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Steve Flink: Djokovic victorious in Miami for a fourth time

3/31/2014 7:00:00 PM

Everyone in the tennis cognoscenti recollects the majestic play of Novak Djokovic in the year 2011. He opened that splendid campaign with 41 consecutive match victories. He stood in a class of his own as the best player in the world that season, securing ten singles titles, winning three majors, setting the highest of standards. He was thoroughly professional, supremely confident, and ready to meet every challenge—no matter what the surface, regardless of the situation.

During that stupendous season, Djokovic played some astonishing matches, as he did down the stretch of 2013 when he closed the year on a four tournament, 24 match winning streak. But I have never seen him play a better tennis match than he did yesterday in the final of the Sony Open in Miami as he toppled Rafael Nadal, closing the gap in their celebrated rivalry to 22-18 for the Spaniard. Djokovic was letter perfect across the board. He served with uncanny precision, controlled the rallies ceaselessly with his impeccable timing, depth and ball control, volleyed with feel and panache, and returned serve absolutely magnificently.

Please excuse all of these superlatives, but Djokovic was out of this world in his 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Nadal. It was a signature performance from Djokovic, who was irrefutably in the zone. He played the finest and most complete best of three set match in his career, comprehensively taking apart Nadal, controlling the tempo of the contest almost unconsciously, never giving the redoubtable Spaniard a reason to believe that success was possible.

The first game of the match was critical for Nadal, who had two days off before the championship showdown. Djokovic—who had three days off—served an ace for 30-30, but then Nadal seemed ready to pounce. He walloped an inside out forehand to pull the Serbian out of position, then went behind Djokovic with the same shot to produce a trademark winner on the 26th stroke of a terrific rally. It was 30-40, break point for Nadal. Djokovic pulled Nadal well off the court with an acutely angled crosscourt backhand, and then went down the line off the backhand to keep Nadal on the run. Djokovic moved his feet swiftly, as if to suggest he was going to approach the net, but that was a clever ploy. He elected to stay back. Nadal, perhaps thrown off guard by his guileful opponent, sliced a backhand into the net. Djokovic held on from there for 1-0, and that turned out to be a crucial hold. Very crucial.

Nadal held at love for 1-1, moving forward for a forehand volley winner, serving an ace down the T for 30-0, and taking command to close out the game. Djokovic answered with a love hold of his own as Nadal missed three returns long with the wind at his back. Nadal then held at 15 for 2-2, making another forehand inside out winner for 40-15 in that game, serving well. They went to 30-30 on Djokovic’s serve in the fifth game, but Djokovic sent a first serve into the body and Nadal erred on the forehand return. At 40-30, Nadal flattened out a backhand down the line, but Djokovic countered with a superb crosscourt backhand winner. Djokovic was up 3-2. A close and hard fought first set seemed entirely possible, perhaps inevitable.

Djokovic had other notions. He began returning as only he can. A deceptive down the line return enabled him to move forward for a forehand volley winner as Nadal served at 2-3. Ahead 0-15, Djokovic released another scorching backhand crosscourt for a winner. A service winner from Nadal put him at 15-30, but Djokovic had hit his stride. He pulled Nadal wide to the forehand, opening up the court for a forehand winner that nicked the edge of the baseline. At 15-40, a deep crosscourt forehand from Djokovic elicited a backhand crosscourt error from a beleaguered Nadal. Djokovic had the break for 4-2, and he would never look back.

An ace out wide in the seventh game gave the Serbian a 40-15 lead, and then Nadal narrowly missed a crosscourt backhand return. Djokovic held at 15 for 5-2, widening his lead, bolstering his conviction. Serving at 2-5, 30-30, Nadal stepped around his backhand for a penetrating inside out forehand that Djokovic could not answer, and then the Spaniard went crosscourt off the forehand to coax Djokovic into a backhand error. Nadal’s assertive stand took him to 3-5, but now a resolute and eerily composed Djokovic served for the set. He made four of five first serves. He did not waver. At 30-0, Djokovic drove a forehand down the line for a clean winner. After Nadal saved one set point, Djokovic swung his first serve wide in the deuce court, and Nadal had no play. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.

