We’ve heard about how important Novak Djokovic’s feet are to his game, but today, in the final in Montreal, it was what goes around those feet that apparently mattered even more. Serving down 1-2 in the third set, deep into a dogfight against Mardy Fish, looking frazzled and frustrated at his inability to put a match away that had seemed to be his, Djokovic took an extra minute on the changeover to change his shoes and socks. It was a minute well spent. Djokovic won the next 10 points. Along the way, he broke Fish’s serve and hit two big service winners at 3-2, 30-30 to consolidate a lead that he would never relinquish.
This is what 52-1 must do for you. It must give you a base of confidence so thorough and springy that you can elevate yourself seemingly at will. In that sense, Djokovic’s performance reminded me a lot of how Roger Federer played when he was at his win-streak peak five years ago—with a blend of almost-passive patience that could give way at any moment to a stunning opportunism. Djokovic hung back, made a lot of balls, used his speed and steadiness and counterpunching skills, and waited for the match to come to him, with the full and justified belief that eventually it would. It wasn't the most spectacular win of this spectacular season, but Djokovic’s resolve and resourcefulness, despite having come out a little tight and out of sorts, made it an impressive one nonetheless. No male player since 1993 had won his first tournament after becoming No. 1, and there’s a reason for it. You’ve reached the mountaintop; what else, at least for the moment, is there? For Djokovic, there’s a sense that he’s worked so long to pass Federer and Rafael Nadal that he’s not going to let down now.
The same, perhaps, could be said for Fish, who came in with an 0-6 record against Djokovic, but with a fairly new Top 10 ranking to defend, a strong summer to extend, and something to prove: Fish had never done anything at this event, and has, over the course of his career, been a disappointment at the game’s upper-echelon events, the majors and the Masters. But he went a long way to rectifying both of those deficiencies today. The match felt like a learning process for Fish, from one set to the next. He started as the better player, earning five early break points with some aggressive play, especially from his forehand side. He was determined not to be passive, but when it came to those break points, he crossed over from aggressive to overanxious. He got a couple of good looks at forehands, only to snatch at them and drill them into the net. The missed opportunities affected him, and he was out of the set, 6-2, in what seemed like a heartbeat.
Fish was overeager, and was over-serving, to start, but he found a successful balance between margin and aggression in the second. (For the time being, Djokovic was content to rally and let Fish sink or, so to speak, swim.) The match tipped back toward the American when, at 2-2, on his eighth break point of the match and third of the game, he finally connected with a backhand down the line. In the end, it was just a three-game lapse from Fish in the third that cost him the match, and for long stretches he showed an ability to hurt the game’s best returner with his serve, to rush him by coming in behind his own return, and to push him around the baseline with his backhand, especially his beautifully timed crosscourt version of that shot. Fish lost, but the fact that he was the aggressor in so many rallies should make him, finally, believe that he has a game that can match up with anyone’s.
Of course, Novak Djokovic isn’t just anyone at the moment. As I said, he looked Federer-esque this afternoon, especially in how he pounced on a couple of his opponents’ mistakes in the third set and left him, almost casually, in the rear-view mirror. Djokovic’s game is more streamlined than Federer’s, but it's not as effortless—the grunt alone lets you know he’s working. But when it was over, I was left with the same question that I was often left with after a Fed-in-his-prime victory: How did he do that, exactly? In his three game surge near the end, Djokovic got a few more returns back, he played a little closer to the baseline, he drove the ball a little closer to the corners, and he cracked a couple of important first serves. Nothing immortal, but put it all together and you’ve got another win, his 53rd in 54 matches this year. More incredibly to me is that Djokovic has won every Masters event so far this year. No one had won five in a season before, and that includes Federer and Nadal.
Winning without your best is “what champions do,” as they say. Winning five Masters and two of three Slams in a season? That’s what Novak Djokovic alone has done.