Shanghai: Djokovic d. Del Potro

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We have Fedal. We have Rafole. We have Djokerer. We have, to some people’s chagrin, Muzzovic. Is it time to condense the budding rivalry between Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic into a single name? Del Djoker? Djokopotro? The most appropriate moniker may be The Novak and Juan Show. Together, they could open on Broadway.

With his superb, see-saw 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3) win over del Potro in the final of the Shanghai Rolex Masters today, Djokovic is now 10-3 against the Argentine. That’s hardly the most heated duel in the game. But in 2013 these two players haven’t been rivals, really; they’ve been a show-stopping tennis-entertainment team. Over the summer, Novak and Juan put on a feel-good five set classic at Wimbledon; today in Shanghai they gave us a two-and-a-half-hour lesson in just how back and forth the sport can be. Rallies, momentum, emotion, theatrics: Their matches have swing.

First there was the momentum—it swung, hard, from Djokovic in the first set to del Potro in the second, before the two of them evened things out in a hard-fought third, in which there were no breaks of serve. Predictably, del Potro, tennis's version of a tank, was slow to bring his game to bear on his opponent. Just as predictably, Djokovic, the ATP’s version of a high-strung thoroughbred, made a clean start out of the gate. He went up 3-0, and then 5-0, by doing what only he can do: Returning every serve in reach; catching his opponent out of position with his down the line backhand; and winning the long rallies. In the first set, Djokovic won nine of the 10 points that lasted 10 shots or more. 

As much as his game is about his return and his defense, however, Djokovic relies on his first serve like everyone else—whatever changes we’ve seen on the men’s tour in the last couple of decades, the serve remains the sport’s most important shot. After hitting it lights out in the first set, Djokovic opened the second by going 1 of 8 on first serves. That was enough to open the door for del Potro, whose own first serve picked up just as Novak’s fell off. The shift led to a bigger shift in the rallies: Del Potro’s forehand punch, rather than Djokovic’s backhand counterpunch, became the dominant shot. 

Once each man had gotten a set’s worth of erratic play out of his system, they settled down for a tense decider. At the start, it appeared that del Potro was in better shape. While Djokovic struggled to find his footing at times, del Potro became more demonstrative with every winner that bulleted off his strings. He earned a break point at 2-2, and saved two of them on his own serve at 2-3, the second with a huge inside-in forehand winner that led to a multi-roar, you-got-to-get-up celebration. 

The Shanghai crowd had rallied to del Potro’s side, as they tend to do in most places. But this time he played to them a little too much, and it came at the expense of his own emotional equilibrium. At 3-3, Del Potro began by pushing an easy backhand wide. When he saw the ball land out, he put his hands over his face and kept them there as he walked slowly back to the baseline. It made for great theater, but it also made it harder for him to recover for the next point. He lost that game quickly. Whatever momentum he had gathered was gone again.

But del Potro wasn’t done; as he had at Wimbledon, he answered every bell against Djokovic until the final one. Del Potro saved two match points at 5-5, and again the audience rallied behind him. This time it may have helped his opponent more. Djokovic, annoyed by their ovation for del Potro’s service hold, lifted his arms sarcastically. It was a motion reminiscent of the one he gave the New York crowd at the end of his 2011 U.S. Open semifinal against Roger Federer. That time Djokovic followed up his gesture by winning the next three games for the match. This time he was almost as good in defiance. He began his next service game with a crowd-silencing ace, hit another for 40-0, and held at love.

When the tiebreaker began a few minutes later, a quote from another sport came into my head. At the 1990 Wolrd Cup, after watching his team lose a shootout to Germany in the semifinals, English soccer player Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans win.”

I felt that, in this case, Djokovic was going to be the Germans; after all of the running, hitting, and shouting, he was simply going to win. He doesn’t do that in every close match he plays—at least not against Rafael Nadal. But Djokovic remains steady and solid enough to come out on top in most of them. It was true in two classic matches against Stan Wawrinka in 2013, and the same thing happened at the end of his two classics against del Potro as well. In the tiebreaker today, Djokovic was both the steadier player, and the more resourceful one. He won two points with forays to the net (he was 18 of 19 up there for the match), he found an inside-out forehand winner when he needed it, and he closed the way he began, with a surprise backhand down the line.

With that winner, his 47th of the day against just 26 errors, Djokovic completed the defense of his China double in Beijing and Shanghai. He won his 15th career Masters title, and proved that he knows his way around a quick hard court. He also upheld the honor of the Big 4, who have now won an absurd 67 of the last 80 Masters tournaments. Djokovic moves toward the big season-ending events, the Paris Indoors, the World Tour Finals in London, and the Davis Cup final in Belgrade, at the top of his game. Losing the No. 1 ranking may have been the best thing for him: He looks liberated and hungry again.

As for del Potro, he's still without a Masters title, but despite his loss today he said he feels like he's playing better than he was in 2009. It's time, finally, to stop saying the big man is back; del Potro is, instead, right there. At the moment, he's in a similar position with Djokovic to the one he was in against Federer in 2011 and 2012—close, getting closer, but not quite there yet. He eventually beat Federer; we’ll see what happens the next time he faces Djokovic. For today, Nole and Juan ended with a perfect curtain call: A hug of mutual respect at the net. Good show.

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