Nadal clearly realized he was not in control of his destiny. Not only had the winner of the first set taken 34 of the previous 39 meetings in his head to head series with Djokovic, but the Serbian was also 34-0 in career finals after capturing the first set. Nadal is the ultimate competitor, a man who never gives up, a champion through and through. But Djokovic was utterly calm and purposeful. He was ready to prove why he is the best front runner of his generation, and one of the finest of all time. With Nadal serving in the opening game of the second set, Djokovic went right to work. From 15-15, consecutive returns hit with extraordinary depth were too much for Nadal. At 15-40, Nadal sent a backhand down the line, and was seemingly in a neutral position. Djokovic proceeded to release a backhand crosscourt winner with impeccable timing and consummate ease. He had the immediate break to start the second set.

At last Nadal found a ray of hope. Djokovic drove a two-hander long off a high ball and then took an overhead on the bounce and sent it long. It was 0-30 in the second game. Yet Djokovic remained sturdy. A service winner took him to 15-30 and a forehand inside out winner measured immaculately made it 30-30. Nadal made an unforced error off the backhand to give Djokovic a 40-30 lead but the Spaniard made it back to deuce. Djokovic then displayed a remarkable brand of defense from his forehand corner, fending off Nadal’s inside out forehand, luring the Spaniard into an error. Djokovic garnered another game point, and drove another first rate two-hander that was unmanageable for Nadal. Djokovic had a 2-0 lead.

Nadal refused to hang his head, holding at 30 for 1-2, serving particularly well in that game, raising his level of aggression again. But Djokovic was not willing to open up any windows for Nadal. He held at love for 3-1, closing that game with a cunning second serve kicker that bounded high, drawing a weak return from Nadal. Djokovic had a wide open court for a forehand winner. At 1-3, Nadal was increasingly feeling the considerable heat of his opponent’s game, and double faulted to make it 15-30. But he buckled down admirably, using the wide ad court serve to set up an inside out forehand winner. Djokovic reached break point at 30-40, and the Spaniard was lucky to work his way out of that corner. Djokovic had a high forehand that he should have crushed crosscourt, but he went down the line to Nadal’s forehand without much depth or pace. Nadal replied with a terrific forehand down the line for a winner. He was back to deuce, and then held on for 2-3. Djokovic, however, was undismayed. He held at 15 for 4-2 with immense flair.  A scintillating backhand crosscourt winner took him to 30-0. Djokovic then made an impeccable low, biting backhand slice approach crosscourt, forcing Nadal into a passing shot error off the forehand. He closed that game by stepping into Nadal’s crosscourt forehand and rifling a backhand crosscourt winner. In the seventh game, Nadal had 40-15 before Djokovic pushed him to deuce, but Nadal came forward behind a deep approach and put away a backhand volley. When Djokovic missed a crosscourt backhand, Nadal had held for 3-4.

And yet, it hardly mattered. Djokovic was soaring. He held at love for 5-3 with consecutive aces down the T. His serve was as good as it can be. Djokovic would finish with 71% of his first serves in, winning 85% of those points. His second serve numbers were also remarkably high; he won 57% of those points. Nadal, meanwhile, was nowhere near his normal standard. Although he connected with 71% of his first serves, he won only 59% of his first serve points and only 46% of his second serve points. Nadal did not serve badly by any means; Djokovic was masterful on the returns off both sides. Nadal served at 3-5, hoping to make Djokovic serve for the match. But Djokovic rolled to 15-40 with a stream of impossibly deep returns.

Nadal was double match point down, and then the contest concluded with a stirring 28 stroke rally. Nadal had Djokovic stretched out on the forehand defending, but the Serbian’s right arm seemed ten feet wide. The Spaniard eventually found his way to the net, but his forehand drop volley sat up invitingly for Djokovic, who came forward and went down the line off the backhand. Nadal punched a backhand volley crosscourt that had nothing on it, and Djokovic half-volleyed off the forehand into the open court. He had no right to play so stupendously after so many days off, but it was a tribute to his professionalism and champion’s mentality that he performed with such virtuosity.

With that emphatic 6-3, 6-3 victory, Djokovic established himself as only the second man ever to secure the arduous, back to back, Indian Wells-Miami double twice. Roger Federer realized that feat in 2005-2006. Djokovic took those two prestigious Masters 1000 crowns in succession back in his golden 2011 season. For Nadal, the defeat was a tough setback because it was the fourth final he has lost on the hard courts of Miami, an event he has never won. In 2005, he was up two sets to love, 4-1 in the third set and later 5-3 in the third set tie-break against Federer before losing in five. Three years later, he fell in a straight set title match to Nikolay Davydenko, and in 2011 he was two points away from collecting the title before Djokovic ousted him in a final set tie-break.

