Lightning struck in the same place twice in Paris today, ruining forever what for many years had been a pretty useful little bromide. As a result, David Ferrer was left in a melted heap smelling of ozone and sulphur on the floor of the Palais Omnisports, home of the Paris Masters 1000 tournament.
Ferrer was the defending champion in Paris, but he was unable to become the first man ever to successfully defend his title at this event. He failed to serve out the set twice while leading 5-4, thereby losing to world No. 2 Novak Djokovic 7-5, 7-5.
The circumstances of Ferrer’s collapse in each set were nearly identical, dismaying, and further confirmation of Ferrer’s greatest burden as a player: The difficulty he has closing out matches against his rankings peers. That, despite the enormous degree of determination and skill he habitually demonstrates right up until the time of reckoning.
But let’s not allow the strange nature of this match, and what it reveals about Ferrer, overshadow Djokovic’s performance. There’s a reason Ferrer is No. 3 in the world rankings, and a reason Djokovic could so assuredly and skillfully win this Masters title in straight sets despite that, and despite the desperate straits in which he found himself in both sets. If Ferrer is capable of stepping down, Djokovic is a master of stepping up — finding his A-game when it’s most needed, and employing it with a cool mind and steady hand.
The first two-thirds of the first set was distinguished by brilliant tennis, particularly from Ferrer. Matching Djokovic blast for baseline blast, the “Little Beast” punched through with a break of serve for a 3-2 lead. When he held the next game after surviving a break point, he seemed to be on track to win the set.
There was no secret to the way Ferrer built his lead to 5-3. He hit the ball cleanly, deep and hard; he also did a great job keeping Djokovic off balance with his serve placement, and made terrific decisions about when to pull the trigger on a placement or net attack. Meanwhile, the focus of Djokovic was a bit fuzzy, and his serve was no great shakes — not until he rained down a few big ones to hold for 4-5.
Djokovic picked the right time to dial up his game. In the next game, Ferrer made two errors to fall behind 0-30 and never recovered. After one winning backhand by Ferrer, Djokovic got the better of Ferrer in two long baseline rallies — the first ended with a Ferrer cross-court forehand error, the second with a down-the-line forehand winner by Djokovic. Suddenly, it was 5-all.
Ferrer was shaken, for Djokovic held the next game with ease. The more mystifying development was the way Ferrer was unable to hold in the following game. He won the first point with a service winner, then made three consecutive errors. Djokovic finished him off with a cross-court un-returnable forehand. Good-bye set.
Ferrer broke Djokovic to start the second set, and threatened to break again in the third game. If you’re hungry for a turning point, it was probably this game. Djokovic fell behind in the game 15-40, in danger of going two breaks down. But he answered the break points with a forehand pass (he was considerably aided by a let-cord that ruined Ferrer’s look at an easy putaway and kept the point alive) and an inside-out forehand winner. After Djokovic’s escape and hold for 1-2, the games proceeded on serve without any break opportunities for either man until that next fateful 10th game.
Once again, Ferrer served for the set. Once again, he came unglued. A Djokovic backhand error got Ferrer off on the right foot, but Djokovic relled off the next three points to reach double break point. He needed only the first one, as Ferrer made a forehand cross-court error to make it 5-all. Ferrer seemed to know the script all too well. He allowed Djokovic an easy hold for 6-5, and lost the first point he served in the next game when Djokovic finished an outstanding rally with a volley winner. Ferrer won just one point (a Hawkeye over rule) after that. You had to cringe when he hit successive groundstrokes into the net to give Djokovic match point. A backhand service-return error kept Ferrer’s hopes alive, but Djokovic kept the ball in play long enough during the next point to see Ferrer hit yet another choked forehand into the net.
As inept as all this appeared on Ferrer’s part, the reality is that for long stretches this one hour and 52 minute match was characterized by wonderful ball striking — especially by Ferrer. It’s a pity that his mind got in the way of his arm and fighting spirit.
This was Djokovic’s third Masters title of the year, his 40th career title, and it keeps alive his extremely slim hopes of finishing the year at No. 1. Stay tuned for more details on that in my preview of the World Tour Finals.
Stat of the match — Djokovic won 15 of the 18 points he played at the net.