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Steve Flink: Three Champions, Two Cities, One Fine Weekend

10/9/2012 2:00:00 PM

While watching the men and women competing at the China Open in Beijing this past weekend, and observing the men performing at the Japan Open in Tokyo, it occurred to me that this is an appealing part of the tennis season. Here we are in the heart of autumn, moving closer to the end of another rigorous year, following the leading players as they put the finishing touches on another long and demanding campaign. The game’s best competitors are looking to conclude the 2012 season with vigor. They realize that achieving important victories now could well lead to some sterling results in 2013.

That is why I took close stock of what happened in both Beijing and Tokyo. At Beijing, Novak Djokovic served notice that he is determined to reclaim the No. 1 world ranking and finish a second straight year as the game’s top ranked player. He played spectacularly in taking his fourth tournament crown of 2012. A year ago, he was a totally spent force across the autumn. He had captured an astounding ten tournaments from the beginning of 2011 through the U.S. Open, including three of the four majors. He virtually disappeared thereafter, knowing he had sealed his status as the best player in the world, recognizing that he needed to rest his mind and his body thoroughly after so many herculean feats.

This autumn, Djokovic is in an entirely different frame of mind. He is highly motivated. What struck me most about the 25-year-old Serbian as I watched him dissect Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Beijing final was his zest for the battle, the intensity he carried with him throughout the match, the pride he took in what he was doing. This was professionalism of a very high order. Clearly, Djokovic demonstrated that he wants to add titles to his 2012 collection after a first rate yet disappointing season. He was the only man this year to reach three Grand Slam tournament finals, yet he lost two of them, falling to Rafael Nadal in four sets at Roland Garros and in five sets to Andy Murray at the U.S. Open. Djokovic clearly believes he is better than anyone else in his trade, and now he has widened his lead in the 2012 race to London to 1515 points over Roger Federer. Djokovic has amassed 10,410 points, while Federer has collected 8,895.

But that is far from a safe lead for the Serbian. Federer, Djokovic and Murray are all appearing this week at the Shanghai Rolex Masters event. The champion will earn 1000 points. At the end of October and in early November, the top players will chase a bundle of points at the BNP Paribas Masters 1000 event in Paris and the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at London. Since Federer is such an unassailable indoor player, Djokovic will probably need a cushion as he approaches London or the Swiss just might surpass him in the end.

Be that as it may, Djokovic was impressive in his final round triumph over Tsonga in Beijing, ousting the charismatic Frenchman for the sixth consecutive time in their head to head series. As usual, Tsonga was formidable, even in defeat. Djokovic was twice down break point in the opening game of the match, but the big point prowess of the Serbian was evident in both cases. He saved the first break point against him with a service winner, and then erased the second with a scintillating topspin lob winner off the backhand on the 17th stroke of a terrific exchange. After Tsonga held routinely for 1-1, Djokovic saved another break point in the third game, casting this one aside with a service winner to the backhand. Tsonga, however, was playing a better brand of tennis. He held at love for 2-2 and then broke Djokovic at love to move ahead 3-2. Having secured those eight points in a row, Tsonga was rolling along commandingly.

Djokovic was unperturbed. He broke back for 3-3 with some extraordinary returning. Djokovic surged to 4-3 and had a break point in the following game, but Tsonga wiped it away with an ace down the T.  Both men were playing remarkably well now, as Djokovic held at love for 5-4 and Tsonga took his serve at 15, firing two aces in that game. The score was locked at 5-5. Both men held again to set up a tie-break, and no one knew better than Tsonga how crucial that sequence would be in determining the outcome of the match. Djokovic is almost unstoppable after winning the first set, and that fact holds true for either best of three or best of five set matches. He is a supreme front runner. He is now 56-0 in 2012 after taking the first set.

Tsonga was in disarray at the start of the tie-break, making three unforced errors in a row, missing both of his first serves. Djokovic served at 3-0. But the top seed made a backhand unforced error before releasing an unanswerable first serve down the T. It was 4-1 for the Serbian. Tsonga won two points in a row on serve before Djokovic climbed to 5-3. Yet the favorite visibly tightened up, sending a forehand wide down the line. Tsonga was serving at 4-5. He had won four of five points to get there. He missed his first serve, and then gambled by going for a big second delivery down then T. It was a double fault, and Djokovic was up 6-4. Tsonga served-and-volleyed to the Djokovic backhand, but his opponent’s return was simply too good, causing the Frenchman to awkwardly net a backhand drop shot. Set to Djokovic, 7-6 (4). He exuberantly leaped into the air, knowing he would be awfully tough to stop.

And that was essentially the match. From that juncture on, Djokovic settled into an excellent rhythm off the ground and totally contained the Frenchman. Tsonga did manage to save two break points in the opening game of the second set, but he was merely delaying the inevitable. Djokovic held at 30 for 1-1, broke Tsonga at 15, held at love, and broke again at 15. In this four game sweep that enabled the Serbian to establish a 4-1 second set lead, he won 16 of 20 points. Djokovic was exhilarating to watch as he took his game to another level. He was rewarded with a 7-6 (4), 6-2 win.