Djokovic has now taken apart Nadal decisively in three consecutive head to head contests since the Spaniard won his third match in a row against the Serbian in the 2013 U.S. Open final. The Serbian surely heads into the clay court circuit with growing optimism and enthusiasm. The French Open is the lone major he has not won, and he has lost to Nadal no fewer than five times at Roland Garros, including an epic five set confrontation a year ago in the semifinals and a four set final in 2012. Djokovic will be primed for Roland Garros this time around. But Nadal will undoubtedly approach the clay season in a good frame of mind. It is his time of the year. It is his surface. His career match record of 298-21 on clay speaks for itself. He has won Roland Garros eight times. The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry will be renewed often in the weeks ahead, and the view here is that Nadal will strike back at the Serbian with vigor, while Djokovic will not back away from the size of the challenge.

The fans in Miami thoroughly deserved the fitting final between the two best players in the world after both semifinals resulted in withdrawals. First, Kei Nishikori—who had valiantly fought off four match points against 2013 finalist David Ferrer before upending Federer—went out to practice about two-and-a-half hours before his anticipated appointment with Djokovic, and realized he could not compete. Nishikori’s left groin was the problem. Later in the day, a couple of hours before he was due to collide with Nadal in the evening, Tomas Berdych announced he would not be playing because of severe intestinal woes. This startling turn of events brought to mind a number of misfortunes the tournament has suffered over the years.

For example, the inexhaustible Austrian left-hander Tomas Muster had reached the final in 1989 but had to default to Ivan Lendl because his knee was sorely damaged by a car, causing him to leave the game for almost six months. In 1994, Pete Sampras nearly had to forfeit the final to Andre Agassi when he was hampered by a stomach ailment but Agassi graciously allowed Sampras extra time to be treated intravenously, and Sampras subsequently ousted his compatriot 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 for the title. Two years later, Goran Ivanisevic woke up with a terribly stiff neck on the morning of his final with Agassi, and he had to withdraw. Two years ago, Nadal was due to take on Andy Murray in the penultimate round but a knee injury forced him reluctantly to pull out.

Be that as it may, despite the abysmal double whammy on semifinal day and night, there was some extraordinary tennis played this year. Let’s start with Nishikori. Against the industrious Ferrer, Nishikori had the upper hand early, moving ahead 4-1 with a two service break lead. Ferrer obstinately stood his ground to reach a tie-break, and the Spaniard had a couple of set points before losing that sequence. Ferrer took the second set comfortably, and the two warriors battled their way into a final set tie-break. Nishikori’s survival remains mind boggling.

Here is how he did it. The 24-year-old Japanese player built a 3-0, double mini-break lead before Ferrer took the next point on a freakish winner dribbling off the net cord. Nishikori still moved to 4-1, but no one ever taught Ferrer the meaning of the word surrender. The Spaniard willed his way back to 5-5. Very little separated these two individuals as they operated tenaciously from the backcourt; the outcome of this collision and this final set tie-break was fundamentally about character, perseverance, and, ultimately, plain simple luck.

Ferrer advanced to match point for the first time with Nishikori serving at 5-6. Nishikori’s second delivery landed on the service line, provoking a forehand return error from the Spaniard. Ferrer took the next point for a 7-6 lead, arriving at match point for the second time. Ferrer was serving, and Nishikori miss-hit a forehand short, causing Ferrer to make an error. But Ferrer quickly moved to 8-7, and a third match point chance. Nishikori served a clutch ace down the T to make it 8-8, but lost a 25 stroke rally on the following point. It was 9-8 for Ferrer, who stood at match point for the fourth and final time. Nishikori pounded a forehand inside-in to the Ferrer forehand, drawing an error. A penetrating backhand return from Nishikori rushed Ferrer into another mistake, giving the Japanese competitor his first match point. Despite consecutive miss-hits in the wind, Nishikori sealed the victory when Ferrer erred on an inside-out forehand.

Nishikori had already accounted for Grigor Dimitrov 7-6 (1), 7-5 in a delightful match. But now, after his three hour skirmish with Ferrer, he took on a fresh Federer in the quarterfinals under the lights. Federer had waltzed into the last eight with a trio of straight set victories. He had not been broken in the tournament, and had conceded only 18 points in 27 service games across three matches. He built a 4-1 first set lead over Nishikori, dropping two points in his first three service games. But then, serving at 4-2, he lost his way after opening that seventh game with an ace. He was broken at 15 by an assertive Nishikori to make it 4-3, but Federer broke right back and held easily to win the set, 6-3.

