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Steve Flink: Novak and Serena deserved champions in China

10/7/2013 6:00:00 PM

The first thing that occurred to me after Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams recorded tournament triumphs at the China Open in Beijing was simply this: victory was not accidental in either case. Year in and year out, Djokovic is a player of high standards, deep commitment and extraordinary consistency. He had commenced the 2013 season commendably, capturing his third Australian Open in a row, securing another crown at Dubai in his next appearance. He was off to a sterling start for the year. After a brief lull on the hard courts, he opened his clay court campaign spectacularly, ending Rafael Nadal’s eight year stranglehold at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, upending the Spaniard 6-2, 7-6 (1) in the final of that prestigious Masters 1000 ATP World Tour event.

Djokovic had already collected his third title of 2013 with that win in Monte Carlo. But then he wandered into a land of difficulty, dwindling confidence and misfortune. He played seven more tournaments after Monte Carlo before arriving in China, and did not win any of them. In that span, he was the runner-up to Andy Murray at Wimbledon, and he also reached the final of the U.S. Open before Nadal stopped him in New York. The 26-year-old Serbian was long overdue to claim another championship, and he did just that in Beijing, defeating Nadal 6-3, 6-4 in the final. In my view, it was the best tennis match he has played all year. Ironically, both Djokovic and Nadal knew that the Spaniard would move back to No. 1 in the world this week for the first time since July of 2011 even if he lost to the Serbian. Perhaps the hard reality of that fact allowed Djokovic to feel as if he had very little to lose, and it brought out the majesty of his game with a fullness and richness that has not been in public view for a very long time.

As for Williams, her circumstances sharply contrasted with the plight of Djokovic. Serena, of course, has been celebrating one of the banner years in her illustrious career. She claimed her tenth title of 2013 by halting Jelena Jankovic 6-2, 6-2 in the final. No female competitor has won that many championships in a single season since Justine Henin amassed 10 back in 2007. Moreover, Williams raised her record to 73-4 for the year; not since Kim Clijsters collected 90 wins in 2003 and Henin took 75 the same season has a woman won more matches in a year. Williams’s most prolific season in terms of tournament victories had been 2002, when she won eight titles. She has never worked harder or applied herself more diligently than she is these days; her standard was nearly as good in 2012, but she played less, winning 58 of 62 matches and seven titles. Despite her excellence in 2012, she finished the year at No. 3 in the world behind Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. But Williams is assured of the year-end No. 1 ranking for 2013, and deservedly so. Remarkably, this will be only the third season of her esteemed career that she will conclude a campaign as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world.

First things first: let’s examine what happened when Djokovic upended Nadal in their China Open final. The luster of that rivalry keeps growing with each new performance. Nadal now leads their career series 22-16, but the ebbs and flows have been fascinating. From the outset of their duels back in 2006 through the 2010 season, Nadal decidedly held the upper hand. He led 16-7. Then Djokovic beat Nadal six times in a row across his golden 2011 season, and he stretched the streak to seven when he toppled the Spaniard in an epic five set collision at the Australian Open in 2012, prevailing after five hours and 53 minutes of magnificent tennis.

Djokovic had closed the gap between himself and Nadal to 16-14, but the pendulum swung once more, this time back to the Spaniard. Nadal had taken six of his last seven contests with Djokovic heading into Beijing, including their last three skirmishes at the French Open, Montreal and the U.S. Open. Surely, Nadal wanted to maintain his supremacy and fashion another victory over his foremost rival. He would have liked to remain unbeaten on hard courts for the year as he went full force after a fifth title on that surface in 2013.

But, on this occasion, since he had not won a tournament for nearly six months, because he realized how badly he needed to defeat Nadal after so many bruising setbacks, recognizing how much was riding on the outcome of this encounter for him, Djokovic seemed to have more inner fire than his renowned adversary. His demeanor on court during this clash was more upbeat and composed than anything we have witnessed from Djokovic in quite some time. He seemed unshakable. He wore the stern expression of a man on a clear mission. He competed with quiet fury and unmistakable pride.

Nadal, of course, had won 22 consecutive matches and three titles in a row since his first round loss at Wimbledon. Yet even the best player in the world knows after an unstoppable spell that the day will come when he will lose. Nadal spoke about that issue frankly after winning the U.S. Open. He gave it everything he had yesterday against Djokovic, but an essential sharpness was missing. No matter how hard he tried, he could not find a way to stifle Djokovic on an afternoon when the Serbian was at the absolute height of his considerable powers.

