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Steve Flink: Shanghai is a triumph for a surging Djokovic and a step forward for Del Potro

10/14/2013 1:00:00 PM

For some of the leading players, autumn can be the most difficult stretch on the ATP World Tour. They have competed ferociously all year long. The four Grand Slam tournaments of 2013 are fading into history. The next major is not until January. Nevertheless, the best competitors in the sport are making one final push to confirm their places at the prestigious Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London next month. Only the top eight players qualify, and someone extraordinary will walk away from the 02 Arena with a prize of honor, not to mention a considerable lift heading into 2014.

Be that as it may, a pair of estimable individuals stepped forward in Shanghai this past week and gave us one of the year’s most absorbing finals. It was a title round match of the finest quality, a suspenseful encounter between two players exploring their physical and emotional limits, a skirmish that was contested in the best possible spirit. It was a high caliber contest in every way pitting Novak Djokovic against Juan Martin Del Potro on a fast hard court in front of an appreciative and fair-minded audience. It featured breathtaking rallies, impossible athleticism, imaginative and even extravagant shotmaking. In the end, only the match playing expertise of Djokovic allowed the Serbian to withstand a barrage of big hitting from the audacious Argentine. Djokovic captured his fifth singles title of 2013 and his second in a row with a hard fought 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3) victory.

The charismatic Djokovic has now won 39 career singles titles, and his triumph at the Shanghai Rolex Masters was his 15th at a Masters 1000 ATP World Tour event. Moreover, the back to back tournament triumphs Djokovic has recorded the last couple of weeks has helped him close the gap between himself and Rafael Nadal in the Race for London, which will ultimately determine who finishes 2013 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. Nadal still has a healthy lead over Djokovic. The Spaniard has amassed 11,670 points while Djokovic stands at 9,610. But Djokovic was sorely in need of some morale boosting wins after a long dry spell over the summer, and he has clearly recovered much of his old conviction.

Del Potro, too, has been ascendant as of late. Injured and depleted at the U.S. Open where he lost to 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt in the second round, Del Potro was victorious in Tokyo the week before last, ousting Milos Raonic in well played final. He opened his campaign in Shanghai against Philipp Kohlschreiber, and was fortunate to get through that battle in a final set tie-break. Due to meet Tommy Haas in the round of 16, Del Potro got a walkover from the German (who retired with a bad back), and then easily accounted for Nicolas Almagro in the quarters. That set the stage for an appointment with the newly restored world No. 1 Nadal in the penultimate round, and Del Potro gave one of the signature performances of his career to topple the Spaniard for only the fourth time in twelve career duels. His resounding 6-2, 6-4 win over Nadal was his first over the inimitable left-hander since 2009 in the penultimate round at the U.S. Open, a day before he claimed his lone career major title with a spectacular five set triumph over Roger Federer.

And so Del Potro approached his Shanghai meeting with Djokovic in the right frame of mind. Djokovic had struggled mightily at times before ousting the ever enigmatic Gael Monfils 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarters. The Frenchman had registered only his second career win in eight career meetings against Federer in the round of 16, and he stayed with Djokovic all the way to 3-3 in the final set. Monfils led 30-0 on serve in the seventh game before Djokovic made his move, broke serve, and soon ran out the triumph. In the semifinals, Djokovic clipped the free-wheeling yet bafflingly undisciplined Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-2, 7-5 despite a temporary mental meltdown in the middle of the second set.

The bottom line is that both men were ready for the final. And yet, at the outset, Djokovic was utterly in control. Driving through the ball freely and beautifully off both sides, lacing the backhand down the line with uncanny timing and ball control, serving purposefully, demonstrating that his return of serve is the best in the game, Djokovic was unstoppable in the opening set. Del Potro could hardly make an impression. That the Argentine had so much trouble finding his bearings had much more to do with the immaculate ball striking of Djokovic than his own inadequacies.

From the opening bell, Djokovic’s timing was precise, his court sense excellent, his mind entirely on his task. He held at 15 in the first game, connecting with four out of five first serves. Then the top seed probed immediately for a break. A cagey backhand drop shot provoked a mistake from Del Potro for 0-15, and then the 6’6” powerhouse served a double fault to make it 0-30. Del Potro made it back to 30-30 but a typically deep return from Djokovic down the middle drew an error from Del Potro, who promptly saved a break point when Djokovic erred off the forehand. Del Potro advanced to game point but Djokovic was in full command on the next point, using a series of well executed backhand slices to set the stage for a two-handed backhand winner driven cleanly down the line. Djokovic moved to break point for the second time and converted it handsomely, clipping the line for an inside-out forehand winner.