Federer put himself within striking distance of a triumph in the second set. He broke for 2-1 but then lost his serve in the fourth game after double faulting to fall behind 0-30. And yet, the 32-year-old Swiss broke Nishikori again for 4-3. With only two more holds, Federer could have found himself safely into the penultimate round. But, serving in the eighth game, Federer opened with a pair of shanked forehands to trail 0-30 and was eventually broken at 15. A determined Nishikori was back on level terms at 4-4. When Federer served at 5-6 to force a tie-break, he double faulted at 15-15 and then drifted to 15-40 when a tame forehand volley down the line left him vulnerable to a backhand crosscourt pass from Nishikori. That shot had just enough pace on it to provoke Federer into a backhand volley error. Nishikori broke at 30 on an unforced error off the backhand to take the set 7-5. Federer had lost his serve no less than three times in the set.

Both men played commendably in the third set. Federer rescued himself from 15-40 to hold for 2-2. Nishikori double faulted to go down 15-30 at 3-3, but took the next three points to hold on. The wind was burdensome for both men, but Federer seemed to be on the verge of a victory again when Nishikori served at 4-4, 30-30. Federer had just deposited an elegant forehand drop volley into an empty space. He was within six points of victory. He forced Nishikori up to the net by employing a short slice, but Nishikori did not blink, making his approach effectively, punching a solid backhand volley down the line, closing off the net, and putting away a backhand volley crosscourt. Then Federer netted a backhand down the line. Nishikori had made it to 5-4.

Federer then served to stay in the match in the tenth game, but never got untracked. Nishikori stepped around his backhand for a dazzling forehand inside-in winner for 0-15. Federer came in to deal with a short forehand miss-hit from Nishikori, but the Swiss sent a forehand approach into the net. An inside-out forehand error from Federer made it 0-40, triple match point for Nishikori. Federer aggressively erased the first two, but then Nishikori put on his thinking cap. He moved back well behind the baseline to receive serve at 30-40, giving himself more time to loop a forehand return deep down the middle. Federer could only steer his forehand down the line, and Nishikori stepped in to take his two-hander early, leaping into that shot for a dazzling outright winner. Nishikori had achieved his second win in a row over Federer, rallying gamely for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 triumph. Nishikori’s returns, depth off the ground and serving improved markedly over the last set-and-a-half, but Federer contributed considerably to his own demise with too many avoidable mistakes.

Meanwhile, Nadal had also cruised into the quarterfinals, crushing Lleyton Hewitt, Denis Istomin and Fernando Fognini at the cost of nine games in six sets. To be sure, that was a good draw, and Fognini was largely in disarray and at times unprofessional in his meager effort against the world No. 1. The fact remained that Nadal was impressive in every match, playing much better than he had at Indian Wells or even in Rio de Janeiro, a tournament he had won.

But on another uncomfortably windy evening, Nadal confronted Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals, and the Spaniard was tense during the opening set. He squandered two break points in the fifth game and one more in the seventh, and he was clearly unhappy about those lost opportunities. Serving at 4-5, he reached 40-30 but double faulted into the net. Raonic made a spectacular backhand drop volley winner to reach set point, and then Nadal double faulted again into the net. He had handed the set to one of the game’s biggest servers, but in the gusty conditions Raonic lacked his usual rhythm and faith in his firepower. He was too often going for safer first serves, and his conservative approach caught up with him.

With Raonic serving double faults at break point down in both the first and third games, Nadal took a 4-0 second set lead, and he surged through the set, prevailing 6-2. The complexion of this contest had changed irrevocably. Nadal had his bearings. In the third set, he found his range at last with the inside-out forehand, and served exceptionally well. Raonic managed to erase a break point against him in the opening game, but he was delaying the inevitable. At 3-3, the burly Canadian reached 40-30 and moved from defense to offense, only to drive a forehand long as he tried to attack. He had another game point but Nadal was unshakable now. The Spaniard manufactured a break point. Nadal made a terrific return, getting great depth off the forehand. He eventually took that point with a high trajectory forehand loaded with topspin, drawing an error off the backhand from Raonic.

A buoyant Nadal closed it out from there. At 5-4, he held at love, lacing two winners off the forehand. He won 20 of 24 points on serve in the final set. Raonic never had much of a chance after losing his serve to open the second set because Nadal cast aside his anxieties and played his kind of tennis thereafter.

