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Steve Flink: Djokovic Continues to Shine

11/16/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

If the BNP Paribas Masters event in Paris demonstrated one inescapable fact above and beyond anything else, it was this: as another long and exacting season draws near to a conclusion, predicting the fate of the leading players is an unenviable task. Consider what happened at this tournament, which was the ninth and last Masters 1000 tournament of 2009. Out went world No. 1 Roger Federer in a startling second round meeting with world No. 49 Julien Benneteau. On the same day, Rafael Nadal somehow survived five match points to oust Nicolas Almagro. Later that night, No. 4 seed Andy Murray was pushed close to his outer limits before stopping a seemingly resurgent James Blake in a final set tie-break.

It was that kind of a week. The favorites were never far from jeopardy. Close observers of the sport were following it all with some bewilderment and an awful lot of intrigue. All of the players seemed to sense that it was a time to strike up opportunities, a moment to seize the initiative, a chance to step up and be counted. But when all was said and done, some order was plainly restored as the game’s most successful player since the U.S. Open added not only weight to his reputation, but also collected his first Masters 1000 crown of the year and his fifth tournament win of the season. Novak Djokovic--- who has now been victorious in 18 of his last 19 matches and ten in a row--- garnered his third championship trophy in his last four tournaments, a substantial feat that will send him into the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals with a clear sense that he should not doubt his chances to defend that esteemed title.

In the final at Paris on the indoor hard courts, Djokovic seemed headed for a decisive triumph. He had crushed Nadal 6-2, 6-3 the day before with the best two sets I have ever seen him string together. Displaying the same kind of panache at the outset of his contest with the charismatic Gael Monfils, the 22-year-old Serbian was a joy to behold. He moved his first serve around skillfully, took calculated risks with daring second serves, and was unstoppable off the ground. His two-handed backhand was sharp and punishing, both down the line and crosscourt. But it was off the forehand wing that he took utter control of the match.

As was the case against Nadal, Djokovic was firing away relentlessly off that side, aiming close to the lines, going inside-out at all the right times, driving the ball acutely crosscourt with devastating accuracy and control. He was masterful in his execution, and a shaken Monfils was out of sorts, missing badly off his forehand side as Djokovic peppered that wing with uninhibited and stellar ball striking. In sweeping through the opening set, Djokovic won 16 of 19 points on serve, broke a dispirited Monfils twice, and closed out the set commandingly when the Frenchman double faulted at 2-5 and set point down.

Djokovic stormed to a 3-0 lead in the second set, breaking Monfils in the second game with a crafty low crosscourt forehand passing shot that Monfils could not handle on the forehand volley. Djokovic was on the edge of breaking the match wide open. With Monfils serving in the fourth game, Djokovic was twice at deuce before his adversary held on with a pair of aces. Djokovic moved swiftly to a 3-1, 30-0 lead but then completely miss-hit a routine forehand long. On the next point, he netted a forehand down the line pass he could well have made, and at 30-30 he inexplicably pulled a forehand crosscourt wide. Down break point for the first time, he controlled the entire point, approached the net, only to bungle a backhand volley.

Suddenly, Monfils was alive, the crowd was ignited, and Djokovic was no longer brimming with confidence. Monfils is a spectacular athlete, one of the most emotional competitors in tennis, and a man who relishes playing in his home country in front of an audience of unabashed admirers. He held at love for 3-3, and now he had officially joined the battle. Both men held over the next four games, but Djokovic was wavering, his ego sorely deflated, his game falling into disrepair. Serving at 5-5, down break point, Djokovic missed his first serve and Monfils--- so timid on the return up until then--- ran around his backhand and laced a forehand return down the line into the corner. Djokovic had no answer. Improbably, Monfils was ahead 6-5.

