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Steve Flink: Djokovic defends his crown in style

11/12/2013 3:00:00 PM

Pause for a moment and think about how Novak Djokovic must have felt after losing the U.S. Open final back in September to a reinvigorated Rafael Nadal. He had not won a tournament since Monte Carlo in April, when he toppled Nadal with an immaculate display on the clay in the championship match. After that triumph, he had endured one significant setback after another. Nadal overcame the Serbian in a five set semifinal epic at Roland Garros. Andy Murray upended Djokovic in the final of Wimbledon. Altogether, he was beaten in seven consecutive tournaments over those disconcerting months, and it was strikingly apparent that this man was far from the top of his psychological game, a competitor living in a land of insecurity and personal turmoil, a champion trying to remember who he was and why he had accomplished so much across the last couple of years.

Look where he is now. The 26-year-old picked himself up substantially after his defeat in New York against the redoubtable Spaniard, dusted himself off like a consummate professional, and captured four tournaments in a row and 22 straight matches to close his tournament season, culminating with a masterful performance against Nadal in the final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals indoors at London. Djokovic evened his 2013 record with Nadal to 3-3 with a resounding 6-3, 6-4 victory on the indoor hard courts, putting on a spectacular display, playing one of his three best matches of the year in my view. The other two were also against Nadal, in Monte Carlo and then last month in the championship match at Beijing.

That Djokovic and Nadal confronted each other in the London final was entirely appropriate. Nadal had won two majors in 2013 while Djokovic secured one (the Australian Open). Djokovic—the season-ending world No. 1 on the Emirates ATP Rankings in both 2011 and 2012—had resided at No. 1 for most of 2013 until Nadal took it away from him in October. Nadal fittingly concludes the season as the sport’s top ranked performer, a status even Djokovic whole-heartedly agrees that the Spaniard fully deserves. It was a gigantic achievement for Nadal, who had finished both 2008 and 2010 at No. 1 on the planet. He had been out of circulation for seven months and did not return to tennis until February, after the Australian Open.

Since the inception of the official computer rankings in 1973, no one had ever climbed back up the ladder to the top at the conclusion of a season after more than a one year gap. That spoke volumes about Nadal’s perspicacity and resilience. He sealed that honor after winning his second round robin match in London against Stan Wawrinka. He is a singularly compelling figure in the world of sports, and as classy an individual as there is in the world of tennis.

And yet, the fact remains that Djokovic, too, is enormously admirable in many ways. He took his hard losses over the course of the season remarkably well, moved back ferociously onto the field of battle, and raised his game decidedly to end the year entirely on his own terms. In his four tournament sweep these last few months, he took two Masters 1000 titles in Shanghai and Paris, and defended his title at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. That was no mean feat.

Djokovic and Nadal seemed ready to stage another classic when they stepped on court for the London final. This was their 39th career appointment, with Nadal holding a 22-16 lead. Clearly, Djokovic has long been the more comfortable of the two competitors in an indoor environment. Nadal would much prefer dealing with the elements, playing under a broiling sun, gauging the wind and adjusting to different degrees of light. He loves that challenge. Djokovic can be spectacular with a roof over his head, measuring his shots immaculately off both sides, serving rhythmically, seldom worrying about his margin for error. But Nadal—the runner-up to Roger Federer three years ago at this tournament—hoped this might be his moment to win the season-ending event for the first time. Despite having already clinched the No. 1 ranking, Nadal was immensely motivated to garner a prestigious crown he would love to have in his collection.

Yet Djokovic burst out of the gates with his best brand of tennis, opening up the court with acute angles, getting great depth to back Nadal up, serving with extraordinary accuracy, speed and deception. Nadal needed to sink his teeth into the contest swiftly, but he never had that luxury as Djokovic’s astounding controlled aggression made the Spaniard unusually apprehensive. Djokovic set the tone for the entire match in the opening game, holding at 15, commencing with a forehand winner up the line, releasing a service winner, serving an ace down the T at 40-15. Nadal was under siege. He was broken in the second game as Djokovic outmaneuvered him from the backcourt. The Spaniard trailed 0-40, took the next point, but was broken at 15 as Djokovic gained control with a backhand down the line that could not be countered.