From the outset, Djokovic was primed in every way. He came out of the blocks with purpose and polish, striking the ball ferociously yet controlling his aggression, keeping a resolute yet slightly off form Nadal frequently at bay. Djokovic held at 15 for 1-0, closing out that game commandingly. At 30-15, an inside-out forehand approach released with conviction induced a forehand passing shot error from Nadal. The Serbian then sealed that game with a thundering inside-out forehand winner in answer to a weak backhand slice from the Spaniard. With Nadal serving at 30-30 in the second game, Djokovic clipped the sideline with a superb return of serve. The shot was called out, but Djokovic challenged it and the replay revealed that he was right.

Nadal missed a first serve when the point was replayed, and Djokovic seized control with some stinging two-handers. A beleaguered Nadal netted a backhand crosscourt. Now break point down, Nadal could not escape. Djokovic unleashed a potent forehand crosscourt, and Nadal was rushed into a netted backhand. Djokovic had the early break in hand, and a sense of controlling his own destiny. He marched to 3-0, holding at love, closing that game with another scorching inside-out forehand that was too much for Nadal to handle.

The Spaniard knew he had to raise his game decidedly, and did so with authority. He held at love for 1-3, putting all four first serves in play, pounding the forehand devastatingly, closing out that game with an ace down the T. But Djokovic responded accordingly, playing an impeccable game, opening with a forehand down the line winner, putting away an overhead winner unhesitatingly, releasing a backhand drop shot winner, then acing Nadal out wide in the ad court. A love hold. Not a first serve missed. A 4-1 lead for the Serbian. Nadal opened the sixth game with a double fault, but held on at 30 despite missing four of six first serves.

And yet, Djokovic was imperturbable, unrelenting, sharply focused. He held at love for 5-2, connecting with a service winner down the T, following with a neatly executed forehand volley winner, then coaxing two errors from a harried Nadal, who promptly held at 30. But now Djokovic was serving for the set at 5-3. At 30-15, Djokovic sent an immaculate first serve down the T, setting up a trademark forehand winner down the line. Ahead 40-15, Djokovic swung his first serve wide to the backhand, opening up the court for a forehand inside out winner. In 35 highly efficient minutes, Djokovic had taken the set 6-3. Remarkably, he had won 20 of 22 points on serve, winning three love games on his delivery. He had refused to give Nadal any kind of opening.

On to the second set they went, and the pattern was identical. Nadal led 40-30 in the opening game, but pressed badly on a forehand down the line, missing flagrantly. He garnered a second game point, netting a crosscourt backhand off a penetrating forehand crosscourt from the Serbian. Nadal reached game point for the third time in this critical game, but Djokovic was unbending. He made a terrific return off a first serve, making Nadal scamper for a wide forehand. Djokovic stepped into a backhand crosscourt with conviction, and Nadal pressed again, going up the line with a forehand to no avail. Djokovic dictated the next point admirably, drawing a backhand slice error from Nadal. Behind break point, Nadal could find no way out. Djokovic put on a superb display of defense. Nadal walloped a forehand down the line, and Djokovic replied with a low, short forehand slice. Nadal tried an inside-out forehand drop shot but missed. Djokovic had the break for 1-0 in that second set.

The Serbian swiftly advanced to 2-0, holding at love without missing a first serve, serving an ace out wide at 40-0. Nadal was able to get only one return back in play as Djokovic served tremendously. In the third game, Nadal had 40-15, but Djokovic’s second serve returns were too good. He had two break points, but Nadal kept his poise, using a low backhand pass to set up a crosscourt forehand pass that was unmanageable for Djokovic on the backhand volley. That percentage play saved one break point for Nadal; he wiped away the other by approaching crosscourt off the forehand with pace and precision, setting up a routine overhead winner.

Nadal gamely held for 1-2, keeping himself only one break behind. But the way Djokovic was serving and backing up his delivery, one break was a very big deal. In a love hold for 3-1, he served two aces, both out wide in the ad court. Nadal was ceding no ground, holding at love for 2-3, connecting with all four first serves, provoking three errant returns. Undismayed, Djokovic held at 30 for 4-2. On the final point of that sixth game, Djokovic outdueled Nadal in a riveting 24 stroke exchange as the Spaniard erred off the backhand. He could find no holes in Djokovic’s game and was thus forced to take risk that were not often rewarded. Nevertheless, Nadal fought on gallantly, holding at love in the seventh game. With Djokovic serving at 4-3, Nadal at last had at least a glimmer of hope, reaching 15-30. On the next point, it was strength to strength as Djokovic drove a two-hander crosscourt with good pace, but Nadal miss-hit a forehand long. At 30-30, Djokovic did not falter, serving down the T to provoke an error. At 40-30, Djokovic prevailed in another lengthy rally of 16 strokes, as Nadal was way off the mark with a change of direction forehand down the line. It was 5-3 for the Serbian.

