S. Open feeling considerably better about himself, knowing he is at his very best on hard courts, realizing that that he just might be well on his way back to the top of his game, and recognizing that to a large degree he controls his own destiny.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.