Djokovic rolled on to 3-0, dropping only two points in that game. With Djokovic at 40-30, Nadal revealed his anxiety, smothering a forehand with too much topspin into the net. Djokovic had swept three games in a row at the cost of only four points. He very nearly broke the set wide open in the following game. Nadal was still uptight, double faulting twice, trailing 30-40. He took control of the rally but Djokovic defended steadfastly off the forehand, only to make a down the line backhand error. Despite missing five of eight first serves, Nadal somehow held on for 1-3.

That obstinate stand by Nadal seemed to take Djokovic briefly out of his unconscious state. He made an inside-out forehand unforced error to fall behind 15-30, and pulled a backhand crosscourt well wide for 15-40. Djokovic rallied to reach deuce, but Nadal provoked a mistake from his opponent with an inside-out forehand. At break point for the third time, Nadal seized the opportunity, sending a low backhand slice down the line, forcing Djokovic to move forward. The Serbian drove a two-handed backhand down the line over the baseline. Nadal had broken back for 2-3. He held at 15 for 3-3, inducing three return errors from Djokovic in the process.

Djokovic was unflustered, holding at 15 for 4-3 without missing a first serve. In the eighth game, Nadal double faulted for 15-15, went ahead 30-15, but made a pair of errors caused largely by the astounding groundstroke depth of Djokovic. At 30-40, Nadal cracked a 125 MPH service winner to the forehand, and Djokovic had no play at all. But the Spaniard double faulted again, giving Djokovic a second break point for 5-3. Nadal cagily attacked behind a wide slice serve, angling his backhand first volley crosscourt. Against anyone else in the sport, that volley would almost surely have been a winner (or at least set up an easy volley or overhead), but Djokovic chased it down, lofting an exquisite lob crosscourt off the forehand.

The lob was so good that Nadal had to retreat to the baseline, and Djokovic moved forward. Nadal went down the line off the backhand, and Djokovic played a drop volley. Nadal scampered forward and chipped a backhand down the line. Djokovic took it on the bounce, going down the line off the backhand. Nadal anticipated that shot well, punching a backhand volley crosscourt, but he was too conservative. Djokovic moved laterally with ease to punch a forehand volley down the line into a wide open space. With that inspirational play, he had established a 5-3 lead.

But Nadal was typically unwavering. He made a gorgeous leaping backhand overhead, depositing that acrobatic shot at Djokovic’s feet to draw an error and reach 15-30 in the ninth game. Djokovic was fortunate to avoid a double break point predicament. He approached on the Nadal backhand, and the Spaniard sliced his passing shot low down the line. Djokovic had to play an awkward backhand half volley. His shot was clearly going wide down the line, but it clipped the net cord and fell just inside the sideline for a winner.

Rather than trailing 15-40, Djokovic had improbably made it to 30-30 with a fluke shot. He took full advantage of that piece of good fortune, forcing Nadal into a passing shot error, and then acing his foe out wide in the ad court with a 129 MPH blockbuster of a serve. Set to Djokovic, 6-3, and trouble for Nadal, who had worked so hard to get back into contention, only to suffer another bruising three game losing streak.

Nadal was out of sorts. He was down 0-30 in the opening game of the second set after making a very uncharacteristic forehand unforced error, but managed to hold on. Djokovic was imperturbable. He held at 15 for 1-1 and then broke Nadal in the third game. The Spaniard missed a forehand down the line that was not in the cards to trail 0-40. Nadal wiped away two break points but failed to cast aside a third. He sent an excellent first serve down the T but Djokovic’s forehand return was hit so deep and accurately that Nadal was rushed into a forehand mistake.

