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Steve Flink: Title Nine for Djokovic in Montreal

8/15/2011 4:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

All year long, Novak Djokovic has demonstrated that he is in a class by himself as the best tennis player in the world. He has captured an astounding 53 of 54 matches, securing titles in nine of the ten tournaments he has played, establishing a level of proficiency that has been nothing less than stupendous. At 24, after a string of commendable yet somewhat disappointing years, after seemingly losing faith in himself far too often when it really counted, this charismatic Serbian has altered his ways and learned precisely what it takes to win in a manner befitting a genuine champion. He has at last gained an understanding of the full range of his capabilities, and his success reflects a transformation in the man and his methodology. Djokovic is nearing the absolute peak of his powers. Watching him garner victory after victory has been inspiring in many ways, and a testament to his growing stability and deeper sense of professionalism.

And yet, the fact remains that Djokovic is a human being, a competitor with layers of vulnerability, a champion who does not always prevail strictly on superior craftsmanship. There are days when he can only get across the finish line by proving that he is mentally tougher than his opponent. On those afternoons when his ball striking is not where wants it to be, Djokovic has no alternative but to grind his way through and past his adversaries, to display unanswerable willpower, to win largely with his heart and his mind. In his final round victory over Mardy Fish at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Djokovic was nowhere near the top of his game, and he found himself mired in an arduous three set confrontation against the tenacious American No.1. In the end, Djokovic raised his record to 7-0 over Fish and became the first man ever to secure five Masters 1000 titles in a single year by taking the hard fought championship match 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. By virtue of that triumph, Djokovic becomes the first man since Pete Sampras in 1993 to capture his first tournament after garnering the No. 1 world ranking.

For prolonged stretches in this contest, Djokovic was uncharacteristically inhibited. He often pushed his forehand rather than hitting it with his customary pace and authority. He did not go for the lines off his incomparable two-handed backhand as he so often does; in fact, Fish was more adept in that match at driving the backhand cleanly down the line to alter the flow of rallies. Djokovic was not serving up to his normal standard. And he endured an alarmingly long period when his returns were not struck as accurately as we have come to expect from the world No. 1. Djokovic knew that he was up against a formidable opponent in the admirable Fish, who has established himself unequivocally as not only the leading player in his nation, but also as one of the ten best in the world.

With Djokovic ill at ease and struggling to find the best tennis that he had to offer, Fish pushed him hard, and made the Serbian work earnestly before the contest swung around ultimately to the favorite. The first set was strikingly reminiscent of the opening set that these two men played in their most recent showdown in the semifinals of Miami back in April. In the early stages of this Montreal clash, Djokovic was constantly fending off danger on his own serve. But whenever he found himself in a tight corner, Djokovic managed to escape, performing with considerably more assurance and efficiency on the biggest points than Fish, who was pressing and going for too much when he had his chances. Djokovic saved two break points at 1-1, as Fish netted a backhand approach on the first and then overcooked an inside-out forehand on the second, driving that shot long. Djokovic obstinately held on for 2-1, but after Fish held for 2-2, Djokovic wandered back into jeopardy again in the fifth game. Three times, the 29-year-old American advanced to break point, but he missed off the backhand on the first, rushed himself into an errant forehand approach on the second, and then Djokovic stymied his adversary with a superbly placed first serve up the T that Fish could not handle on the forehand return.

Djokovic held on again, moving ahead 3-2. Five times in two different service games he had been in the unenviable territory of falling behind break point, but he made up his mind to give nothing away to Fish and to make the American come up with something extraordinary. That strategy worked exceedingly well. As if by design, Djokovic made his move ably in the next game. With Fish connecting on only two of six first serves, the Serbian pounced and broke serve for a 4-2 lead. On successive points, Djokovic counter-attacked effectively after Fish had served-and-volleyed, and the American netted a difficult backhand half volley, followed by a netted forehand first volley off a low return. Buoyed by the sudden shift in momentum, Djokovic held at love for 5-2, and then took advantage of another wayward service game from Fish, who missed four out of five first serves. Djokovic broke to seal the 6-2 set at 15. On set point, Djokovic made one of his patented brilliant backhand returns off a big first serve, rocking Fish back on his heels, and then moving forward behind a backhand approach down the line to provoke an error.

Djokovic had out maneuvered Fish on the big points, but the 6-2 score line was misleading. Djokovic was far from comfortable after his early difficulties. With Fish serving at 1-2, 0-30, in the second set, Djokovic seemed on the verge of breaking the match wide open. With a break here, he might well have pulled away inexorably from Fish. But on that significant 0-30 point, Djokovic drove a two-hander tamely into the net, allowing Fish back into a crucial game. Fish took charge from there, putting together two unstoppable serve-and-volley combinations, then releasing a clever kick first serve that was unmanageable for Djokovic. At 2-2, Djokovic came from 15-40 down to reach game point, but Fish had found his range. Fish made it to deuce with a flat backhand down the line winner, advanced to break point by coming in behind a forehand return to force an error, and then the American drove another two-hander up the line for an outright winner and his first service break of the match.