Benefitting from a cluster of backhand mistakes from the sagging Serbian, Monfils easily served out the set. Yet Djokovic quickly reassembled his game at the start of the third and final set. He found his range again off the forehand by going for winners more selectively and covering his shots with more topspin. After holding at 15 for 1-0, he won the most dynamic point of the match to break serve in the second game. Djokovic and Monfils waged war from the back of the court in a rally consuming no fewer than 43 strokes. Near the end of that sparkling exchange, Djokovic drew Monfils up to the net with a well executed backhand crosscourt drop shot. Monfils went down the line off the backhand, and Djokovic responded by rolling a low trajectory topspin lob over the backhand side of Monfils.

Monfils managed to lunge and poke a high backhand volley crosscourt, but he was in a bind. Djokovic managed to get around and play a penetrating forehand with Monfils retreating from the net. The Frenchman drove a forehand half volley well over the baseline. Djokovic was ascendant again, ahead 2-0 in the third set. In the third game, however, he tightened up again, double faulting to make it 30-30, impatiently pulling a forehand wide at 30-40. The two players were back on serve, but Monfils faltered again. From 15-30 in the following game, he double faulted twice to allow Djokovic the luxury of a 3-1 lead. This time, Djokovic served a love game, surging to 4-1.

Surely, he would close out the match emphatically from there. But that was not the case. Monfils was still playing almost entirely defense, and the only way he could win points quickly was with his big first serve. At 1-4, Monfils played was all over the emotional map. He served two aces for 30-0, threw in a pair of double faults for 30-30, then held on with another ace and an unanswerable first serve. Still, Djokovic was ahead 4-2, needing only two more holds to seal the title. But he lost his nerve in the seventh game, and allowed a game yet weary Monfils back into the match once more.

Serving at 4-2, 30-30, Djokovic released a strong first serve that Monfils could only block back into play without much on it. Djokovic was stationed right where he wanted to be for the inside-out forehand, but he missed it long. At break point down, he feebly double faulted into the net. Match on again.

From 4-4, both players kept their nerves well in check, and held their serves without undue difficulty. They moved on to a concluding tie-break, a fitting way to settle the outcome of a match of wildly fluctuating fortunes. In that sequence, after all of the momentum shifts, after all of the excitement, Djokovic at last confirmed his superiority. The tie-break went with serve through the first five points, with Djokovic taking a 3-2 lead. Serving at 2-3, Monfils became uncharacteristically aggressive, but Djokovic defended ably. Monfils was off the mark with a forehand, giving Djokovic a crucial 4-2 lead. Monfils cracked an un-returnable first serve to make it 4-3 for his opponent.

Djokovic undoubtedly knew how critical the next points would be, but kept his composure and focus admirably. At 4-3, he sparred with Monfils in another bruising rally, this one lasting 34 strokes. He ran around his backhand for a crackling forehand, provoking an error off the forehand of Monfils. It was 5-3. The next point featured a 21 stroke exchange. Monfils drew Djokovic up to the net, but Djokovic was ready. He played a semi-drop volley short down the line, knew that Monfils could only scrape that ball back down the line, and closed in for a high forehand volley winner.

Now it was triple match point. Despite his many missed opportunities, Djokovic was right where he had always wanted to be. Monfils was spent. He double faulted long. Match to Djokovic 6-2, 5-7, 7-6 (3). When it was over, Djokovic understandably needed to release all of the tension he had carried inside of him for such a large chunk of the match. He screamed out in relief, sat down at his courtside chair and screamed again, and then hugged his coach Marian Vajda and his parents in their seats. It was a highly significant win for the Serbian, who had fallen four times without a compensating victory earlier this year in Masters 1000 events, losing to Murray in Miami, Nadal at Monte Carlo and Rome, and Federer in Cincinnati.

But his exultation and relief stretched beyond that stream of defeats. Had he failed to halt a game Monfils despite having victory within his grasp so frequently, it would have been a devastatingly penetrating defeat, a loss that might have scarred him for a long while, a setback that would have had lasting implications. Instead, despite his baffling insecurity from the middle of the second set on, Djokovic righted his ship, regrouped several times, and kept imposing his game and his will on his determined yet outplayed opponent. He refused to stop believing in himself, and carved out a hard fought and well deserved triumph over not only Monfils but his own inner demons.

