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Steve Flink: Djokovic the man to beat in London after Paris triumph

11/3/2013 9:00:00 PM

These are heady days for Novak Djokovic as the 2013 season draws to a conclusion. He has not lost a match since falling against Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final, securing no fewer than 17 victories in a row, capturing his last three tournaments, taking a pair of ATP World Tour Masters 1000 championships in that span. He now heads to London for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals with growing conviction about himself and his chances. He is the defending champion at the widely celebrated 02 Arena. He is clearly the man to beat as he joins the seven other elite competitors who make up the field in Great Britain. If someone had told the Serbian two months ago that he would be on this kind of a roll in the autumn after a summer fraught with disappointments, he would surely have signed up for such a bright scenario.

By virtue of taking the BNP Paribas Masters title indoors at Paris, Djokovic has kept his hopes alive for finishing a third straight campaign as the top ranked player in the world. After the U.S. Open, Nadal had built a substantial lead of nearly 3000 points over Djokovic in the Race for London, and it seemed entirely possible that he had virtually locked up the year-end No. 1 ranking. But since that time, Djokovic has amassed a remarkable 2500 points while recording his three tournament triumphs, while Nadal has not fared nearly as well. The Spaniard has been beaten in two semifinals and a final in his three tournament appearances since Flushing Meadows, collecting only 1020 points in the same stretch. That leaves Nadal with a total of 12,030 points for the year, while Djokovic is in second place at 10,610. Nadal’s lead has been cut to 1,420 points.

At first glance, that lead would seem to be safe. But Djokovic could pick up 1500 points in London if he goes unbeaten in the round robin and wins the tournament. He could conceivably earn another 225 points for the year if he wins two live matches in the Davis Cup Final. So what must Nadal achieve in London to ensure that he concludes 2013 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world? Quite simply, if he wins two of his three round robin matches, he will finish the year at No. 1 no matter how well Djokovic performs in London.

Each round robin triumph is worth 200 points. Nadal is in Group A with David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic leads Group B with Roger Federer, Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet. Nadal has never lost to Wawrinka in eleven career clashes, he owns a 16-3 career edge over Berdych including 15 head to head victories in a row, and—despite a stunning setback against Ferrer in the semifinals of Paris—he still has a commanding 20-5 advantage in their career series. The feeling grows that Nadal will rise to the challenge and become the first player in the history of the ATP World Rankings to reestablish himself as the year-end No. 1 after more than a one year gap; he last resided as the year-end No. 1 back in 2010, and first achieved that status for 2008. Since the ATP rankings were established in 1973, no one has ever reclaimed the year-end No. 1 ranking twice, which Nadal is now on the verge of securing.

But before we focus on London and the two round robin groups, let’s consider what happened in Paris at the BNP Paribas Masters, where Djokovic took on Ferrer in a first class final. Djokovic, of course, had won 10 of his 15 career appointments against the Spaniard, including six of their last seven collisions. He knew precisely what was at stake and understood the task at hand. But the 26-year-old world No. 2 had his hands full from the outset as Ferrer battled him ferociously from the backcourt.

The first point of the match was indicative of what was to come. The two players produced a 27 stroke rally that ended with a forehand down the line winner from Djokovic. Both men held comfortably until 2-2, when Ferrer made his move. At break point in the fifth game, Ferrer caught Djokovic completely off guard with a magnificent sidespin backhand drop shot winner down the line, concluding a scintillating 36 stroke exchange with that inspired maneuver. Ferrer was up a break at 3-2. In a three deuce game which followed, Ferrer fought off a break point with an aggressive forehand inside-in that drew an error. The Spaniard held on for 4-2.

Djokovic was down 15-30 in the seventh game, but unleashed an inside-out forehand winner for 30-30 before coaxing a backhand return error from Ferrer. At 40-30, Djokovic released an ace down the T. Ferrer sensed that Djokovic was ready to raise the stakes. Serving at 4-3, 30-30, Ferrer double faulted long, but he wiped away a break point with a running forehand crosscourt that Djokovic could not handle. Ferrer held on gamely for 5-3 with a pair of excellent first serves to the forehand that induced errors from Djokovic. And yet, Djokovic remained unshakable. He held at love for 4-5, smacking a couple of winners in that game, one off each flank.

