Novak Djokovic staged another brilliant comeback to reach the last day of the World Tour Finals for the first time since winning it in 2008, outlasting and ultimately mastering Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Appropriately for this London setting, “keep calm and carry on” seems to be Djokovic’s motto these days. Even as he raised his game in the second set, he played within himself enough to have energy and concentration to spare for the crucial third set. It was gripping from the start. Saving two break points in his first service game with a strong serve and a series of rock-solid forehands while refusing to be pushed back off the baseline, del Potro quickly hit on a couple of plays that yielded consistent dividends — judiciously-timed drop shots followed by passing winners, and smoothly redirecting the ball down the line to close cross-court exchanges. The latter play earned him 15-30 on Djokovic’s serve at 3-3, then the Serb hammered a smash into the net and it was Djokovic’s turn to save two break points in style.
There was almost nothing to separate the two, but del Potro was playing with fewer unforced errors than Djokovic, whose forehand when stretched wide was looking fragile. Del Potro unerringly targeted that spot and earned the break, serving out the set to love to finish with a 70% first serve percentage and a fist pump. He picked up right where he left off, opening the second set with a lob winner over Djokovic’s head, then getting to 15-30 after another lob which Djokovic could only unsuccessfully attempt to return between-the-legs. Although Djokovic fought off three break points to hold, at 1-1 del Potro effortlessly absorbed everything Djokovic threw at him in a 33-shot rally to break with a fine combination of forehands.
He looked all set for a return to the finals — and then it went, as it sometimes can, horribly, inexplicably wrong. Djokovic played his finest shot for a while for 15-15 and whether a consequent seed of doubt or an excess of confidence was to blame, del Potro made a rash of unforced errors to hand back the break. It was a crash back to earth heard round the world and after Djokovic held, del Potro played another terrible service game to be broken and shanked a forehand long to surrender the set, 3-6.
The smart money always has to be on Djokovic in a third set these days, and he didn’t disappoint. Suddenly fleet of foot again, he stopped trying to disrupt del Potro with slice and instead concentrated on moving him around, stretching him out wide to the backhand wherever he could and going back behind him when he couldn’t. It worked beautifully and Djokovic broke immediately to lead 2-1. With del Potro not moving well enough to control the middle of the court behind the good shots he did manage to land, it was Djokovic’s turn to mercilessly carve up his opponent with his own forehand, not blasted but repeatedly perfectly weighted and measured on to the lines. Just such a forehand on to the back of the line broke del Potro again for 5-2 and Djokovic served out the match without a thoroughly demoralized del Potro being able to put a return in court. I’d call it a stunning reversal of fortune, were it not that Djokovic has made such comebacks look almost routine.