Nadal held on at 30 for 4-5, but Djokovic was serving for the match in the tenth game. If nerves were going to surface, this was the time for Djokovic to exhibit them. But he displayed no trepidation whatsoever, holding at love, putting every first serve in, controlling the climate of that game entirely. At 40-0, he sent out a service winner wide to the forehand. Not only had Djokovic struck down the mighty Nadal 6-3, 6-4, but he been unassailable on serve, winning 40 of 46 points (87%). He won an astounding 91% of his first serve and 77% of his second serve points. Along with his backcourt mastery and astonishing ball control, it was the serving dominance that made it all happen for Djokovic in Beijing. At the U.S. Open, Djokovic won only 57% of his first serve and 48% of his second serve points.

Williams, meanwhile, was a clear-cut victor over Jankovic, besting the Serbian for the seventh time in eleven career head to head appointments. The 32-year-old American had opened the tournament with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Elena Vesnina, but then gave a pair of disjointed performances, stopping Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-5, defeating Maria Kirilenko 7-5, 7-5. But she had gradually found her form in ousting Caroline Wozniacki 6-1, 6-4 and Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-2. Jankovic had a good win over Lucie Safarova in the quarterfinals, winning that encounter 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4. She battled back tenaciously again in the semifinals to stop the enigmatic Petra Kvitova 6-7 (7), 6-1, 6-1.

Williams had some apparent back problems in her semifinal win over Radwanska, and that problem seemed to resurface at times against Jankovic. It took her a while to settle into the final as the former world No. 1 tested her thoroughly. Serena was stretched to four deuces and needed to save a break point before holding for 1-0. Jankovic got a lot of returns back and was cagey. But she had nothing to show for it. Williams broke for 2-0 after two deuces, and then found her range, holding at love for 3-0. Williams began the third game with a forehand drop shot winner, and ended it with a service winner wide to the backhand.

Jankovic managed to hold for 1-3. A first rate match player with a fine tactical mind, Jankovic advanced to 0-30 on Serena’s serve in the fifth game. But Williams made four first serves in a row and held at 30 with a clean winner off the forehand. Jankovic displayed her craftiest brand of tennis in the sixth game. At 30-15, she used a drop shot to draw Williams forward. Serena cracked a forehand crosscourt, but Jankovic easily anticipated that move, and proceeded to block a forehand chipped pass down the line into the open court. She went on to hold at 30 for 2-4, but Williams wasn’t wavering, not in the least. She held at love for 5-2 with an ace, two service winners and a crackling backhand crosscourt that Jankovic could not handle. Williams broke at 15 to seal the set 6-2, winning eight of the last nine points.

At 1-1 in the second set, Williams lost her serve for the only time in the contest. That game went to deuce five times. Williams seemed to be in pain, wincing after serving an ace. She was broken when she drove a sitter forehand into the net off a weak return. It was 2-1 for Jankovic. Many observers probably expected the trainer to consult with Williams at the changeover, but curiously it was Jankovic who needed help for an ailment in her upper leg and hip. She left the court for treatment and observation from the trainer.

The delay seemed to calm Williams and there was no longer any sign of pain in her back. She broke right back for 2-2 and then played an outstanding game on serve, releasing three service winners and not missing a first serve, holding at love. In the sixth game, Jankovic went for too many down the line backhands. It is clearly one of her best shots, but the openings were not available. From 30-15, she missed that shot three times in a row. Williams had moved to 4-2. Williams struggled on serve in the seventh game after wasting two game points, but she held on with an ace down the T. Jankovic fought on gamely. After saving a match point in the eighth game, she had two game points, but Williams knew she could not be halted. A forehand return winner gave her a second match point, and Serena made good on it as Jankovic missed a forehand crosscourt under duress.

Williams is now treating every tournament as if it is the last one she will ever play, and that is admirable. As for Djokovic, he has recovered a large measure of his confidence by virtue of playing well all week in Beijing. It was a week of dual triumphs. Djokovic reminded himself why he was the best player in the world, and how he might get back to that status. Nadal, however, was a big winner even in defeat. He had not been ranked No. 1 in the world since the middle of the 2011 season. Now he is set up to finish the year at the top of the ladder after reaching the finals in 13 of the 14 tournaments he has played. He has won no fewer than ten events, the same number as Serena.

In the Emirates ATP World Tour Rankings (the 52 week system), Nadal is only narrowly ahead of Djokovic with 11,160 points, 40 more than the Serbian. But in the “Race for London” that includes only performances in 2013, Nadal remains far ahead of his premier rival with 11,310 points. Djokovic has 8,610 points. That means Nadal is the prohibitive favorite to conclude the year in the No. 1 spot, a status he has earned indisputably. But Djokovic is poised to finish the season strong, and that could carry him into 2014 with vigor and a deep sense of optimism. This much is certain: these two towering figures named Nadal and Djokovic are pushing each other to the hilt, raising the stakes constantly, providing us with tennis of the absolute highest order time and time again.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.