Ferrer was now serving for the set in the tenth game, and he swiftly advertised his uneasiness, pulling a backhand crosscourt wide for 0-15, then netting a backhand down the line to make it 0-30. He won the following point with a backhand down the line winner, but Djokovic was unswerving when it counted. The Serbian walloped a forehand crosscourt with gusto to force an error for 15-40. At double break point, he masterfully opened up the court with an angled and penetrating crosscourt forehand, creating an avenue to drive a forehand winner up the line for a winner.

Back to 5-5 was the opportunistic Djokovic, and he soared on from there. At 5-5, he held at love, opening up that game with a forehand swing volley winner, following with a service winner down the T. An ace down the T made it 40-0, and then another superb first serve set up a forehand winner. Ferrer served to stay in the set at 5-6, starting with an ace. But Djokovic commandingly swept the next four points to seal the set, controlling the tempo thoroughly, picking Ferrer apart ruthlessly. From 3-5 down, a resolute Djokovic had won 16 of 18 points, raising his game immeasurably in that span.

Ferrer, however, was undismayed. He took full advantage of a loose game from Djokovic at the start of the second set. A briefly unsettled Djokovic was broken at 15, largely of self-inflicted wounds. Ferrer had to work diligently to hold for 2-0, but after three deuces he did just that, kicking his second serve to the Djokovic backhand to draw a return error. Djokovic was undermining his early authority, and Ferrer was sedulously fighting for a way to send the match into a third set. Djokovic fell behind precariously at 15-40 in the third game. Had he been broken at that juncture, the Serbian would have been hard pressed to prevent a third set.

But Djokovic was not only good on this occasion when he needed to be; he was also fortunate. With that double break point opening to go ahead 3-0, Ferrer approached the net behind a biting backhand slice, keeping that shot low and reasonably deep. Djokovic took his backhand passing shot down the line, and clipped the net cord, forcing Ferrer to play an awkward forehand volley. Ferrer had the line covered but the bad luck crippled him. Then Djokovic passed the Spaniard easily off the forehand to win the point. Relaxed and relieved, Djokovic cracked an inside-out forehand for a clean winner to make it deuce. He held on for 1-2. But Ferrer continued to back up his serve ably, holding at love for 3-1 before Djokovic held at 15 to close the gap to 3-2. Ferrer held on his fourth game point for 4-2 as Djokovic netted a routine forehand down the line.

Djokovic double faulted to trail 15-30 in the seventh game, but then drove a crosscourt forehand for a winner, coaxed an error from Ferrer, and held for 3-4 with a sparkling forehand down the line winner after pulling Ferrer wide to the forehand to create the wide opening. Ferrer methodically plodded on, holding at 15 for 5-3. The key point of that game was the first one, with Ferrer prevailing in a 22 stroke rally by keeping his backhand passing shot low and luring Djokovic into an error on the volley. Djokovic missed a couple of backhand returns at the end of that game. He had lost his range.

But he gathered himself with deep determination. Djokovic held at 15 for 4-5, and so it was up to Ferrer to serve out the second set, which the Spaniard had failed to do in the opening set. When Djokovic broke back in the tenth game of the first set, it was largely his stupendous play that had made the difference. This time, Ferrer harmed himself decidedly and essentially gave it away. He reached 15-0 before Djokovic connected immaculately with a backhand return winner down the line. Ferrer went to 30-15 with an inside-out forehand setting up an overhead winner.

Now Ferrer was only two points away from a third and final set. But he faltered flagrantly, missing a running crosscourt forehand long that he should have kept in the court. At 30-30, a clearly apprehensive Ferrer netted a backhand without justification. With Ferrer break point down, Djokovic was stretched out fully for a forehand, but he scraped the ball back with underspin to stay in the point. Ferrer pressed, driving a forehand crosscourt wide. It was 5-5. Djokovic knew that he was back in control of his own destiny. He held at 15 for 6-5, serving two aces in the process. Ferrer served to stay in the match at 5-6, and did not survive. Djokovic reached 0-15 with a nifty backhand volley winner after a delayed approach. Ferrer took the next point but consecutive unprovoked mistakes from the Spaniard gave Djokovic double match point. Ferrer saved the first, but made a forehand unforced error on the second. From 3-5 down in the second set, Djokovic had captured 16 of 22 points and four straight games to wrap up the triumph.