At 2-0, Djokovic trailed 15-40, but he worked his way out of that corner with aplomb. An impeccably placed serve down the T set up a forehand winner for 30-40, and then the 26-year-old laced another backhand winner down the line off an inside-out forehand from Del Potro. Another terrific first serve opened up an avenue for a forehand winner, and then Del Potro sent a backhand slice tamely into the net. On that important run of four consecutive points, Djokovic moved unhesitatingly to 3-0. Djokovic broke at 15 for 4-0, sealing that game with a trademark backhand crosscourt struck with exceptional depth and pace, leading to another error from a beleaguered Del Potro.

Djokovic was soaring now, holding at 15 for 5-0 after serving an ace for 40-0. Del Potro alertly managed to erase two set points against him in the following game with a pair of thundering forehand winners, holding on for 1-5. Djokovic then easily held at 15, buoyed by another ace for 30-0. In 34 minutes, he had swept through the first set 6-1. An emphatic, straight set victory seemed entirely possible for the Serbian dynamo.

But Del Potro was determined to get his teeth into the contest. That, however, was no facile task. Serving at 40-30 in the first game of the second set, he unleashed a crackling forehand crosscourt, but somehow the Serbian got it back deep. On his next shot, Djokovic seized the initiative, finding a wide open space for a backhand down the line winner. They went to deuce again, but now Del Potro took matters completely into his own hands, releasing consecutive aces for the critical hold. The following game marked a crucial turning point in the contest. Inexplicably, Djokovic kept losing his balance, looking increasingly uncomfortable and out of sync. He fell behind 0-30, won the next point, but was flagrantly off balance again as he missed an inside-out forehand wide for 15-40. At double break point, Del Potro caught the sideline with his crosscourt return of serve, drawing a mistake from a befuddled Djokovic.

Suddenly, Del Potro was ahead 2-0, and at last he had a sense of belonging. At 40-30 in the third game, Del Potro aced Djokovic out wide. He had consolidated the break. His outlook was fresh and upbeat. Djokovic, meanwhile, was stuttering after a seamless first set. His first serve percentage in the opening set was a superb 78%, but thus far in the second set he was down at an unacceptable 27%. At 0-3, having missed four of six first deliveries, he stood at deuce and was two points away from losing his serve again. The defending champion composed himself, releasing a service winner down the T, then sending a heavy kicker to the backhand that Del Potro could not handle. The Del Potro lead was reduced to 3-1.

But the big man was undismayed. He held at love for 4-1 without missing a first serve, commencing that stellar game with winners off both flanks. Djokovic had rediscovered some rhythm on serve, and he held at 30 for 2-4, putting every first serve in play. In the seventh game, Del Potro was down triple break point at 0-40, but he responded ably to the situation. After saving the first break point, he made a remarkable forehand down the line passing shot, followed by a scorching inside-out forehand winner for deuce. A service winner down the T gave Del Potro game point, and he held on with a penetrating crosscourt backhand that elicited an error from a disconcerted Djokovic. It was 5-2 for Del Potro. Djokovic held easily in the eighth game, but Del Potro closed out the set commendably on serve, holding at love, getting all four first serves in play.

Set to Del Potro, 6-3. And yet, Djokovic had the good fortune to be serving first in the final set. In the first game, he served an ace down the T for 15-0, and an ace wide for 30-0. At 40-30, he aced Del Potro out wide again. His woes on serve early in the second set were long gone. Del Potro held at 15 for 1-1, but Djokovic was now imperturbable. He held at 15 for 2-1, closing out that game with a flourish, making a backhand drop shot winner for 40-15 before driving a forehand inside-in for a clean placement. It was 2-1 for Djokovic but Del Potro survived a tough deuce game to make it 2-2. When Djokovic surged to 40-15 in the fifth game, another quick hold seemed inevitable.

But Del Potro took three straight points, the last with a cluster of sizzling forehands that led to a winner off that side. Del Potro was at break point, but Djokovic served a clutch ace out wide and held on tenaciously for 3-2. In the sixth game, Del Potro found himself down 15-40, but his highly intimidating forehand bailed him out once more. He saved one break point with a flat forehand crosscourt that stymied Djokovic, and another with a dazzling inside-in forehand winner. An ace took Del Potro to game point, and he came forward assertively to reach 3-3, punching a crisp backhand volley down the line to force Djokovic into an errant.