Against Nadal in the semifinals, Djokovic was absolutely composed and purposeful, and in that instance he suffered no lapses, never allowing Nadal to get his teeth into the contest. Up until 2-2 in the opening set, it seemed entirely possible that these two formidable rivals--- meeting for the 20th time in their career series which started in 2006--- would have a long and hard struggle. But Djokovic had other notions. He swept seven games in a row and never looked back. In the last four games of the opening set, he won 16 of 17 points.

Maintaining that level of concentration and supreme execution off the ground--- Nadal seldom had a chance to dictate a rally, and Djokovic was on song throughout--- Djokovic swept 13 of 17 points to establish a 3-0 second set lead. Although Nadal managed to hold serve the rest of the way, Djokovic was unrelenting, refusing to allow Nadal a break point opportunity. He won convincingly 6-2, 6-3, finishing his near masterpiece appropriately with a forehand down the line winner.

Since his comeback in August after knee injuries kept him out of Wimbledon, Nadal has now played six tournaments, reaching four semifinals, one final and one quarterfinal. He has lost twice to Juan Martin Del Potro, twice to Djokovic, once against Nikolay Davydenko and once to Marin Cilic. But this was his most comprehensive defeat. And yet, he was not discouraged, at least outwardly. The day before, Nadal had played an inspired match to beat defending champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-5, 7-5, breaking his rival at 5-5 in both sets, holding his serve throughout, and moving freely and explosively from beginning to end. He looked slightly dazed by Djokovic’s combination of outstanding ball control and his rival’s power, but that was justifiable; Djokovic kept the rallies relatively short, prevented Nadal from establishing any rhythm, and was impenetrable on the day.

Although Nadal was hoping to win his first title since the Italian Open in May, and looking to close the gap considerably between himself and Federer in the race for No. 1 in the world, he realized he could have fared a lot worse. Against Almagro, he was so passive and his forehand was so shaky that he nearly suffered an abysmal loss. Almagro--- who had never taken a set off Nadal in four previous meetings—won the first set, saved two set points at 4-5 in the second set, and served for the match two games later. He reached 6-5, 40-0, triple match point, but in an instant the world No. 2 flicked on an inner switch, and for the first time brightened his outlook and elevated his game decidedly. At last, Nadal was really Nadal.

On the first match point, he made a superb forehand return deep into the corner, provoked a short ball from his countryman, and moved in to drive a low forehand into the clear for a winner. The next point lasted 13 strokes and Nadal lured Almagro into a forehand error with a deep crosscourt backhand. Two match points saved, three to go. Now Nadal took charge of the next really, stepping in for an inside-out forehand winner for deuce.

Down match point for the fourth time, Nadal escaped again as Almagro missed an inside-out forehand long. Almagro served an ace for match point No. 5, and Nadal scampered here, there and everywhere, retrieving brilliantly, using his backhand slice adroitly, biding his time. Almagro finally missed a backhand crosscourt wide on the 19th stroke of the exchange. Nadal broke back for 6-6 with a sparkling forehand crosscourt winner off a short ball. He won that set confidently in a tie-break 7-2, but, after breaking in the opening game of the third, reverted to a shadow of his normal self.

Almagro went ahead 3-1, and then got to 5-3. But he had started cramping in the previous game. Nadal survived, prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5. In his next assignment against Robredo--- another player who had never taken a set from him--- Nadal seemed in good shape when he served with a 6-3, 2-3 lead. But he lost that set. At 4-4 in the third set, Nadal was down break point. He missed his first serve, and then curiously went for a wicked slice serve wide on the second. He missed it by a wide margin, double faulting flagrantly. Robredo was serving for the match at 5-4.