To be sure, this was not a vintage performance from Djokovic, who could easily have dropped either set, who might well have lost the match. But the fact remains that he beat a David Ferrer who was playing some of the finest tennis of his career. Ferrer’s returns--- particularly off the second serve—were extraordinary. His court coverage was astounding. Ultimately, Djokovic was better when it counted the most—at the end of both sets. He was decidedly better in some key statistical categories, winning 78% of his first serve points (Ferrer was at 60%), taking 56% of his second serve points, while Ferrer came in at 50%. Djokovic had 34 winners, 19 more than Ferrer. He deserved the victory because he summoned his best stuff at the right times.

Ferrer, meanwhile, had played one of the greatest matches of his career to topple Nadal and end a nine match losing streak against his iconic compatriot. While he cracked at critical times against Djokovic, Ferrer was unrelentingly assertive, performing with steely resolve against Nadal in his 6-3, 7-5 victory. It was the best tennis he has played all year on any surface. He exploited the fast conditions indoors and Nadal never could find a comfort zone.

Ferrer established his superiority on the day from the early stages, and Nadal was subdued and almost disheartened at times as he struggled in vain to find a weak link in Ferrer’s game. At 1-2 in the first set, Nadal made a few uncharacteristic unforced errors off the forehand, and Ferrer broke him with a low backhand pass forcing an errant volley from the top seed. Ferrer was ahead 3-1, then held easily for 4-1. Nadal had only one chance to get back in the set. Ferrer was down break point at 4-2. Nadal had a short ball off the forehand and should have gone inside-out, but he tried to send his shot inside-in and missed it long. At 2-5, Nadal was down 0-40 but redirected his first serve the rest of that game to the Ferrer forehand, holding on for 3-5. That obstinate stand hardly mattered; Ferrer held at 15 for 6-3.

Nadal took the opening game of the second set and had Ferrer down 0-40 in the second game, but then missed a forehand return off a second serve narrowly over the baseline. Ferrer held for 1-1, saving four break points. He broke a downcast Nadal in the following game. Nadal had another break point to get back to 3-3 but Ferrer clipped the baseline for a backhand down the line winner. He held on for 4-2. At 5-4, Ferrer served for the match. For the first time all match long, he wavered, missing an inside-out forehand wide to trail 30-40, making a backhand down the line error at break point down. Nadal had made it back to 5-5, then had 30-15 in the following game when he sent a forehand down the line. Ferrer was on the run and Nadal moved forward. But his opponent’s passing shot was steered down the line, and Nadal was too far back, missing the forehand volley. Instead of a comfortable 40-15 lead for Nadal, it was 30-30. Ferrer broke him for 6-5 and served out the match at 15.

Ferrer was the aggressor all across the two sets. His ground game was outstanding and unerring and he had Nadal at bay incessantly. Meanwhile, Ferrer was pulling Nadal wide to the backhand with his first serve in the deuce court, constantly opening up the court for the inside-out forehand. He also returned serve tremendously off both first and second serves. He was commendable. But Nadal played one of his worst matches of the year. One of his many assets is his supreme adaptability. He changes speeds, spins and locations on his serve to deal with daunting adversaries. He alters his return of serve positioning, as was the case when he upended Jerzy Janowicz in the round of 16 by moving up on the baseline and flicking the ball back superbly in breaking the big man three times during a straight set victory. As great as Ferrer plainly was in the semifinals, Nadal was not the essential Nadal. He allowed Ferrer too much leeway in dictating the terms of play, and it cost him dearly.