Djokovic was up a set and a break, and in this mood and form he was unstoppable. Buoyed by an ace for 40-0, he held at love for 3-1. Nadal held easily for 2-3. Djokovic responded in kind. At 40-30 in the sixth game, his first serve down the T was almost impossibly accurate. Nadal could barely get the return back in play, and Djokovic came in to put away an overhead on the bounce. He had moved to 4-2 and was not looking back. It was getting desperate for Nadal, but the game’s foremost competitor fought on gallantly. In the seventh game, he held from 15-40, erasing the two break points with un-returnable first serves. Djokovic, however, was absolutely unrelenting, holding at 15 for 5-3 with a kick serve down the T that confounded Nadal. The return was woefully short, and Djokovic approached behind a piercing forehand. Nadal had no chance on the passing shot.

Once more, Nadal put his fighting spirit fully on display. Down match point at 3-5, he opened up the court with a wide serve in the ad court, going down the line with his forehand off Djokovic’s crosscourt return. He had his adversary on the run. Nadal drove a two-hander up the line to force an error. Nadal courageously held on for 4-5 with a trademark forehand winner off a short ball. But now Djokovic was serving for the match in the tenth game. He built a quick 30-0 lead but Nadal released a forehand passing shot winner. Nadal then approached off the forehand to the Djokovic backhand, punching a backhand volley crisply crosscourt for a winner to make it 30-30.

Djokovic refused to panic. A service winner out wide to the Nadal backhand gave the Serbian a second match point, but Nadal saved it commendably, making a remarkable forehand return off a 129 MPH first serve wide to his forehand. Later in the point, he chipped a backhand short and low crosscourt to draw Djokovic in. The Serbian went crosscourt off the forehand but Nadal passed him cleanly off the backhand for a winner. The Djokovic of mid-summer might well have been rattled, but not this one. He served a crackling ace at 131 MPH down the T for match point No. 3, and then survived an onslaught from the dynamic Nadal. The Spaniard’s forehand return of serve went down the line with gusto, and Djokovic got it back. Nadal ran around his backhand for a sizzling inside-out forehand, but Djokovic defended that ably with a well-controlled forehand slice from an open stance. Nadal attempted another inside-out forehand but understandably missed it wide. Djokovic had won deservedly 6-3, 6-4.

Clearly, Nadal was not in peak form, pressing early on off the forehand, unable to back up his serve with his customary effectiveness, serving below his normal standard. He has won only one indoor hard court event across a sterling career, and that was way back in 2005. This was a big opportunity for him, but Djokovic was stupendous. He had gone three sets in all three of his round robin contests—against Federer, Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet before a straight set semifinal dismissal of a fatigued Stan Wawrinka. But Djokovic had saved his best tennis for when it mattered most, rising to the occasion majestically. The combination of his almost error free aggression and his astonishing defense—particularly off the forehand—was the key to his success against Nadal. Moreover, Nadal won only 57% of his first serve points and 50% of his second; Djokovic prevailed on 68% of his first serve points and an unthinkable 70% on second serve. The Serbian was broken only once.

The road to the final was similarly paved for both Djokovic and Nadal. Neither man lost a match in their round robin divisions, irrefutably demonstrating their superiority as the two best players in the world for the year. Nadal opened the semifinal program for the penultimate round against his old rival Federer, while Djokovic followed in a duel with Federer’s countryman Stan Wawrinka. One Serbian, one Spaniard and a pair of Swiss competitors had survived the rigors of the round robin to earn the right to play for a place in the final.

Federer had somehow recorded a three set triumph over Del Potro the day before in a must win collision between two players with identical 1-1 records. He came out blazing against Nadal, determined to find an aggressive mode on the rallies, serving with depth and accuracy, attacking whenever he could. Nadal was ceding no ground himself in an absorbing contest.