Djokovic served an ace for 40-0 in the seventh game, and held at love. At 3-4, Del Potro moved to 40-15 but Djokovic’s standards on the return of serve are phenomenal. He made it back to deuce before Del Potro willed himself through that game, reaching 4-4 with a service winner down the T. Djokovic was unrelenting. He held at love for 5-4, starting that game with another ace down the T.

While Djokovic was holding easily most of the time, Del Potro was forever being tested comprehensively on his serve by the sport’s premier returner. At 4-5, Djokovic reached double match point with Del Potro serving at 15-40. On his second serve, Del Potro did not like his toss, and let it drop. He steadied himself, made he toss he wanted, and a heavy kick serve drew a backhand return long from Djokovic, who was stifled by the severity of Dl Potro’s spin. At 30-40, Del Potro’s first serve set up a forehand winner off a short return from the Serbian. Del Potro swung a first serve wide with slice to provoke a forehand return error, and then came out on top in a stirring 24 stroke backcourt exchange.

It was 5-5. Was Djokovic rattled by Del Potro’s brave stand? Not in the least. He served an ace down the T for 15-0, another ace down the T (his eighth of the set) for 40-0 and held swiftly at love, as if to remind his opponent that he was ready to meet any challenge, to answer every question. Del Potro held at 15 for 6-6, and now, fittingly, it would all end in a final set tie-break. Serving the first point, Djokovic approached the net confidently, played a nifty drop volley, and set up an overhead winner. Del Potro got to 1-1, but then narrowly missed a forehand down the line. Djokovic had the mini-beak and a 2-1 lead.

Briefly, Djokovic lost his conviction. He sent a tame inside-out forehand into the net for 2-2, his only unforced error of the tie-break. Yet swiftly he made amends, sending a first serve to the backhand, coaxing Del Potro into a mistake. Serving at 2-3, Del Potro stood toe to toe with Djokovic through a brilliantly contested 24 stroke exchange. But ultimately Djokovic was uninhibited, measuring an inside-out forehand to perfection for an outright winner. That made it 4-2 for Djokovic, but Del Potro then walloped a forehand winner of his own into the clear.

Djokovic was still right where he wanted to be, serving at 4-3. He approached the net again, and Del Potro tried to run around his backhand for a forehand pass. The tactic did not work. Djokovic delicately and elegantly deposited a backhand drop volley winner for 5-3. Del Potro knew he had to go for broke, but he was fatigued, driving a forehand wide in an ill-fated winner attempt. Djokovic had moved deservedly to 6-3, triple match point. He made one of his stupendous stretch returns off the forehand, pushing Del Potro back on his heels. Djokovic followed with a clean winning backhand winner down the line. He was the victor, coming through against an inspired adversary 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3).

Djokovic overall had an outstanding serving day and he served aces at pivotal moments. Why in the world does he not go for that first serve more regularly the way he did against Del Potro on this occasion? He elects too often to be a formidable “spot” server, looking to set up a forehand to win the point. But his service motion is so fluid and effortless that it would behoove him to serve slightly bigger with more frequency, to go for more aces and service winners, to win more free points on his delivery. What does he have to worry about? His second serve is awfully difficult to attack and it can be a real strength.

In any event, the serving statistics from the Shanghai final were fascinating. Djokovic’s first serve percentage was 67%. Del Potro was at 72% for the match. But Djokovic won 79% of his first serve points, eleven percent better than Del Potro. And Djokovic took 57% of his second serve points, twelve percent better than his opponent. Despite that substantial difference, Djokovic could still have been beaten. That is the mystery of tennis. Sometimes the numbers don’t tell the complete story. But the fact remains that Djokovic was victorious and Del Potro was not. After upending Djokovic at Indian Wells this year, he lost when they collided in the semifinals of Wimbledon in a stirring clash. In Shanghai, he took Djokovic close to the brink of defeat, but did not succeed. Del Potro has victories this year over Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray, but can he do it more often? More so, can he get it done when it counts? At Indian Wells, Del Potro stopped Djokovic (after beating Murray) and lost to Nadal; in Shanghai, he defeated Nadal but lost to Djokovic.

