Novak Djokovic’s rise to No. 1 was accentuated with his return of serve, a shot universally considered to be one of the best in the game. He used that shot, along with his versatile two-handed backhand, to torment Rafael Nadal in 2011, the obstacle he needed to clear to climb the rankings mountain. These two shots have come to define Djokovic, just as we associate Roger Federer with his forehand or Pete Sampras with his serve.
So perhaps it was fitting that, on his final day as No. 1 (at least for now), Djokovic reminded us that his success is the result of many shots working in concert, and none sung more harmoniously today than his serve. Sampras himself would have been hard-pressed to equal Djokovic’s gaudy statistics: He won 91 percent of his first serves (down—and I use that term loosely—from a 94 percent clip in the first set alone) and didn’t give his unfortunate opponent even one break point. Beyond the numbers, the Serb’s superb serving prevented Nadal from pressuring on return games and establishing any sort of rhythm. The Spaniard had some impressive service holds himself, but on a day when Djokovic played as good as his current ranking, they were far from enough in a one-hour and 27-minute, 6-3, 6-4 final.
In both of the sets, Djokovic broke Nadal in the latter’s first service game, and that was all the three-time champion needed. It was a business-like performance from Djokovic, whose intense expression never wavered and begat an unwavering mission: Serve well, and follow the serve with aggression.
Today, Djokovic’s forehand was the more impressive of his groundstrokes, pinning Nadal deep, moving him around, and winning points outright. There was nothing complicated about the way Djokovic clinically served out the first set, but fans had a right to be confused when they glanced at the clock and saw that only 35 minutes had passed. In a rivalry where hour-long sets are de rigueur, today’s contest was an unusual departure from a typical Djokovic vs. Nadal match, and it showed just how high Nole’s level was at.
It was unusual in other ways. In victory and defeat, Nadal has fallen behind against Djokovic before, but he’s almost always had an answer. At the very least, he’d make a stand of his own. But we never saw that irrepressible Nadal today. Djokovic won nearly every “big point,” and those were as rare as a ‘Vamos!’ from Rafa in this match. Besides Djokovic’s own break point, I can’t recall one pivotal moment in the first set, during which he had three love holds.
Nadal’s lone opening came late in the second set, after he’d already prevented Djokovic from taking a double-break lead, at 3-4. His familiar attitude wasn’t there, but an aggressive return and offensive tennis earned him a 15-30 lead. But if it wasn’t Djokovic undoing Nadal on this day, the soon-to-be No. 1 did it to himself. He ceded any momentum with a mishit forehand and an uncharacteristic error, and Djokovic promptly took a 5-3 lead.
In pro tennis, you’re only as good as your last service game. And for as well as Djokovic served through the first 18 games, it could have went for naught had he given Nadal a lifeline with the finish line in sight. But Djokovic was as cool as the crowd was loud, even allowing himself a smile after one of his winners in the 19th game. He raced to triple match point, then handed Nadal his first hard-court loss of 2013 to win his fourth title in Beijing. With tomorrow’s change in the rankings, a chapter has been completed in the epic tale that is Nadal vs. Djokovic, but it’s clear that there will be many more pages to digest.