The future of the men’s game belongs to Novak Djokovic again

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WATCH—Highlights from Novak Djokovic's win over Borna Coric in Shanghai:

Life, Borna Coric found out quickly, was not going to be as fun for him on Sunday as it had been on Saturday in Shanghai.

On the first point of his final against Novak Djokovic, Coric powered a backhand into Djokovic’s backhand. It was the type of shot that had brought the 21-year-old Croatian to his first Masters 1000 title match, and had helped him record a convincing straight-set win over Roger Federer the previous day. Instead of settling into rallies in against Federer, Coric had hit the ball aggressively, with more depth and pace than he usually dares, until Federer’s one-handed backhand eventually broke down.

But Djokovic doesn’t have a one-handed backhand, and it’s not a shot that you can pound into submission. He took Coric’s first-point missile, and guided it right back into the opposite corner with his two-hander. The message was clear: As well as Coric had played against Federer—it might have been the best match of his career—he was going to have to play even better to beat Djokovic. 

Coric was going to have to hit unreturnable serves, rather than merely good ones, if he wanted any free points. He was going to have to hit two or three perfect ground strokes, rather than just one, to win a point. Every time he left a ball short, he was going to have it punished by a player whose footwork was as sharp as it has ever been. Every time he served, he was going to have to deal with a deep, neutralizing return and an arduous rally. Every time he set up for his own return, he was going to face a serve from a guy who hadn’t been broken all week. When Coric had Djokovic on the run, he was going to have dig out a low volley to close out a rally. And when he thought he had a ball past Djokovic at the net, he was going to have to watch as the Serb reached out for a brilliant stab-volley winner.

In other words, Coric was going to lose. 

The scores were 6-3, 6-4, and the match was about as close as those routine scores indicate. Coric should probably be commended for keeping the second set as competitive as he did after going down 0-2. Instead of a blowout, this match was just another immaculate, never-in-serious-doubt win in a long string of them for Djokovic. He’s 27-1 since the start of Wimbledon, with two Grand Slam titles and two Masters 1000 titles. He has now overtaken Federer for No. 2 in the rankings, and it’s conceivable that he could he end what appeared to a be a lost season at No. 1. He trails Rafael Nadal in the year-end race by just 35 points, and has nothing to defend over the last three weeks. For Rafa and Federer, it must feel like 2006 all over again, with Djokovic racing up in their rearview mirrors; unlike in ’06, though, there doesn’t seem to be any way to slow him down.

“I thought I was actually playing really well,” Coric said. “I’m feeling good on the court. I was not serving particularly well, because I think he was returning extremely well.”

WATCH—Djokovic beats Alexander Zverev in the Shanghai semifinals:

Djokovic was also serving extremely well. Rather than try to up his pace and take on more risk with his deliveries, he let the fast Shanghai court do it for him.

“This was definitely one of the best service weeks that I’ve had in my career,” said Djokovic, who won his fourth Shanghai Rolex Masters title, and his 72nd title overall. “I was saying before that I never played on faster courts here in Shanghai, so this year more than ever I needed a lot of success with first serves in, and I have had plenty of success with first serves, and a high percentage of first serves in every match. So obviously that brings me a lot of joy.”

Djokovic didn’t drop a set this week, and wasn’t broken in 47 service games.  At Wimbledon and the US Open, he won with emotion; even when his game went off, he wouldn’t let himself lose. In Shanghai, the emotion wasn’t necessary, because his game never went off. This was the return of Djokovic the tennis clinician, and right now there’s little reason to think he won’t close out 2018 in the same unbeatably efficient form. Finishing No. 1 would be a fitting capstone for his meteoric re-rise.

It would also be a signal to everyone else on tour. This has been a year when we’ve seen various potential successors to the ATP crown appear and then disappear again, from Hyeon Chung to Sascha Zverev to Dominic Thiem to Stefanos Tsitsipas and now to Coric. But as we contemplate the end of 2018 and the start of 2019, the future of the men’s game looks like it belongs to Novak Djokovic again.

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