Fish charged to 40-0 in the following game before Djokovic got back to deuce, but at this juncture the American had the upper hand. He earned a fourth game point, and then cracked an inside-out forehand behind Djokovic that the Serbian somehow got back into play. Yet Fish was stationed comfortably inside the court, and he produced a gorgeous forehand drop shot winner with sidespin. Fish was ahead 4-2, but two games later he was in danger on serve. Djokovic rallied patiently with Fish for 20 strokes, but surprisingly made a forehand unforced error at break point. Fish eventually held for 5-3, with an ace down the T, and then broke a briefly wavering Djokovic at love in the ninth game, sealing the set 6-3 with an insurance break achieved at love as the Serbian made three costly backhand unforced errors and one off the forehand. It was one set all, and Fish was gathering steam.

But Djokovic began returning with considerably more confidence in the first game of the final set. After Fish built a 40-0 lead, Djokovic thrice made it to break point. But he was still passively waiting for Fish to miss rather than taking matters into his own hands, and Fish was not obliging. Fish wiped away the first break point by coming forward behind his serve, coaxing Djokovic into a forehand return error. He applied pressure to make the Serbian miss a backhand passing shot mistake on the second, and then approached the net with persuasion again on the third break point, and Djokovic was off the mark with a backhand passing shot. Fish gamely held on for 1-0. Both players held easily to make it 2-2, but Djokovic was long overdue to break serve, and he did just that in the fifth game. Fish sent a forehand first volley into the net off a solid yet unspectacular return, and then consecutive forehand unforced errors put the American down triple break point. At 0-40, Fish attacked, but Djokovic’s sliced a backhand lob down the line into the corner with astonishing feel. Fish retreated and tried to connect with an overhead taken on the bounce. He missed it flagrantly, and Djokovic was back in business, up a break at 3-2 in the final set.

The drama was largely but not entirely over. Djokovic held at thirty for 4-2. The Serbian sensed the end, reaching love thirty on Fish’s serve in the seventh game. But Fish served-and-volleyed beautifully on three of the next four points, and his plan worked to the hilt. In particular, Fish’s slice serve wide was giving Djokovic fits. The gap was closed to 4-3. Djokovic was not rattled by that stand. He held at love for 5-3, opening that game with a backhand passing shot winner up the line, closing it with a scintillating backhand down the line winner off a well played inside out forehand return from Fish. That was Djokovic at his very best. Fish answered with a love hold of his own, and so it was time for Djokovic to serve for the match in the tenth game of the final set.

Djokovic seemed composed at the outset of that game. A solid backhand pass forced Fish into an error for 15-0, and then the top seed concluded an absorbing 25 shot exchange with a dazzling forehand crosscourt winner. When Fish missed a running forehand, Djokovic had the luxury of a 40-0, triple match point lead. But, inexplicably, he became apprehensive. Fish climbed back to deuce as Djokovic timidly made two forehand unforced errors sandwiched around an errant backhand. The score was deuce, and Fish was not out of it. But soon he was. The American missed a forehand crosscourt long, and that damaging mistake was unprovoked. At match point for the fourth time, Djokovic wisely sent his first serve into Fish’s body, and the No. 6 seed directed a backhand return wide. A jubilant Djokovic—knowing full well he had won without playing anything like his best brand of tennis—had moved beyond his gathering insecurity and gained a well deserved triumph.

For Djokovic, his first week back on the ATP World Tour since his triumph at Wimbledon was arduous. In his opening assignment against Nikolay Davydenko, he was two breaks down at 1-4, 0-30 in the first set and Davydenko served for the set at 5-4. He reached deuce, only to blow an easy forehand volley that would have given him a set point. Djokovic recouped for a 7-5, 6-1 win. He then labored through a 7-5, 6-2 victory over Marin Cilic before crushing Gael Monfils at the cost of only three games. In the semifinals, the Serbian was highly impressive in building a 6-4, 3-0 lead over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before the electrifying Frenchman surrendered, claiming his arm was hurting, leaving many observers skeptical about his motives for not completing the match. And then Djokovic beat Fish in that compelling final, winning essentially on the weight of his reputation.

