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Steve Flink: Novak Shines in Beijing

10/12/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

It is no accident that Novak Djokovic has won more matches (63) than anyone else on the ATP World Tour during the 2009 campaign. He is industrious and resourceful. He wins his share of hard fought matches, keeps his share of disappointing losses to a relatively low level, and rarely lets his guard down against opponents he expects to beat. Djokovic is a player for all surfaces, a competitor who is certifiably fragile yet more than capable of rebuilding opportunities and repairing the inevitable wounds to his psyche. He is a complicated man, often confounding, ever fascinating. But this highly charged Serbian is never dull.

Playing his first tournament since a straight set loss against Roger Federer in the penultimate round of the U.S. Open, Djokovic was first rate as he claimed the title at the China Open in Beijing. First rate indeed. Over the course of a productive week on the hard courts in China, Djokovic was confronted by formidable and dangerous adversaries all through the latter stages of the event, but stood up ably to every challenge, and came away with his third singles championship of the year. In the quarterfinals, Djokovic ousted Spanish left-hander Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 1-6, 6-1. His next assignment was a semifinal duel with Sweden’s imposing Robin Soderling, and Djokovic took that one 6-3, 6-3. That victory carried Djokovic into a final round collision with the fast charging and swiftly improving Marin Cilic. Victory came once more to Djokovic: 6-2, 7-6 (4).

Let’s examine the final first. The 6’6” Cilic was riding awfully high as he headed into the championship contest. He had obliterated a seemingly dazed Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-3 in the semifinals, after already casting aside Nikolay Davydenko. Cilic has taken his game to an entirely new level in the last few months. I never had much faith in him against the upper crust players, but he played an outstanding match to dissect an out of sorts Andy Murray 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. Although he was eventually beaten soundly in four sets by Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarters, the fact remained that Cilic was outslugging and overcoming the Argentine for quite a stretch, winning the first set and leading 3-1, 0-30 in the second set. Del Potro made his move just in the nick of time and swept to victory from there.

In any case, Cilic seemed confident at the outset of his confrontation with Djokovic in Beijing, and was the superior player in the early stages. His piercing service returns and heavy serving artillery gave him the upper hand, creating some good openings to take charge. In the first game of the match, Cilic reached break point three times, but Djokovic was unyielding. He saved the first with a deep first serve to the backhand setting up a forehand winner; he got enough pace on a backhand down the line to lure Cilic into a mistake on the second; and wiped away the third with a penetrating crosscourt forehand provoking Cilic into another forehand error.

After both players held easily to make it 2-2, Djokovic found himself in a bind once more in the fifth game, trailing 15-40. He elevated his game again, driving a flat running forehand from well outside the court that stayed low. Cilic answered with a forehand down the line, going for the outright winner. His shot hit the net tape. At 30-40, Djokovic used his trademark backhand drop shot down the line to bring the big man forward, and Cilic was off the mark with a forehand down the line. Djokovic was back to deuce, and then rain drove the players off the court for nearly an hour.

When they returned, Cilic garnered his sixth break point opportunity of the match, but was denied again as Djokovic’s well directed first serve to the backhand coaxed Cilic into an errant return. Djokovic, more relaxed after the rain break, held on for 3-2, and never looked back for the rest of the set. With Cilic serving at 2-3, the Croatian battled back from 0-40 to deuce, but Djokovic stayed entirely on task. At deuce, he played a crafty and creative point, drawing Cilic in with the backhand drop shot down the line, then rolling a brilliant forehand topspin lob winner crosscourt. When Cilic was unable to control a forehand down the line off a stinging crosscourt forehand from the Serbian, Djokovic was in business, ahead 4-2, in control of his own destiny.

At 4-2,40-15, Djokovic exposed Cilic’s vulnerability coming forward once more, using the backhand down the line drop shot to set up a backhand pass crosscourt. Djokovic added another service break in the following game to close out the set on a stirring run of four consecutive games. But Cilic was undismayed. His overpowering and deadly accurate returns and ground strokes were increasingly effective in the second set, and Djokovic was hard pressed to respond. Cilic moved in front 3-1 before Djokovic rallied to win three games in a row.

Cilic stepped up in a big way, holding comfortably for 4-4, breaking Djokovic for 5-4 by bending down remarkably well for a short, low ball off the forehand and drilling that shot crosscourt with such force that Djokovic had no play at all. In the tenth game, with a chance to serve the set out, Cilic missed three out of five first serves and played timidly, but Djokovic was bold and purposeful, winning two points with his trustworthy backhand down the line. But serving at 5-5, 30-40, Djokovic missed his first delivery and was rendered helpless as Cilic unleashed a breathtaking forehand return winner.

Now serving for the set a second time, Cilic reached 30-15, two points away from one set all. Djokovic wanted no part of a third set. He kept stretching Cilic out time and again until his adversary missed a forehand under duress. At 30-30, Cilic tightened up considerably, missing a routine inside-out forehand approach. He got back to deuce but bungled a two-hander flagrantly, and then double faulted that game away. Djokovic always was the more stable player in the tie-break, and that sequence was ultimately decided with Cilic serving at 2-3. He pulled Djokovic way off the court with a crackling forehand crosscourt, and followed that shot in.

