If Novak Djokovic were ever going to let a big final go and live to fight another day, it would have been on an afternoon like this one. The world No. 1 had been sick the previous night, after winning a draining semifinal. He had a stiff neck for much of the week. He knew he had to play his first-round match at the US Open a little more than 48 hours later, on Monday evening. He had just announced that he was forming a breakaway player union that is likely to cause a major rift in men’s tennis. And he started the match by double-faulting up a storm and essentially gifting the first set to his opponent, Milos Raonic.
But Djokovic didn’t let this one go. There were a few good reasons for that.
First, it was the final of the Western and Southern Open, a tournament he had won just once in the past. Another title in “Cincy” and he would become the first man to win all nine of the ATP’s Masters 1000 events twice. He was already the only player to win them all once, but why not complete the set again when you have the chance?
Second, Djokovic is undefeated in 2020; he came into this match 22-0. That may not seem like a major distinction in this strange and truncated season, but it’s one that Djokovic has publicly said he wants to keep going for as long as he can. He has admitted that finishing the season without a loss is a long shot, and he very nearly went down to Roberto Bautista Agut on Friday. But having that as a goal in the back of his mind is a handy way for Djokovic to motivate himself on the days when he may not be feeling his best—i.e., like Saturday.
Third, Djokovic was 10-0 against Raonic. On the surface, extending that mark to 11-0 might not seem like a reason to go all out. In reality, Djokovic knew that Raonic was playing well this week and could be a threat at a depleted US Open. Why give the Canadian any hope that he can beat him at a Grand Slam event?
For all of those reasons, as well as his natural desire to win any match he plays, Djokovic dug himself out of that deep first-set hole and came back to edge Raonic 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in exactly two hours. Along the way, we found out just how heavily an 0-10 record against an opponent can weigh on a player’s mind.
Assessing the first set, Djokovic said, “I handed two breaks to him.”
The turnaround came at the start of the second set. Djokovic stopped double-faulting. He put more pace on his backhand. He dug in on his returns. At 2-2, 15-30, Raonic still had a chance to break Djokovic, but instead of clamping down when he had the chance, his forehand suddenly grew wild. Djokovic escaped with a hold, and then broke in the following game with a nice two-shot pass—he put the first one at Raonic’s feet, and the second out of his reach. Perhaps more ominous was the fist-pump that Djokovic shot in the direction of his player box after that game. He was engaged now, and he went on to close out the second set routinely.
The third set was a microcosm of the first two. Again, Raonic started fast; he broke serve with a big forehand return and led 2-0. Again, Djokovic had a fifth gear that he could shift into whenever he decided it was necessary. He broke back at love, first with a brilliant backhand pass, and then with a crosscourt forehand pass that was even better. At 2-2, Djokovic broke again, this time with his defense. At 30-40, he tracked down a seemingly unbeatable Raonic backhand. When Raonic netted his next forehand, Djokovic let out his loudest roar of the day, one that reverberated through nearly-empty Louis Armstrong Stadium.
When it came time for Djokovic to close out the match, his perfect record against Raonic loomed large once again. Djokovic tightened up in the middle of the game: He tried an ill-advised drop shot, made a loose backhand error, and went down break point. But once again, Raonic couldn’t find the killer shot when he needed it. From break point up, he missed three straight forehands. Djokovic had his 80th title, and his 35th Masters 1000 title, tying Rafael Nadal for the all-time lead. It was a “close encounter,” Djokovic said, but it had to be a satisfying victory.
Djokovic’s two Masters 1000s sweeps won’t go on the top line of his career statistics. That’s reserved for his Grand Slam total. But the double Masters sweep is grand in its own way, and something to marvel over. Most of all, it’s proof that no other player, including Nadal and Roger Federer, has been as consistent in important events across all surfaces, at all times of the year, as Djokovic.
You don’t set a record like that by throwing matches away, even when it might seem like the smart thing to do. If Djokovic couldn’t be beaten today, who’s going to do it over the next two weeks?