Meanwhile, the world’s top two ranked women’s players clashed in the women’s final on the same court in Beijing, and Victoria Azarenka bested Maria Sharapova to capture her first tournament title since March at Indian Wells. Azarenka took apart Sharapova with relentless consistency, precision and strategic acumen. Azarenka’s 6-3, 6-1 triumph was reminiscent in some ways of her 6-3, 6-0 victory over Sharapova in the Australian Open final at the start of the season. Across the board, Azarenka was decidedly superior, returning much more reliably, playing the percentages more skillfully than her adversary, performing unmistakably better on defense.

The die was cast in the opening game of the match.  Sharapova served a double fault to fall behind 15-40, and was broken at 30 on an errant forehand drive volley that travelled long. Azarenka kept peppering the Sharapova forehand persuasively, holding on for 2-0, moving to 3-0 as Sharapova released two more double faults. Azarenka held comfortably for 4-0 before Sharapova at last got on the scoreboard. Yet Azarenka advanced to 5-1 with no difficulty.

Here, Sharapova asserted herself with typical perspicacity. After serving her fourth double fault of the set to trail 1-5, 30-40, Sharapova saved a set point with a patented inside out forehand winner and held on for 2-5. At break point in the following game, Sharapova caught the sideline with a scorching backhand crosscourt. She thus made it back to 3-5, and had a 40-30 lead in the ninth game. Yet Sharapova wasted that opportunity with her sixth double fault of the set. Azarenka eventually broke again to seal it, 6-3.

Azarenka was outmaneuvering Sharapova in every respect. She built a commanding 5-0 second set lead. She was destroying Sharapova by serving wide in the deuce court to open up a big avenue for forehand down the line winners. Despite being stretched to four deuces in the final game of the match, Azarenka closed out the account. She halted Sharapova 6-3, 6-1 with a consummately professional performance, making only 14 unforced errors while Sharapova had 39, raising her record against Maria to 7-4 lifetime and 4-1 in 2012. After winning her first four tournaments of 2012, Azarenka had remained solid and resourceful, reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon and the Olympic Games, moving within two points of her first U.S. Open title. But Serena Williams toppled Azarenka on all three of those auspicious occasions.

Yet Azarenka took a serious step toward closing the year as the No. 1 ranked woman player in the world by ruling in Beijing. Meanwhile, Japan’s Kei Nishikori claimed the biggest title of his career with his victory in Tokyo. Nishikori overcame the daunting Milos Raonic of Canada 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-0 in the final, a day after Raonic struck down U.S. Open champion Murray in a hard fought and suspenseful semifinal. Nishikori has long been an underachiever. He returns superbly off both sides, covers the court remarkably well, does great things off the forehand, and is an estimable match player. But perhaps he has sold himself short over the years.

Not so in Tokyo. His final round win over Raonic was masterfully crafted. Nishikori must have felt as if he was playing Davis Cup for his country as the crowd at home cheered him on unabashedly. It was apparent from early on that the 6’5” Raonic was a bit intimidated by the situation, and by his opponent’s uncanny ability to read his big serve. Nishikori broke Raonic for 2-0 and held for 3-0 before Raonic retaliated with three games in a row to make it 3-3. At 5-6, Raonic was down double set point at 15-40 but he served his way out of that corner admirably, and held on for 6-6. Raonic then took a 3-0 lead in the tie-break, but the cagey Nishikori rallied to 3-3. With Raonic serving at 4-5, Nishikori pulled off an astonishing backhand passing shot down the line winner. The 22-year-old Japanese player won the tie-break 7-5.

Raonic struck back boldly in the second set, breaking to move ahead 5-3, serving out the set with aplomb. But the third set went startlingly in the other direction. Raonic was up 30-15 in the second game but got broken. The Canadian was serving at 0-3, 30-0 but was broken again, double faulting in untimely fashion at 40-30.Behind 0-5, Raonic lost his serve for the third straight time, and with it the match (7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-0). Raonic is the ATP World Tour leader in service games won (93%), first serve points won (83%), and break points saved (74%). But Nishikori caught the Canadian off guard and ill at ease. In the 41 year history of the tournament, Nishikori is the first Japanese champion. It was his first tournament win of any kind on the ATP World Tour since 2008 in Delray Beach, Florida.

But all was not lost for Raonic, who hoped to capture his third title of 2012. His semifinal win over Murray was a testament to his growth as a competitor. Raonic had upended Murray this past spring on clay, but Murray had clinically disposed of the Canadian in straight sets at the U.S. Open in the fourth round. This time around, Raonic played an outstanding first set, breaking Murray in the opening game, adding another break to prevail 6-3. Murray battled back gamely to take the second set 7-5 in a tie-break. Every point until the last in that sequence went to the server, but then Murray made an excellent crosscourt backhand return from the ad court to trap Raonic in the corner as the Canadian tried in vain to run around his backhand for a trademark inside out forehand.

It was one set all. Murray then marched to a 4-1, 0-30 lead in the final set. But Raonic roared back as Murray became increasingly disgruntled. Raonic got to 4-4, then 5-5. But serving at 5-6, Raonic was twice down match point. Raonic served-and-volleyed on the first match point, throwing in a clever kicker to set up an overhead winner. On the second, Murray made a first rate return off a second serve but faltered badly on his next shot, missing a routine two-hander long under no pressure. Raonic held on and then outplayed Murray in a tie-break. From 2-3 down on serve in that sequence, he lost only one more point. Raonic got the victory deservedly 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4).

In both Tokyo and Beijing, there was compelling tennis in abundance. I enjoyed it immensely.
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.