Del Potro’s 6-2, 6-4 Shanghai win over Nadal was in my view the best tennis he has ever played, even more impressive than his back to back wins over the Spaniard and Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open. He was devastatingly potent off both sides. He served magnificently, particularly on the big points. He refused to allow Nadal the time to set up and dictate. It was sublime stuff. Nadal seemed to sense from the outset that this was going to be a hard day for him. At 15-15 in the first game, he missed an overhead long down the line, a rare occurrence. At 15-30, his trusted inside-out forehand let him down as Del Potro’s return of serve backed up the Spaniard. He was broken at 30 when Del Potro rushed him into a forehand down the line error.

Nadal had not lost his serve in the tournament up until then. He had a break point against Del Potro in the following game, but Del Potro cracked an inside-out forehand winner off a short return of serve. He then aced Nadal and held for 2-0. Del Potro was overwhelming in every way, hitting out unswervingly, playing with utterly controlled aggression, keeping Nadal ceaselessly at bay. In the third game, Nadal was down 15-40, won three points in a row for an ad, but lost that game after three deuces as Del Potro wounded him again with a blazing forehand. Del Potro held at 30 for 4-0 and took the set 6-2, concluding a love game with a pair of aces.

Nadal sought to alter the complexion of the match. He held at love for 1-0 in the second set and then had Del Potro at 15-40 in the second game. But Del Potro squirmed out of that corner as Nadal missed a couple of backhand returns. Del Potro eventually held on for 1-1. At break point in the third game, Del Potro struck a forehand pass low down the line, and Nadal managed to get his forehand volley back into play. But Del Potro moved forward to cut it off for an inside-out backhand volley winner past a stranded Nadal, expressing his joy with a fist pump. Serving at 2-1, Del Potro was down break point again, but he sent a scintillating forehand winner down the line. Soon he held on for 3-1.

After Nadal held on, Del Potro faced another break point in the sixth game, but Nadal missed a running forehand down the line. Nadal was 0 for 6 on break points that were spread out over five service games. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, Del Potro held at 15 to carve out his first win over Nadal in four years. Nadal simply confronted a man in the zone; he played reasonably well, but Del Potro was out of this world. His first serve percentage was an astounding 80%, his ground game was uncontainable, and the man gave away remarkably little.

Meanwhile, Federer played his first tournament since his loss to Tommy Robredo in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. In the same round at Shanghai, he bowed out against Monfils in three sets. Federer played dismally to lose his serve in the opening game of the match, and that cost him the set. He salvaged the second after Monfils led by 4-3 with a service break in hand. In turn, the dynamic Frenchman had a 5-4 tie-break with a mini-break in hand, but tightened up enormously. Early in the third, he broke Federer and fashioned a 4-2 lead. Federer had a pair of break points to get back on serve but Monfils produced two excellent second serves to fend him off. Down went Federer 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 in a match emblematic of the entire year. There were bright passages amidst the darkness in his game, but he could not get by on sporadic brilliance. Stan Wawrinka—ousted in the quarterfinals by Nadal—moved past Federer to No. 7 in the Race for London. Federer will need strong showings in Basel and Paris to ensure his place in the London eight man field.

At the end of the week, Federer announced that is parting ways with Paul Annacone, who started working with the Swiss in the summer of 2010. He will still retain Severin Luthi as his coach. The view here is that Federer let the wrong man go. Annacone always deserved to run the show on his own, to have the full authority to express his views in an unfiltered way. To me, it never made sense that he shared the coaching responsibilities with Luthi. Annacone is one of the premier coaches in the game of tennis, and he helped Federer return to No. 1 in the middle of 2012 and win his seventh Wimbledon crown. I am sure there is no animosity in this split-up from either Federer or Annacone’s point of view, but the professional relationship ends on a sad note.

I wonder whether Maria Sharapova might consider hiring Annacone as her new coach. This thoughtful and knowledgeable man coached not only Federer but Pete Sampras (from 1995-2002 with a brief interruption) and Tim Henman. He could be just the right individual to guide Sharapova in her return to the sport next year. I hope she realizes that.

Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic surely is delighted to have won two tournaments in a row, giving himself an outside chance to overtake Nadal for the year-end No. 1 ranking. His victory over Del Potro was a testament to his match playing prowess and his steely competitive demeanor. He has a lot on his plate right now. Djokovic wants to see if he can win the upcoming Masters 1000 event in Paris and then try to defend his crown in London before attempting to lead Serbia to a second Davis Cup triumph in four years. As for Juan Martin Del Potro, he must be very tough on himself and not be satisfied with what transpired in Shanghai. He was a gallant final round loser, but this is a man who needs to get in the habit of winning tournaments—including more majors. The jury is still out on whether or not Del Potro can make that arduous transition.

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.