There was order on the tennis court on Sunday, as all three tournaments in Asia ended with their top seeds holding the winners’ trophies. Here are a few thoughts on each of our champs, and the finals they played.
At the start of the China Open, I said that the event might provide Djokovic with a golden opportunity to right the recent wrongs in his rivalry with Nadal. Yes, Djokovic had lost their last three matches, two of them at Grand Slams. Yes, he had given away the No. 1 ranking to Rafa in the process. But this was a hard court, still Djokovic’s favorite surface; not only that, it was one of his favorite hard courts. Nole had won the tournament all three times he had entered it.
I also knew Djokovic would have something else going for him if and when he faced Nadal: For the first time this season, the Serb would be ranked No. 2 in the world, and the Spaniard would be No. 1. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, they say, and you could see why on Sunday. Djokovic, newly crown-less, came out serving and returning, running and firing, even dropping and smashing, as if he had just gotten out of tennis jail, while Nadal never found a comfortable groove. When he wasn’t tentative and hitting the ball short, Rafa was going for too much too fast and rushing his way into uncharacteristic errors. In particular, Nadal couldn’t find the timing on a shot that has worked well for him against Novak, the surprise, redirected down-the-line forehand. Djokovic, standing on top of the baseline and working the ball to Nadal’s backhand, was up 3-0 in 11 minutes. He made 80 percent of his first serves in closing out the first set.
We’ve seen Djokovic jump to early leads over Nadal before, only to have Rafa slowly get his teeth into the rallies and never let go. Thus the key moment of this, their 38th meeting, was Nadal’s opening service game of the second set. As if on cue, Rafa began to play better. He won a long, brilliant point with a reflex overhead, and held multiple game points. But Djokovic still broke him, with good returns and better defense. This time, while Rafa hung on through the second set, Nole had the answers. Usually, they came in the form of his serve. He made 71 percent of first serves, hit five aces, and was 30 of 33 on first-ball points. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that No. 2 beat No. 1 in this case; the history of their rivalry tells us that neither man will dominate forever. Djokovic improved to 16-22 in their head to head.
The problem with being No. 1, Bjorn Borg once said, was that you don't feel the need to get better at anything in particular, because there's no one ahead of you, forcing you to improve any single aspect of your game. Coming to China, Djokovic knew he wouldn’t be No. 1. He entered the doubles with Stan Wawrinka, and perhaps not coincidentally, got some extra practice moving forward and hitting a shot that has troubled him, his overhead. It didn’t trouble him against Rafa.
More crucially, as Djokovic said, what he needed was to regain the confidence that his game matches up well with Nadal’s. Now he knows he can still dictate from the baseline without having to go for broke; knows he can trouble Nadal with his deep returns; knows his backhand can handle Nadal’s forehand topspin; knows he can survive the long rallies. Djokovic won day's most important marathon point to hold for 4-2 in the second set.
As they head for Shanghai, Nadal is, rightfully, No. 1 in the world, and Djokovic is No. 2. Rafa has risen, but Nole is no longer falling.
“I’m really excited,” Serena Williams said after her 6-2, 6-2 win over Jelena Jankovic in the Beijing final. “I didn’t think I would win this starting out, so I’m really happy to be here holding the trophy. I really love tennis and it’s fans like the ones here in China who are so exciting to come to. The fans make me want to play.”
Why would Serena, No. 1 and then some, not have believed she would win this tournament? There was her back, which troubled her through much of the event. There was the fact that it has been a long year already and she hadn’t been to China since 2009. And there was also, I’m guessing, Serena’s knowledge of herself and her motivation—she’s often been more vulnerable at the non-majors than she has at the Slams themselves.
But those days appear to be behind her. Serena won her 10th tournament and 73rd match of 2013, both single-season records for her. She’s been on tour for 16 years, but she’s won almost a fifth of her 56 career titles in the last 10 months. You would think that by now she’d expect to win everywhere. But maybe that’s a champion’s secret: Like her fellow finalists in Beijing, Djokovic and Nadal, Serena needs obstacles to overcome, even if she has to put them there herself.
Beijing might not have been a Slam, but it was one of Serena’s most impressive performances among her 10 titles. In the semis and final, she beat Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic by the most routine of all routine scores, 2 and 2, while fighting off back pain that brought her to tears. Oddly, after Serena hit an ace through those tears early in the second set, it was Jankovic who called for the trainer and took a medical time-out. JJ never recovered, from the ace or the injury.
Serena wrapped up the second set not by overpowering Jankovic, but by out-running and outlasting her. Serving at 2-3, JJ gave the game away by making three errors with her best shot, her backhand. That wasn't just bad play from her: With Serena on the other side, she couldn’t hit winners or even open up the court; there was nowhere for her to go with the ball. At one stage in the second set, Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber excitedly reported that Jankovic had a break point. As JJ took the balls from the ball kid, Haber realized his error. She was serving. Even game points feel like break points for Serena’s opponents these days.
“I played really well in the last two games of the match,” Juan Martin del Potro said after beating Milos Raonic 7-6 (5), 7-5 in the final on Tokyo. “It was a fantastic week for me as I played better and better with each match.”
On the surface, there isn’t much change in del Potro’s demeanor from point to point, match to match, presser to presser. Yet somehow, it seems to me, you can tell right away whether he believes he’s going to win or not. As well as he played in his five-set Wimbledon semifinal against Djokovic, I never had the feeling he believed he was destined for victory. Conversely, in the Tokyo final, as well as his opponent, Raonic, was playing, and as scary as his serve was, I never felt like del Potro believed he would lose. If so, the prophecy was self-fulfilling. At crunch time in each set, his game rose while Raonic’s plummeted.
The Argentine was outplayed for much of the first set, and had to survive several long games on his serve. But Raonic threw all of his good play away by double-faulting at 5-5 in the tiebreaker. In the second set, at 5-all, with the finish line in sight, del Potro showed a champion’s sense of timing. After failing to break serve all day, he did it in a heartbeat, by suddenly moving forward and finishing three points at net.
Raonic said he wouldn’t hang his head after this one, despite the missed opportunity. And for good reason: He won last week in Bangkok, followed it up with a runner-up finish in Tokyo, and now finds himself just 300 points from the final spot in London. More than that, though, Raonic has improved. I’d never seen him hit his forehand as athletically as he hit it this past week. He ran around it well, came over it more than normal on approach shots, and stunned del Potro with a del Potro-esque running cross-court bullet winner. Raonic lost the battle yesterday, but the war may be just getting started for him.