Federer held at 15 in the opening game of the match, commencing the battle with an ace down the T, following with an impeccable serve-and-volley combination for 30-0. After Nadal took the next point, Federer walloped an inside-out forehand winner, and then bolted to 1-0 with a penetrating backhand down the line that forced an errant backhand from the Spaniard. Nadal answered that challenge, holding at love for 1-1 with an ace down the T, putting all four first serves in. Maintaining his policy of hitting out freely off the forehand, Federer surged to 40-0 in the third game before Nadal collected three points in a row for deuce. Federer responded boldly with an ace down the T for a fourth game point and then connected for an inside out forehand winner, moving to 2-1. Nadal answered with a love hold for 2-2 before Federer connected with four consecutive first serves in the fifth game, holding at love.

Now Federer sensed his chance. He created three break point opportunities that would have given him a 4-2 lead. Nadal saved the first one with a wide serve in the ad court setting up a forehand winner to the open court. On the second break point, Federer was poised. His return of serve landed deep, and Nadal could only steer his backhand half-volley crosscourt without much on it. Federer went for broke, driving his forehand down the line, going for the outright winner—missing it long. He still had that third break point chance, but Nadal’s standard percentage tactics succeeded. He served wide to the backhand and Federer’s backhand chip return was short and low. Nadal drove a forehand cleanly up the line for a winner. The Spaniard held on for 3-3 in perhaps the most crucial game of the match, missing only one of twelve first serves.

Federer seemed undismayed, holding at love for 4-3. And yet, the Spaniard retaliated assertively, sending three first serves in a row to the Federer backhand. The Swiss was unable to get any of those returns back in play. Nadal held at love for 4-4, the third time in four service games that he had not conceded a point. Federer opened the ninth game with an ace, but double faulted on the next point. He then approached the net behind a weak backhand slice crosscourt, and Nadal easily laced a forehand passing shot crosscourt for a winner. Federer followed by netting an inside-out forehand, and suddenly he was down 15-40. Nadal controlled the next rally from the outset, sending Federer scurrying from side to side with searing forehands. The Spaniard got the break with an inside-in forehand winner measured immaculately.

It was 5-4 for the Spaniard and he was serving for the set. Federer played a remarkably good game to break back for 5-5, most impressively outlasting Nadal in a 30 stoke rally. But Federer missed three of five first serves in the eleventh game, and Nadal pounced, angling a backhand crosscourt to lure Federer into a forehand mistake. Now leading 6-5, serving for the set a second time, Nadal held at love. He did not miss a first serve, sending each and every delivery to the backhand. Federer was coaxed into three consecutive return errors, and then Nadal opened up the court with a wide serve in the ad court, setting up a forehand winner down the line. Nadal had captured eight of the last nine points to seal the set 7-5.

Clearly, Federer was deflated, yet he kept competing earnestly. With Nadal serving at 0-1 in the second set, Federer reached deuce, and was leaning to his left anticipating another serve to his backhand, looking for a possible chance to run around and hit a forehand.

Nadal saw what was occurring, and released a clutch second serve ace out wide. He held on for 1-1. At 2-2, Nadal made his move. Federer was serving at 30-40 when Nadal directed his topspin return high down the middle of the court with reasonable depth. A weary Federer netted that high ball off his forehand rather meekly. Nadal had the break for 3-2 and held at 15 for 4-2 as Federer’s unforced errors began to mount. Federer remained resolute, holding at love in the seventh game with an ace down the T, but Nadal held from 15-30 to make it 5-3 in his favor. Serving to stay in the match, Federer advanced to 30-15 but netted a routine topspin backhand crosscourt. Two points from defeat, he left a volley too short and Nadal provoked an errant forehand volley. Match point down, Federer went on the attack, serving-and-volleying. The Swiss could not handle the dipping topspin return from Nadal, punching a backhand volley long. Nadal prevailed 7-5, 6-3 for his first indoor victory over Federer in five appointments with the Swiss at the season-ending championships. Nadal won 69% of his second serve points while Federer was at 40% in that critical category. Enough said.

