Warm, Generous, Beset and Dangerous

Toronto Masters 1000, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (14) Gasquet, 6/3 6/2

Novak Djokovic tonight defeated Richard Gasquet in the final of the Toronto Masters 1000. He did so in two very straight sets, and barely tarried beyond an hour, thereby mounting a persuasive argument both for and against best-of-five set Masters finals. On the one hand, the Canadian crowd has endured a lot this week, and frankly deserved a little more entertainment. On the other hand, just how entertained were they? Did anyone really need to see another set of that? From 3/3 in the first set Djokovic won nine games to Gasquet’s two, and there was no good reason to believe the defending champion couldn’t sustain this level of domination indefinitely. Undoubtedly Djokovic’s ardent admirers could have watched all night, although for two of the littlest fans, swaddled in Serbian bunting and ensconced rapturously in the front row, the real highlight came after the match, when their hero strolled over and gifted them a pair of his racquets, a typically warm and generous gesture.

Even as the week progressed, and Djokovic’s triumph grew even less unlikely, some sought to downplay his achievement in Toronto, crowing endlessly about the absence of Nadal and Federer, and Murray’s early withdrawal. In rebuttal I suppose one can only point out that Djokovic won Montreal last year when the other three turned up to play, but lost early. These things happen, and fans of other players would do well to remember that some of their hero’s victories were about as taxing as a daytrip to the seaside, and not, as they may righteously believe, a slog along Omaha Beach. Nadal and Federer have amassed 41 Masters titles between them, and some of those were gathered with seemingly little effort. When you’re good enough, that can happen. The idea that some victories should have asterisks attached to them is a bad one that has lately crept into the sport, and ought to creep out again. A win is a win.

In any case, by defending his Canadian Masters title, Djokovic moves ahead of Pete Sampras into outright fourth on the all-time Masters Series leader board, behind only Rafael Nadal (21), Roger Federer (20) and Andre Agassi (17). This also means that Toronto becomes the 15th consecutive Masters event to be claimed by Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray, or the 18th of the last 19. It is at least a partial rebuttal to those who dismiss the concept of a Big Four out of hand, an opinion that relies heavily upon the idea that the Majors are all that matters in tennis, thereby disqualifying Murray from membership among the elite. The Scot’s compelling gold medal performance at the London Olympics further complicates the matter. Then again, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have between them claimed the last eleven Majors.

Along with the World Tour Finals, the nine Masters 1000 events and the four Majors comprise the most important mandatory events in the tennis season, although naturally all are not of equal import, and some are less mandatory than others. Nevertheless, taken in their entirely these events permit us to assess just how dominant the top four players are at the premiere level. The short answer is that they’re very dominant, which as a contention hardly merits statistical buttressing. It is apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the sport. But is the rest of the field making inroads?

If all four of the top players were to reach the semifinals of all 14 mandatory events over a given 52 week period, they would accrue a collective total of 42,740 ranking points. This figure therefore defines the maximum number of points available, if no other player had reached the semifinals. Over the last 52 weeks the top four have in fact accrued 33,760 points, which comes to 78.99% of their total possible points from these events. Even though this level of dominance is without precedent, it also reveals the astonishing possibility that other players can in fact reach the later rounds. They just can’t win them. The following graph illustrates how this compares historically (going back to 1990): Since the end of last season the rest of the field has made up some ground, but not much. In 2011 there were no first-time Major finalists for the first time since 1964, and no first time Major semifinalists for the first time in the Open Era. With only the US Open to come, we’re on track to repeat that in 2012. So far this year one player has reached his maiden Masters final (John Isner in Indian Wells), although none have reached their first semifinal. However, there are three more Masters events to play this season, and these figures may change before the year is out. Someone entirely new might win a Masters 1000 event. But based on this evidence, it is hardly likely. Even when someone else gets close, they’re never all that close.

Sometimes they aren’t close at all. As tennis contests go, today’s final languished well-shy of compelling. Again, critics have been quick to blame Toronto’s reduced field. But it’s interesting to note that an unsatisfying finale is entirely in keeping with recent practice at this level. In the last 12 months, only one Masters final has been close, or even closer than one-sided. That was the excellent match between Federer and Tomas Berdych in Madrid, on the allegedly unplayable cobalt powder of the Caja Magica. No other Masters final has even stretched to a deciding set, which is a problem given their designation as the ATP’s premiere events. Exactly what are they showcasing?

Gasquet should feel no shame in being beaten so thoroughly, although one hopes he feels at least a little chagrined at submitting to it so readily. His trusted strategy of malingering in the spare acreage beyond the baseline and inviting opponents forward via a complex series of miss-hit forehands was never going to trouble Djokovic, and so the Frenchman deserves no credit at all for sticking with it. His only chance at winning was to attack, without relent, and probably without much restraint. I realise this isn’t his natural mode when facing a top player, but given that his natural mode naturally ensures he loses these matches fairly quickly, he never really have the option of playing naturally and winning. There’s no use to be gained from making peace with your lot: you adapt or you lose.

Although he has admitted elsewhere that he grows too passive under pressure, I’m not convinced he truly believes it. At one point late in today’s match Djokovic followed a deep firm approach into the net. Gasquet, stranded somewhere remote and wide of the Toronto sign, essayed a flashy backhand pass. It looked gorgeous, and plonked uselessly into the net. Afterwards he remonstrated with himself over the technique, even though the technique wasn’t the problem. The problem was that he was attempting to make a desperate pass on the full stretch from three or four meters beyond the baseline. Djokovic is a capable volleyer rather than an accomplished one, but even he must have felt disappointed at only winning eleven of twelve trips to the net.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that the result would have been different regardless of what Gasquet tried. Djokovic has looked like a rejuvenated player on the North American hardcourts this week, perhaps ironically given his ongoing tussles with jet-lag, exhaustion, Olympic disappointment, needling spectators, 34-year-old Germans, Canadian weather and unspecified ‘personal problems’. (Personal problems really are the ‘producer credit’ of the ailment cosmos. Who among us lacks for personal problems? What we really lack is sufficient notoriety whereby barely-remembered figures from our youth are willing to come forward and expound upon these problems on our behalf.) Anyway, despite being beset on all sides, or perhaps because of it, Djokovic is once again looking dangerous, moving beautifully and defending impenetrably. He had more points to defend than anyone coming into the US Summer, and by retaining the Canadian Masters title with seemingly little effort, he has given himself the best of all chances.

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