As he approached the net, Cilic slipped and had to play a backhand half-volley as he fell on his backside. As Cilic tried to regain his balance, Djokovic steered a forehand crosscourt that was meekly returned by Cilic. Djokovic closed in for a backhand volley winner and a 4-2 lead, and collected three of the last four points from there to complete a 6-2, 7-6 (4) triumph.

As well as Djokovic performed in the Beijing final, he was even more impressive in dismantling French Open finalist Robin Soderling in the semifinals. At 4-3 in the first set of that contest, Djokovic was down break point; the match could have changed in complexion right then and there. But he aced Soderling down the T, aced him again wide to the forehand, and released a third consecutive ace (this one wide to the backhand) to hold on for 5-3. He closed out that set, fell behind 2-0 in the second set, and then won six of seven games to record a decisive victory 6-3, 6-3. Djokovic has not played this well since the clay court season in the spring; his Beijing victory should give him a reasonable chance to have one of the better autumns of his career.

As for Nadal, he is heading into a crucial stretch ahead. Having won two majors and an Olympic gold medal in 20008, he was indisputably the best player in the world for that year. He started off 2009 looking similarly dominant, winning a major (the Australian Open), and a Masters 1000 crown (Indian Wells) on hard courts, sweeping three of the four clay courts he played en route to Roland Garros. Then, of course, Nadal was ousted in the round of 16 at the French Open, and his ailing knees kept him out of Wimbledon. He made a respectable comeback over the summer on the hard courts, reaching the quarters in Montreal, making it to the semifinals of Cincinnati and the U.S. Open.

Nadal was hindered in those last two events by an abdominal injury. He wisely took more time off to heal before returning in Beijing. He had arduous three set battles with Marcos Baghdatis and James Blake. After those rough skirmishes, Nadal breezed past former world No. 1 Marat Safin in a gift of a match. I thought he would be ready and eager for his first ever career meeting with Cilic. But the Spaniard never knew what hit him. He was blown off the court even more devastatingly than was the case against Del Potro at the U.S. Open.

In building a 5-0 first set lead, Cilic won 20 of 22 points against an incredulous Nadal. He put on an astonishing display, holding at love in the opening game, breaking Nadal at 15 with a mighty two-handed backhand return winner for 2-0, holding at love again for 3-0, breaking Nadal at 15 for 4-0, then holding at love again for 5-0. Nadal finally got on the scoreboard when he held for 1-5, but Cilic served out the set at 30, releasing his sixth and seventh aces of the set in the process.

Trailing 0-2, 0-40 in the second set, Nadal at last came to life. He finally found his slice serve wide in the ad court as he pulled out that game, averting a two service break deficit that would have left him distraught. But Cilic was unshakable, firing away relentlessly off both sides, keeping the points relatively short, exploding for winners effortlessly and commandingly. Most importantly, his forehand--- always the make or break shot for the Croatian--- was unstoppable. He was hugging the baseline, taking the ball early, rifling one shot after another out of Nadal’s reach.

Cilic nailed a forehand down the line winner to get an insurance break for 5-2, and served for the match in the eighth game. Nerves finally set in. After serving an ace for 40-30, he missed with the two-hander crosscourt. Another ace gave Cilic a second match point, but the backhand let him down again. A determined Nadal broke for the first time in the match to close the gap to 5-3, but soon bell behind 15-40 when he served in the ninth game. Cilic wasted those two match points with forehand unforced errors, but he earned a fifth, and converted that one with a deep, inside-out forehand return creating the opening for a forehand down the line winner.

To be sure, Cilic has made immense strides lately, and toppling Murray at the U.S. Open and Nadal in Beijing is proof that he can compete with anyone in the world these days. I fully expect him to be among the top ten in the world soon, perhaps by the end of this season, if not by the early stages of 2010. He might even make a bid for the top five by the end of 2010. It is terrific to see Cilic growing into his talent, and moving with the alacrity of a man four to five inches shorter. He must be given full marks.

But I am worried about what has happened to Nadal since his injury woes started at Roland Garros. His results have been solid. And yet, the lopsided nature of his losses must be a serious concern to his boosters. He played a good first set in his first event back in Montreal against Del Potro, but bowed 7-6, 6-1. Del Potro was almost unconsciously brilliant in the second set, but Nadal could not stay with him. Then he lost 6-1, 6-4 to Djokovic in Cincinnati, when his abdominal problem first surfaced. At the Open, Del Potro took him apart 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. And this latest 6-1, 6-3 setback against Cilic fits into the overall pattern of surprisingly one-sided defeats.

Perhaps Nadal still needs time to be at full capacity after being hindered by the abdominal injury, because his court coverage seems as admirable as ever. But this much is certain: Nadal needs an emotional lift soon. He must assert himself decidedly, beat one of his premier rivals in a significant semifinal or final, win a tournament in style as was once his custom. His aura has been diminished as of late, and Cilic did not seem the least bit intimidated about confronting Nadal in Beijing. It is up to Nadal to reestablish his authority on the court, to reinvent his winning ways, to let everyone know that he still believes there is no better player in the world of tennis.

As for Novak Djokovic, he needs to finish this year with conviction, to compete with the assurance and maturity he displayed so persuasively in Beijing, to remind the world that he is a great player to watch when he is at his very best, and to let everyone know that he has yet to explore the absolute boundaries of his talent.

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