The phrase that's long been used to describe Roger Federer when he gets rolling is “in full flight.” When Novak Djokovic is doing his thing, the word that you often hear is “clinical.” And that pretty much describes how Djokovic looked in the first set of his 6-0, 7-6 (5) win over Juan Monaco in the semifinals in Key Biscayne tonight. He came out like he had come out so many times in 2011, seemingly floating across the court and making every shot look clean and easy, like the tennis textbook set to music.
Djokovic sliced a running one-handed backhand into the corner and followed it up with a forehand winner to the other corner. He hit a jumping backhand down the line and past Monaco. He knocked off first balls like, as Patrick McEnroe said in the commentary booth, it was batting practice. He had a bagel set in no time—the 11th of 12 sets he’d won over Monaco—and looked primed to do it again.
But for the second straight night, Djokovic didn’t do it again. He had come out similarly hot against David Ferrer in the quarters only to have to struggle his way through the second set. It’s a pattern—float, struggle, fight—that we saw throughout the Australian Open, and it went that way again tonight for Djokovic. In the second set, he began to miss, particularly on the forehand side, and began to show some of the frustration and impatience that we associated with him before 2011. Still, when Djokovic broke Monaco’s serve at 2-2 with a crosscourt backhand winner, and came up with another to hold for 4-2, it looked like this one wouldn’t be a problem.
But the errors kept flowing, and Monaco, buoyed by a heavily Argentine crowd, kept fighting. Djokovic netted a forehand and sent a backhand long to go down 0-40 at 4-3. But looking cooler and more confident in the clutch, he calmly worked his way out of that jam to hold. Two games later, it seemed that he would do the same thing. Again, an error-prone Djokovic went down 0-40. Again, a suddenly error-free Djokovic got it back to deuce—at that stage, he was seven for seven on break points against him for the match. This time, though, Monaco earned a fourth breaker, and after a long rally Djokovic finally blinked, dumping a forehand into the net.
The two went to a tiebreaker, where Djokovic’s seesaw play continued. A good forehand was followed by one into the net; a backhand sailed long was followed by an excellent forcing forehand. In the end, Djokovic could still rely on what he has always relied on, that he’s going to be more solid than almost all of his opponents. Monaco, who had raised his game in the second set, couldn’t hold it there any longer. He finished the match with four straight forehand errors.
Djokovic has lived on the edge for much of 2012. The clinical periods haven’t lasted as long as they did last year. But the confidence that he'll ultimately win hasn’t left him, either. He walked close to the edge in Melbourne, but pulled himself back each time, and he’s done the same the last two nights in Key Biscayne. I almost felt like Djokovic was a little too confident tonight in his ability to get himself out of any jam, and that was part of the reason he kept putting himself in them.
I expect we’ll see some more clinical play, and some more struggling, and some more fighting, from Djokovic in the final against Andy Murray on Sunday. I picked these two to face off at the start of the tournament, and I picked Djokovic to win. We'll see if he can pull himself through one more time.