Djokovic had twice been extended to five sets by Wawrinka this year at the majors. But the fact remained that he held a commanding 14-2 career lead over the Swiss in their series, and the Serbian had secured victory in their last 13 meetings. Wawrinka was making his debut at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and he had acquitted himself exceedingly well, taking his first match in three sets over Tomas Berdych, pushing Nadal close to his limits before bowing in a pair of tie-breaks, defeating David Ferrer in three sets.

The 28-year-old Swiss looked confident at the outset of his skirmish with Djokovic, breaking for a 2-1 first set lead with an excellent delayed approach shot off the forehand, coming forward confidently to put away a forehand volley crosscourt. But that early break for Wawrinka simply made Djokovic more determined. With Wawrinka miss-hitting far too many forehands and making clusters of unforced errors off that side, Djokovic broke back for 2-2 and lost only one more game in the set. He realized that his defense could carry him to victory as Wawrinka self-destructed, and that defense was magnificent.

After the first set, it was never much of a contest. Wawrinka did not serve with the speed and precision he had exhibited earlier in the tournament until it was too late, and Djokovic is the best service returner in tennis. Under those circumstances, Wawrinka had no chance. Djokovic rolled to a 6-3, 6-3 victory, gliding into the final without excessive physical exertion. After his trio of three-setters in the round robin, that was welcome relief for the Serbian.

Four matches stood out in my estimation from the round robin as highly entertaining contests: Wawrinka-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, Djokovic-Del Potro, and Nadal-Berdych. The Wawrinka-Nadal meeting was the twelfth of their career series. Wawrinka had never taken a set off the Spaniard. But this was his best effort yet. Nadal was clearly apprehensive because he was aware that he could lock up the No. 1 world ranking for the year with a victory. Nadal served for the first set at 5-4 and led 30-15 but Wawrinka broke back for 5-5 with some scintillating shotmaking. They went to a tie-break and were locked at 5-5 in that sequence. Nadal scrambled into the corner to retrieve a backhand down the line from Wawrinka that had fooled him, and somehow lofted a lob down the line and into the corner. He eventually won that point on an unforced error from Wawrinka. With Wawrinka serving at 5-6 and set point down, he approached the net and seemed poised for an easy volley into the open court. But he lost his footing and pushed the volley short with nothing on it. Nadal passed him alertly off the forehand, and took the set.

In the second set, Nadal was up a break at 4-1 but Wawrinka made it back to 4-4. They proceeded to another tie-break, and Nadal was ahead 4-1 before inexplicably losing four points in a row. Wawrinka then had a set point with Nadal serving at 5-6, but the Spaniard served down the T to elicit a short return, approached the net commandingly, putting away an overhead. He took that tie-break 8-6 to garner a hard fought 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) victory. His gleeful post-match reaction revealed just how much it meant to him to finish a third year in his career as the best tennis player in the world.

The Djokovic-Federer contest was held only a few days after the Serbian has come from behind to oust the Swiss in a three set semifinal at the Paris Masters 1000 event. This time around in Great Britain, Djokovic was down break point at 4-4 in the first set but Federer squandered that opportunity by pulling a forehand inside-in wide. Djokovic held on and then Federer faltered in the following game, missing an inside-out forehand off a short ball at set point down. Djokovic had the set but, at 2-2 in the second set, he blew a 40-0 lead. Federer broke him but Djokovic broke back. Yet Federer was persistent. He served for the set at 5-4 and had 40-30, but Djokovic hammered a return down the middle to draw a forehand error from Federer. The Serbian broke back and on they went to a tie-break. Federer was outstanding in that sequence, securing five points in a row from 2-2.

And yet, Federer was broken at love in the first game of the final set. Djokovic served prodigiously in that set, especially at the end. He served two aces in each of his last three service games, all very naturally. As was the case in Paris, he pulled away inexorably in the final set.