The two other matches in Paris that highlighted the week both involved a revitalized Federer. Fresh from his final round appearance in Basel—where he lost a hard fought 7-6, 2-6, 6-4 final to Del Potro—Federer took on the towering Argentine again in the quarterfinals of Paris, and turned the tables on his powerful foe. This time around, Federer altered his strategy intelligently against the man who had beaten him three times in a row. The key component was the way Federer served. In Basel, Del Potro had damaged the Swiss with his scorching second serve returns. This time around, Federer was more determined to keep his first serve percentage remarkably high. He did not go for many aces or bigger first serves, choosing instead to rely on placement to gain control of rallies and keep Del Potro off balance.

In the first set, Federer got 17 of 22 first serves in for 77%, winning 20 of 22 points on his delivery. Del Potro was sluggish after playing so much tennis over the autumn. He had won Tokyo and reached the final of Shanghai before besting Federer to rule in Basel. Del Potro had covered the court remarkably well in Basel and defended ably, but in Paris Federer made him look slow. And yet, Federer tightened up considerably when serving at 4-5 in the second set. Until then, he had won 16 of 18 points on serve in the second set, but he cracked. At 30-15, he made a backhand unforced error before pulling a forehand wide to go down set point. He saved the first set point but then from deuce he committed two more unforced mistakes.

Del Potro was back to one set all, but Federer was unflustered. After an exchange of breaks in the fifth and sixth games, he collected three games in a row to complete a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory, his first win over a top five player all year long, and only his second over a top ten player. That set the stage for the first Federer-Djokovic head to head contest since the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships final last November. Federer performed in the opening set with an instinctive genius he has not displayed in a very long while. He served-and-volleyed selectively, approached the net judiciously and creatively, and volleyed splendidly. He also stood toe to toe with Djokovic from the back of the court, mixing in the sliced backhand with bite and panache, driving the forehand fluidly, keeping his unforced errors to a minimum. He was downright dazzling.

Djokovic, meanwhile, was discombobulated. He led 30-15 in the third game but double faulted on the next two points. Federer then threw in a sparkling forehand drop shot to set up a backhand volley winner. He had the break for 2-1. At 5-4, Federer served for the set, but Djokovic pressed him hard. That game featured four deuces. Federer was down 15-40. Djokovic had four break points. But Federer did not fold, putting 13 of 14 first serves in during that game. He took the set 6-4 and then broke Djokovic for 1-0 in the second set. At 30-40 in the second game, Federer drove a backhand down the line long for a costly unforced error. Djokovic was back on serve at 1-1. Federer gradually lost some of his edge off the ground. At 2-3, down break point, Federer serve-volleyed and dumped an easy first volley into the net. Now Djokovic was unstoppable. He held at love for 5-2 with four swings of the racket, releasing three service winners and an ace. Djokovic took the set 6-3 and never looked back.

Federer led 30-0 at 1-1 in the final set but missed four straight first serves, including a double fault for 30-30. Djokovic broke for 2-1 and broke again for 5-2. He served too well over the last two sets and found his range on the returns. Federer was terrific for a set-and-a-half but could not sustain his level much longer. His mobility—so striking and admirable in the early stages—diminished immensely. His serve deteriorated, and his backcourt play was no longer as precise, powerful or purposeful.

And so the players move on to London for an enticing year end spectacle. What makes it all the more compelling this time is that both semifinals in Paris will be reprised immediately in the round robin. On Tuesday, Federer and Djokovic will meet, as will Nadal and Ferrer. Nadal and Federer had Sunday off and will be more rested than Djokovic and Ferrer, who battled in the Paris final. How much of a difference will that make? Will Nadal come back at Ferrer and impose himself this time against his countryman and display more intensity? Can Federer string together two stirring sets against Djokovic, or will the Serbian come out of the blocks more confidently this time?

Those questions will soon be answered, as will many more over the course of the week. With Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro all in the same group, one member of that prodigious trio will not go through to the semifinals. Who will that be? The key to that answer may be found in the outcome of the Federer-Del Potro clash later this week. In the other group, it is entirely possible that the two Spaniards will both reach the semifinals. Ferrer has been in the finals of his last three tournaments, and Nadal has never won this event. His first and primary goal is to seal that No. 1 ranking, but he will be driven by powerful private engines to win the tournament as well.

I have a feeling this will be an exhilarating week.

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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.