Meanwhile, defending champion Andy Murray faced Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Murray had rounded into some impressive form over the course of the tournament, dissecting both Feliciano Lopez and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets. Murray played remarkably well through most of his duel with Djokovic. Both men were handing the blustery conditions admirably. The rallies were first class. The level of play was strikingly high. Djokovic knew he had a stern test on his hands from a Murray who was looking more and more like the man who won two majors and an Olympic gold medal across the previous couple of seasons. At 5-5, Djokovic nearly cost himself the set, serving consecutive double faults to give Murray a break point opportunity.

Djokovic saved it with a backhand slice provoking an errant forehand from Murray. The Serbian followed with a nifty service winner and an ace down the T, moving to 6-5. With Murray serving the first point of the twelfth game, Djokovic made an excellent forehand down the line approach and closed in tight on the net for Murray’s weak response. Djokovic clearly reached over the net to make contact with his forehand volley winner and thus should have lost the point, but inexplicably the umpire did not realize he had done it. The replay confirmed what had happened, but it was too late to alter the situation.

Murray had walked up to the net to discuss the matter with Djokovic, who later seemed to suggest that he was not fully aware of the rule. That could not have really been the case. The view here is that he originally believed he had made contact on his side of the net but only realized after the replay went up on the big screen that he had been at fault.

Many fans questioned his ethics, wondering why he did not concede the point to his respected rival Murray. But the umpire had insisted in his verbal exchange with Murray that Djokovic had not reached over to make contact with that volley, and so the point stood in favor of Djokovic. The real culprit was not Novak Djokovic; it was the umpire. He had the perfect view from above the net in his chair, but somehow missed what looked like an obvious call. This reminded me of the incident last summer between Raonic and Juan Martin Del Potro. In that case, Raonic had chased a short ball and touched the net with his foot before his shot bounced twice on the other side. That should have been Del Potro’s point, but the umpire did not see it correctly, and Raonic was unjustifiably awarded the point.

Raonic caught a lot of flak for not giving away that point, but it was up to the umpire to make the right call and he did not. The same was true in the Murray-Djokovic Miami clash. Djokovic was not trying to cheat Murray. If he had known for certain that he had broken a rule, he would have conceded the point.  The time has come to allow players to challenge not only line calls but also judgment calls like this one. This imbroglio could easily have been avoided with a quick look at the replay. It is high time that players have the opportunity to reverse an incorrect ruling.

In any case, even after the injustice, Murray was not in the worst of shape. He was only down 0-15 at 5-6. But he proceeded to give that game away on a gold platter to his adversary, making three straight unforced errors off his normally trustworthy backhand. Set to Djokovic, 7-5. Nevertheless, Murray broke serve for a 3-2 second set lead, but lost four games in a row as a very calm Djokovic closed out the match 7-5, 6-3, sweeping 12 of the last 13 points. The bottom line is that Murray played some great tennis, and he surely knows that he is well on his way back to the top of his game. He won’t necessarily shine on the clay, but all he needs is more matches, and a few decent showings on the dirt, a quarterfinal here, a semifinal there. By Wimbledon, he will be back in peak form once more.

Let’s examine the way Serena Williams captured a record seventh singles championship in Miami. In her showdown with Li, Williams should have lost the opening set but she refused to let it go even when her prospects looked bleak. She commenced the title round match indifferently. Her first serve was not struck with anything like her usual authority. Her movement was sluggish. Her demeanor was downcast. She was not gauging the wind well at all off the ground, and seemed strangely listless. In the opening game, she double faulted at 30-30 to hand Li a break point, but saved it with a running forehand crosscourt that Li could not answer. Serena reached game point but lost three points in a row to get broken, making consecutive unforced errors to lose her serve.

Li held at 15 for 2-0 with gusto, reaching 40-15 with a superb backhand crosscourt winner from the middle of the court. Williams missed a backhand return on the next point. Williams struggled inordinately again in the third game, holding on after two deuces. For the second service game in a row, she missed six of ten first serves. Down 15-40 in the fourth game, Li raised her game decidedly, angling a crosscourt backhand into the clear to save the first break point, defending brilliantly on the second before turning the tables on her adversary with a forehand winner down the line. Serena garnered a third break point that Li wiped away with a stinging crosscourt forehand that set up a forehand winner down the line. A sprightly Li held on for 3-1. Despite missing five of six first serves, Serena held in the fifth game to close the gap to 3-2.