Djokovic had a tough encounter with Del Potro, winning the first set over the big man with one break of serve, then dropping the second when the Argentine broke him once. At 1-1 in the third, Djokovic was down 15-40 but he saved one break point with an ace and cancelled the second when Del Potro missed a forehand passing shot that he could well have made. Djokovic moved on inevitably to a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win.

Meanwhile, Federer and Del Potro provided more suspense than any match all week long—not to mention some sparkling, if uneven, tennis. Federer lost his serve in the opening game of the match on a miss-hit forehand off a short ball. Down 1-3, he wasted a 40-0 lead on his serve and Del Potro had another break. Del Potro surged to 5-1 but lost 12 of the next 13 points. Serving for the set a second time at 5-4, the Argentine saved two break points with a service winner and an ace, holding on tenuously to take the set 6-4.

Del Potro went ahead 3-1 in the second set but proceeded to lose 12 points in a row. Federer climbed back into the match with unwavering spirit, winning that set in a tie-break with discipline and dazzle. But Del Potro surged to a 3-0 lead in the final set, winning 12 of 15 points. Once more, Federer refused to surrender, making it back to 3-3. At 5-5, he broke again and then served out the match from break point down, finishing with an ace down the T. Federer prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5. It was as gritty a win as he recorded all year long. Federer sparkled when he was flowing but suffered some inexplicable lapses as well; Del Potro was an uncomfortable front runner. In the end, Del Potro’s explosive forehand let him down too often and his first serve was not as precise as he needed it to be. In turn, Federer’s defense off the forehand was first rate.

When Nadal met Berdych, he needed only one set to finish as the top man in his group. The Spaniard broke Berdych in the opening game and played a terrific first set, which he won comfortably 6-4. Nadal took 20 of 26 points on serve. But then Berdych erupted in the second set and caught Nadal off guard. The big man had lost 13 consecutive sets against Nadal and had been beaten in their last 15 meetings. But he hit a golden patch on serve and off the ground, building a 5-0 second set lead in a flash, winning 20 of 24 points in the process. The two competitors were locked at 3-3 in the final set but Nadal took three games in a row to complete a 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 victory as Berdych double faulted twice in the eighth game.

All that remains on the calendar for 2013 is the Davis Cup Final this weekend, with Serbia taking on the Czech Republic. That means Djokovic has one more major undertaking before he can get some much needed rest. It must be said that he celebrated one of the finest seasons of any No. 2 player in the world in modern times, winning one major, reaching two more Grand Slam finals, defending the highly coveted Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title, securing seven tournament titles. He has won 72 of 81 matches heading into Davis Cup. Nadal, meanwhile, collected ten tournament titles and won 75 of 82 matches in his most gratifying year ever. The view here is that the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry will flourish in 2014. They will meet in at least two major finals. They will keep pushing each other to the hilt. Neither player is likely to hold the upper hand for long. Both men are unshakable in their pursuit of greatness.

Their recent history against each other has been fascinating. Nadal led in their series 16-7 heading into 2011. Djokovic proceeded to topple the Spaniard six straight times in finals that year, including wins at Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He made it seven in a row against Nadal with a triumph in the final of the 2012 Australian Open, rallying from a 4-2, 30-15 fifth set deficit to win in five hours and fifty three minutes. Djokovic had overcome his foremost rival in three consecutive major finals. But then Nadal firmly reestablished his authority, clipping Djokovic three times in a row on clay over the spring of 2012, including the final of the French Open as they met in a fourth consecutive title round contest at a major. Djokovic opened their 2013 series with that superb win in Monte Carlo before Nadal triumphed over the Serbian three times in a row, including an epic Roland Garros semifinal that was surely the match of the year in the men’s game. Now the often impenetrable Djokovic has retaliated with two straight victories over Nadal. Nadal is ahead 22-17 against the toughest rival he has ever faced.

Expect more fluctuating results in the next couple of years as these two champions keep forcing each other to make adjustments, rearrange priorities and alter patterns. This much is certain: if they can surpass what they gave us in 2013, we have nothing to complain about.

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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.