Robredo was twice two points from a stunning upset in that game, but Nadal kept going down the middle with no pace, daring Robredo to come up with the goods to beat him. Robredo was not up to the task. Nadal broke back for 5-5 and finished strong by collecting eight of the last ten points for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 victory. From there, he lifted himself up immensely to beat Tsonga, but Djokovic was waiting for him, and that was that.

As for Federer, he did not play a bad match against Benneteau. Playing his first match since losing to Djokovic for the third time in five matches this year in the final at Basle the previous weekend, he lost his serve only once in three sets against the wily Frenchman. Federer was on course for a straight set win, or apparently so. He took the first set 6-3, and both players held serve all through the second, which was settled in a tie-break. In that sequence, the inspired Benneteau did not lose a point on his serve, releasing one ace, a pair of unstoppable deliveries to the backhand, and stifling his opponent with unerring ground strokes hit with excellent depth. Serving at 4-6, Federer was caught off guard when Benneteau took a backhand return early, hit it flat and deep, and approached the net. Federer was rushed into a mistake off the backhand.

In the final set, Benneteau was fueled inordinately by the growing euphoria of his audience. He saved a break point at 0-1 with another penetrating first serve that Federer could not get back into play off the backhand. At 1-1, he broke Federer when the Swiss miss-hit a topspin backhand wide. Benneteau sensed he could win. He advanced to 3-1 and nearly broke a second time, but Federer aced him at break point down and held on. In the sixth game, Benneteau was down 15-40, but he saved those two break points with outright aggression, releasing yet another service winner to the backhand, followed by a crisp forehand volley winner crosscourt.

It was 4-2 for Benneteau, and once more Federer wandered into danger. He fell behind 15-40 on his serve, but his best instincts kicked in. He went in behind an impeccably placed first serve down the T, and used a swing volley to elicit a lob long from Benneteau. A service winner to the backhand saved Federer on the second break point, and he held on for 3-4. Would Benneteau finally realize he was playing unconsciously well, and choke?

The answer was forthcoming. Down 0-30 in the eighth game, he drove a forehand into the clear for a winner, nailed a backhand down the line into another empty space, punched a backhand volley winner, and aced Federer down the T. Just like that, Benneteau moved to 5-3. Two games later, he served for the match. At 30-15, Federer probed as much as he could in a 15th stroke rally, which ended with an explosive Benneteau crosscourt backhand travelling into the corner and out of reach. At 40-15, Benneteau aced Federer down the T. Federer challenged the call, hoping the Hawkeye Technology could save him. But the replay confirmed that the ball was in. Benneteau had played the match of his life to oust the world No. 1, who was only slightly off form.

That win opened up the draw for the fleet-footed and dynamic Monfils. He took apart Benneteau the next day, came from behind to defeat Marin Cilic in a high quality three set showdown, and then held back Radek Stepanek in three tumultuous sets. Monfils served for the match in the second set, did not close it out, but battled tenaciously to take the third, winning 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. Stepanek had attacked ceaselessly, approaching the net no less than 95 times, winning 62 of those points. But it was not enough to get the job done.

Stepanek had produced a significant upset when he beat Murray in the round of 16. Murray had not concluded his long match with Blake until 1:45 in the morning, and here he was back on court the following afternoon. Murray easily took the first set but thereafter looked weary and a step slower than usual. Stepanek hurt him frequently with excellent use of the drop shot, and first rate attacking play. He came away deservedly with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph. Meanwhile, U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, hindered by an injury, retired at 4-0 down against Stepanek in the first set of their quarterfinal. Gone was another of the favorites.

Yet Djokovic was victorious in the end, standing up proudly for the established guard, reminding all of us that he is a great player when he does not get in his own way. His victory will only heighten interest in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Federer might find a late season spark and capture the event for the fifth time in his illustrious career. Murray will have the British fans cheering his every move, and is fully capable of winning the tournament. Maybe Nadal will assert himself and close his season on the highest possible note. No one is a prohibitive favorite, but the man who is playing the best tennis now among all of the top players is none other than Novak Djokovic.

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