Li double faulted in the sixth game to trail 0-30, but collected four points in a row to reach 4-2, benefitting from the ineptitude of Williams from the backcourt. Now Li went forcefully after an insurance break. She reached 0-40 on Serena’s serve in the seventh game before the American rallied to deuce. Then Li played an excellent point, following her down the line forehand return in and putting away a backhand volley at an acute angle crosscourt. That audacious move seemed to rattle Williams, who double faulted her serve away.

Li was right where she wanted to be, ahead 5-2, up two breaks, poised to win the critical opening set. Serving with new balls, she was down 0-40, made it back to 30-40, but lost the next point when a deep return from Williams forced Li into a backhand error. Williams had broken back for 3-5, and then held easily at 15 for 4-5. The tenth game was the single most important juncture in the match. Li had to hold. This was her second chance to serve out the set. She proceeded somewhat cautiously, but still had a set point at 40-30. Williams had Li on her heels but Li still managed to send a forehand reasonably deep down the line. Williams simply went for broke, lacing an exquisite backhand down the line for an outright winner. Her courage in that corner was astonishing.

Williams earned a break point that Li took away with a service winner up the T, but two more excellent returns from the American were enough to allow her to break again and knot the score at 5-5. Serena held at love for 6-5, and now Li served to stay in the set. She saved a set point at 30-40 with a terrific forehand down the line that was unmanageable for Serena. Li had a game point but inexplicably challenged a call on the baseline, believing that Williams had lobbed long. The shot landed smack on the baseline. Li garnered three more game points but Williams fought back every time ferociously. After six deuces, Serena released a forehand crosscourt return winner off a first serve, and then directed a backhand passing shot at the feet of Li, who could not deal with it. Set to Williams, 7-5.

That five game surge from Williams did not completely destroy the morale of Li, but it was very disheartening. From 1-1 in the second set, Williams went on another five game tear. The fatal blow for Li came at 1-2. She led 40-0 before Williams secured five points in a row for the break. Serena held at love for 4-1. In the sixth game, Li was determined to keep herself in the match. But, after seven deuces, she was broken again by an unswerving Williams, who served out the match with ease, winning 7-5, 6-1. She had captured eleven of the last twelve games from that deep deficit in the opening set.

In the semifinals, Williams collided with Maria Sharapova in a rematch of the 2013 final, when Serena rallied from a set and a break down to take ten games in a row for the title. Heading into this meeting, Williams had toppled Sharapova 14 times in a row. Not since the end of the 2004 season had she lost to her old rival. And yet, Sharapova competed honorably, played hard, displayed flashes of brilliance, and fought with a full heart and an agile mind. But it was not enough.

Sharapova broke Williams for 3-1 and then held at 15 for 4-1. Her forehand was humming, her first serve accurate and efficient, her attitude upbeat. But Williams relishes this kind of a challenge to her authority. She held at 30 for 2-4 and then broke Sharapova at 15 to get back to 3-4. Yet the danger had not disappeared. Serving at 3-4, 30-40, Williams was one point away from allowing Sharapova to serve for the set. But the American released a magnificent service winner sliced down the T. Another service winner took Serena to game point, and an ace down the T lifted her back to 4-4. She broke Maria again in the following game and then held at love for the set, taking eleven of the last thirteen points.

An unwavering Sharapova took a 2-0, 40-15 lead in the second set but Williams responded again with verve and conviction. She secured six of the last seven games to prevail 6-4, 6-3. It was a first class confrontation between two great players, but ultimately Williams was the victor because she has so much in reserve, so many layers of talent and such a propensity to raise her game upon command.

All in all, the women had a great tournament. Perhaps no player was more captivating than Dominika Cibulkova. The diminutive Cibulkova broke Venus Williams no fewer than eight times in a three set, round of 16 victory under the lights. She saved three match points against Agnieszka Radwanska in a hotly contested quarterfinal, and then gave Li an exhilarating battle, building a 2-0 final set lead before the Australian Open champion took six of the last seven games for a place in the final. Cibulkova now moves into the world’s top ten for the first time, and no one can say she does not deserve that exalted status.

The Sony Open sparkled on many fronts in 2014, but in the end the spotlight was reserved for Serena Williams in her seventh triumphant campaign and even more so for Novak Djokovic, who played the greatest tennis match of his life to take his fourth singles crown.
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.