Fish can still take pride in reaching his third straight final on the 2011 Olympus U.S. Open Series. He had some morale boosting wins in Montreal, ousting his recent conquerors Feliciano Lopez and Ernests Gulbis.  The American has still not won a Masters 1000 singles crown, and this was his fourth setback in a final at that level. He lost to Andy Roddick in the Cincinnati championship match of 2003 after having two match points, fell against Djokovic at Indian Wells in 2008 after taking the second set, and was narrowly beaten 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 by Roger Federer last year in Cincinnati. But the feeling grows that one of these days Fish will come through and win one of those elite events; he is considerably tougher mentally than ever before, and his commitment fulfilling his potential has been permanently altered.

In any event, while Djokovic put his name on yet another prestigious trophy, the three players ranked beneath him at the top of the men’s game all faltered. Most surprising of all was the defeat of Rafael Nadal in his opening match of the tournament, a second appointment with the Croatian Ivan Dodig. Nadal was rolling along confidently, building a 6-1, 3-1 lead, seemingly headed for a routine victory. But serving at 3-2 and break point down, Nadal made a rare tactical error after opening up the court with a sharply angled crosscourt backhand. He should have put away a forehand volley decisively, but instead went for a drop volley. That shot sat up and allowed Dodig to rip a passing shot winner. It was 3-3, and that set was settled in a tie-break. Nadal played that sequence tamely and Dodig admirably went fully into an attack mode, serving-and-volleying point after point impressively.

The Croatian closed out the second set tie-break 7-5 with unrelenting aggression, while an apprehensive Nadal performed timidly. But the Spaniard bolted to a 3-0 final set lead, only to allow a determined Dodig back to 3-3. Nadal then unleashed a pair of down the line passing shots to break for 5-3, and served for the match in the ninth game. At 30-30, two points away from a three set win, Nadal shanked a forehand. On the next point, he approached off a short ball to Dodig’s backhand, but missed a backhand volley that he would normally make. Dodig has broken back for the second time in the third set, which went to another tie-break.

Nadal put himself in an immediate bind at the start of the tie-break with another costly forehand unforced error, going down a mini-break. He managed to move back ahead 5-4 on serve, but Dodig swept three points in a row to complete a startling upset, all with bold play. He crushed a forehand off Nadal’s return into the corner, eliciting a backhand slice down the line error from the Spaniard. Then the big underdog released his 19th and final ace down the T to reach match point. Dodig finished it off with a daring backhand crosscourt winner that left Nadal stranded and bewildered. In one of the year’s major upsets, Dodig stopped Nadal 1-6, 7-6, 7-6.

Nadal had only himself to blame for the defeat after being up a set and a break, and twice having a service break lead in the final set. Dodig was ranked No. 41 in the world, and his match record for the year stood at a mediocre 20-15. He did serve remarkably well at crucial moments in the last two sets, but Nadal has seldom if ever wasted so many opportunities to close out an inferior adversary. Since the end of January, he had lost only one match to anyone other than Djokovic, and that was against the experienced and accomplished Tsonga at Queen’s Club in June. This was one of those rare occasions when Nadal seemed afraid to lose, and now he needs at least a semifinal showing in Cincinnati to restore his self assurance for the U.S. Open. He knows he had no business losing to Dodig, who bowed out quickly in the next round against Janko Tipsarevic. Had Nadal polished off Dodig, he would have had a clear path to the final of Montreal, which must have made his setback all the more aggravating.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray’s bid for a third consecutive Masters 1000 crown in Canada came to an abrupt halt in his opening match against Kevin Anderson. Murray was devoid of emotional energy, not sharp off the ground, unable to serve well enough to keep himself in the match. He was soundly beaten in straight sets, and like Nadal he will need some good performances in Cincinnati to get himself ready for the Open.

In virtually the same plight is Federer, who has not won a tournament in his last ten appearances since capturing his first event of the year in Doha. He puts up a brave front in public, but surely the Swiss is perplexed by his long losing pattern in 2011. For the second tournament in a row, Tsonga was the man who upended Federer. Following up on his spectacular comeback win over the Swiss in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon—when he rallied from two sets down to prevail in five—Tsonga toppled Federer this time around 7-6, 4-6, 6-1. The Frenchman saved a set point in the first set with an unstoppable first serve to Federer’s backhand. In four final set service games, Tsonga won 16 of 19 points, and broke Federer twice. In his last eight sets against the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion, Tsonga has lost his serve only twice. Across the years, Tsonga seemed frequently intimidated by his illustrious adversary, but clearly that is no longer the case.

Now the best players in the world have all moved on to Cincinnati. For most of them, this will be the last time they will compete before Flushing Meadows. Federer has been the champion for three of the past four years in Cincinnati, but he will have his work cut out for him this week to retain the title. He opens up against 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, which could be a dangerous match. Murray could meet Tsonga in the round of 16. Fish and Nadal might clash in the quarterfinals. 

Cincinnati looms large for all of the top players as they set their sights on the U.S. Open. I will be watching the entire tournament with more than casual interest.

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