Novak Djokovic made this statement on Saturday in Madrid, after his semifinal win over Kei Nishikori. What were “these things” that he had gone through, exactly? Djokovic was referring to the fact that, while serving for the match at 5-4 in the second, he had blown a 40-0 lead before bouncing back to clinch the victory in a tiebreaker a few minutes later.

“Winning against one of the top players in the world in this particular situation like I experienced,” Djokovic said, “especially in the last half hour, will definitely serve as a great confidence boost and incentive for tomorrow.”

Djokovic obviously knows himself well. On Sunday, in the final against Andy Murray, he again struggled with a lead, and again bounced back to win anyway, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. In retrospect, it’s enough to make you wonder whether, in his first full week of the clay-court season, Djokovic intentionally tried to make himself go through as many of “these things”—i.e., pressure moments—as he could to prepare himself for the greater pressure that’s still to come.

In reality, of course, this is just how Djokovic goes about his business. He’s the master of the detour, of the circle route, of taking the long way to the front door. Djokovic’s wins over Nishikori and Murray, like so many of his wins, weren’t straightforward, but they were never really in doubt, either. In both cases, Djokovic had to battle both his opponent and his own nerves, which suddenly rose up to grip him when he served for the match. As he said, going through that battle against Nishikori on Saturday helped him do it again at the end of his match against Murray on Sunday.


The last game of this year’s Madrid final was a mirror image of the last game of the Djokovic-Murray Wimbledon final of 2013. Then it was Murray who nervously held off break points, and a charging Djokovic, to close out the title; this time it was Djokovic’s turn. Serving for the match at 5-3, he must have flashed back to the previous day, because the confidence suddenly drained from his body. Djokovic flipped a backhand wide, a forehand wide and a forehand long to go down 0-40; the serve that had worked so well for him all week wasn’t working now.

Rather than give in to his nerves this time, Djokovic substituted determination for confidence. He bore down, stayed patient, grunted a little more loudly and found his forehand again. From there, he began dictating the rallies, and somehow saved seven break points. The match ended with a frustrated Murray flailing at his last forehand and finding the net; once again, he couldn’t break down the Djokovic wall.

“I just fought and fought and fought,” Djokovic said.

Murray has now lost 12 of his last 13 to Djokovic, but this was still a positive week for him. He beat Rafael Nadal in the semis, showed off an improved serve and proved that, even as his 29th birthday approaches, he can still learn a new trick or two. By my estimation, Murray stands third, behind Djokovic and Nadal, in the race for Paris at the moment.


Most memorable of all, though, was a late-match gesture of sportsmanship from Murray. When chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani gave Djokovic a delay-of-game warning, Murray came forward to tell him that he, not Djokovic, had been the one who hadn’t been ready to play in time.

In the end, though, the day and the week belonged to Djokovic. In my preview of the tournament, I had wondered whether “Nadal’s surge would shake Nole’s seemingly unshakable confidence.” It turned out that Nole’s confidence could be shaken once in Madrid, but not twice. With his title, Djokovic’s disorderly brand of order has been restored.


Was I hearing things right? Was this what an agitated, arm-waving Simona Halep told her coach, Darren Cahill, when he visited her on court during her quarterfinal against Irina-Camellia Begu? If so, you could understand why Halep might wonder. She was on her way to losing a bagel set to the unseeded Begu, a woman who had never challenged her before. She was missing every backhand in sight. Since the beginning of the season she had seen her ranking slip from No. 2 to No. 7, and she hadn’t won a tournament since March 2015, in Indian Wells.

Cahill has said that he’s “iffy” on the idea of on-court coaching, because he thinks the players can come to rely on it too much. In this case, though, he should be happy that Halep listened to what he had to say, because his advice worked better than he ever could have hoped. Cahill told Halep to concentrate on her own game and swing out on her backhand because “it’s the best shot on the court.” In the third set, Halep proved him right: She kept plugging and kept swinging, and soon she found her range and her confidence. She would win that set 6-1.

From there it was like a dam broke in Halep’s mind and her game, one that had kept her well-known skills and talents bottled up for the better part of a year. During that time, she never lost her speed or her ball-striking ability, but now they were working in tandem again. At her best, Halep plays with a unique freedom, one that lets her create winners on the run and change the direction of the ball with ease and fluidity. We saw that freedom over her last five sets in Madrid.

In the semis, she beat Sam Stosur, 6-2, 6-0, and followed that with an almost-as-routine 6-2, 6-4 win over Dominika Cibulkova for the title. So much for Halep’s slump, and her dry spell. Suddenly, she’s back in the thick of the French Open hunt. Instead of doubting everything she does, and letting everything get to her, Halep ran and hit with joy again.


“The most important thing is that I played good tennis here,” Halep said after the final. “My best, actually, my best level. It was amazing on court. I just want to keep that feeling for a long time.”

“I didn’t expect, actually, before coming here that I’m going to win this title. But after [the] first week when I practiced with Darren every day, many hours on court, I felt that I have my chance. Day by day I played better tennis.”

As I wrote on Friday, Madrid wasn’t a tournament to remember for the WTA. Serena Williams dropped out, Victoria Azarenka soon followed and by the quarterfinals every seed was gone. Every seed, that is, except Halep. While she didn’t beat anyone in the Top 10, let alone anyone ranked above her, this was still a big step for her. When it comes to her chances in Paris, the fact that virtually every top player is struggling at the moment makes it an even bigger one.

Any week where you find out you can play tennis again is one to celebrate.