After his 6-2, 7-6 (4) win over Rafael Nadal in the final of the ATP Cup, Novak Djokovic was asked if he had ever played a match against his long-time rival in front of a crowd like the one that jammed itself into Sydney’s Ken Rosewall Arena on Sunday.
“No,” Djokovic said with a wide grin and a shake of his head.
Why was this audience so different from the ones who had gathered to watch the previous 54 meetings between the Serb and the Spaniard? Because they were firmly, and loudly, in Djokovic's corner from start to finish. When he roared and raised his fist after a winning point, they roared and raised their fists back. When he asked them to stand and give him some love, they stood and gave him some love. Rather than having to pretend that the crowd was chanting his name instead of his opponent’s—the way he did in his Wimbledon final against Roger Federer last year—Djokovic soaked up the sounds of “No-le!” and “Ser-bia!” that reverberated through the building. If you’ve ever wondered what tennis in the Big 3 era would have looked and sounded like if Djokovic had been the world’s most popular player, this match gave you a pretty good idea.
“It was really unbelievable,” Djokovic said of the thousands of flag-waving Serbs in Australia who came out to root on his nation’s team throughout the ATP Cup. “The amount of support we got in Brisbane in the group stage and now here in Sydney, you guys took it to a new level.”
The Serbian team responded by winning the inaugural edition of ATP’s new, season-opening event. Djokovic went 6-0 in singles during the tournament, and 2-0 in doubles, and he and Viktor Troicki clinched the title with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Pablo Carreño Busta and Feliciano Lopez in Sunday’s doubles match.
“I’ll remember this experience for the rest of my life as definitely one of the nicest moments of my career,” Djokovic said.
Of all of the memorable experiences that Djokovic had over the last 10 days, the most significant was his win over Nadal. This was the collision that the tennis world had been waiting to see: No. 1 vs. No. 2, in a rematch of last year’s Australian Open final, with the ATP Cup on the line. Djokovic came in ranked No. 2, but he had won seven straight straight matches over the world No. 1 on hard courts, dating all the way back to 2013. His 19-7 record against Nadal on hard was even better than the 17-7 record that Nadal has amassed against him on clay.
It took all of 10 minutes for Djokovic to reassert his superiority over Rafa on the surface, and reestablish all of the old patterns that have worked so well for him in their previous matches. Djokovic broke Nadal in the opening game by doing just what he did in last year’s Australian Open final: Pounding his backhand into Nadal’s forehand, opening up Rafa’s backhand side and forcing him to go to his weaker slice, and closing out the rally from there. By the time Djokovic had held for 2-0 with a confident, 110-m.p.h. second serve, Nadal looked lost. While the Spanish team chattered Rafa’s ear off, the Serbian side was the picture of calm. For good reason.
“I started the match perfectly,” Djokovic said. And he continued in that vein for the first eight games. By the end of the first set, Djokovic had left his normal baseline patterns behind and was swinging with total freedom.
A year ago in the Australian Open final, Nadal never came up with an answer for Djokovic’s opening barrage. The Serb was in control throughout his 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win, which lasted just over two hours—for these guys, that qualifies as a 100-meter dash to the finish line. Could Rafa find a way to mount a counterattack this time? Commentating on the sidelines, Tim Henman advised Nadal to ditch his “totally ineffective” chip backhand, move closer to the baseline, and “just go for it.” Unlike so many of Rafa’s opponents, Henman said, “Djokovic isn’t going to beat himself.” He had a point.
Nadal must have thinking along the same lines. In the opening game of the second set, Rafa won two points by serving and volleying, and over the next few games he was able to use his serve to slow Djokovic’s momentum. While Nadal will never beat Djokovic by rushing the net, winning points up there seemed to give him the confidence he needed to be aggressive from the baseline. In the second set, he began to slug his backhand instead of chipping it, and nearly turned this match around. At 2-3, Rafa reached break point five times, only to have Djokovic wipe each one away with a winner—one with a forehand, one with a backhand, and three with his serve.
From there, the level of play rose as Djokovic and Nadal see-sawed toward a tiebreaker. Rafa saved two break points at 5-5, one with a backhand winner and another with a volley winner, but ultimately it was Djokovic who came up with the shot of the match when needed it. At 4-4 in the tiebreaker, with a third set in the balance, Djokovic went back to his old baseline pattern, and found an opening for a backhand winner to make it 5-4, with two of his own serves to come. He had finished the way he started.
“I was trying to take as much time as possible away from him,” Djokovic said. “I was serving very well, definitely the best serving match I had in the tournament. Just extremely satisfied in the way I performed.”
But Nadal was able to take some satisfaction of his own from this match. Unlike last year’s Aussie Open final, he found a way to make inroads into Djokovic’s game this time.
“I did the most difficult thing: changed a little the dynamic of the match after that first set,” Nadal said. “Happy the way I was able to compete.”
“I had my chances. I was very close. Not happy with the loss, of course, but the feeling in that second set is positive.”
Move up in the court, drive the backhand, get to the net, hit the forehand down the line, use the serve for all its worth: That’s a difficult blueprint for Nadal to execute if he wants to beat Djokovic, but at least he has a blueprint now.
Djokovic, though, walks away from Sydney with something more important: A win over the world No. 1 to start the season, a victory in the ATP Cup, and the memory of the roar of the crowd in his ears. He may still be hearing that roar when he gets to Melbourne.