No one has better balance on the tennis court than Novak Djokovic, and the defending Miami champion needed every bit of his equilibrium in the first set of today's two-set, fourth-round match to hold off Richard Gasquet, 7-5, 6-3.
The 26-year-old Frenchman broke Djokovic at 1-all and had the elastic Serb stretching, sliding. and flinching, as Gasquet played the aggressor, often finishing points at net with an exquisite inside-out backhand volley. Djokovic loves rhythm, and the 17th-ranked Gasquet gave him none of it, using his one-handed backhand slice to shorten points. At 5-all, 15-40, Gasquet had two break points, but played it safe instead of going after two second serves. He hit a backhand return into the bottom of the net and missed a forehand wide into the alley. It was the turning point, as Djokovic rolled from there.
In facing the mercurial Gasquet, Djokovic matched up against a player whose style of game contrasts greatly with his own. The world No. 1 had no problems with him in the past (the Frenchman's only win in six matches was back in 2007), but today in Miami, Gasquet looked the sharper of the two in the first set. Djokovic was coming off facing two opponents (Marcos Baghdatis and Viktor Troicki) who both suited his style of playing long, back-court rallies. But Gasquet chose not to engage Djokovic in that kind of brutal warfare, and instead diced and powered his way to seven break point chances. Unfortunately for Gasquet, he only converted on one. There was some exhilarating shotmaking, particularly with Gasquet serving at 4-5, 15-30. In the best point I've seen so far this season, Djokovic made sliding saves on both his backhand and forehand sides, only to have Gasquet hit a three-quarter court, running, forehand swinging volley that led to an overhead slam.
Djokovic broke early in the second set and made that one break stand (he only converted on two of six break point chances) in running off 16 of the first 22 points. But Gasquet continued to battle even as his footwork slowed down. The Frenchman is trying to make a push to the very top of the game with former No. 5, Sebastian Grosjean, as his coach. He reached the Round of 16 at the Australian Open and three quarterfinals in the European indoor circuit, and he had a chance, at least in the first set, to claim his biggest scalp of the season. But Djokovic doesn't give away many sets, and certainly not many matches (the Serb is 17-2 so far this year). He ran down every ball Gasquet artfully sent his way, and in the end, was too strong and resolute.
Next up for the top seed is the winner of the Juan Martin del Potro-David Ferrer match.