A Deflating Innovation
Miami Masters 1000, Final
(2) Djokovic d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/3
Novak Djokovic today won the Miami Masters for the fourth time, a mere two weeks after winning Indian Wells, thus re-establishing his pre-eminence on hardcourts just in time for the clay season, and leaving the rest of us with almost nothing new to say. Any point made after Indian Wells remains more or less true after Miami, if not more so. The finalists in California had appeared divinely favoured as all foreseeable impediments were removed from their path. In Florida the gods left even less to chance, excising the draw of likely threats by the quarterfinals, and then striking down both semifinalists before another ball was struck.
Having both semifinals decided via walkover was a deflating innovation, one that went unappreciated by the local crowd. They booed lustily at the news of Tomas Berdych’s default, although one imagines a large portion of the disapproval can be attributed to the discovery that no tickets refunds were forthcoming. Word is Berdych had a crook gut. Nishikori is notorious for withdrawals and retirements anyway, and his default grew more or less inevitable after he posted a pair of marathon upsets over David Ferrer and Roger Federer, which proved too much for his groin. The vexing hypothetical question of what would have happened had Berdych and Nishikori been drawn to face each other and then withdrawn was duly raised. Is there a rule, and if so should it be changed? This matter was addressed by Peter Fleming with devastating practicality. He pointed out that after the first guy withdraws, the second keeps his mouth shut and takes the free passage to the next round. It’s a question of whoever blinks first. Faced with Nadal and Djokovic in rampant form, however, it was probably a pretty easy decision.
And so it came down to yet another final between this pair, the seven hundred and fourteenth overall, yet, somehow, the first of this year. The hadn’t met since the final of the World Tour Finals, a best of three hardcourt match that Djokovic won quite comfortably. Today’s best-of-three hardcourt match didn’t feel functionally very different. I can only repeat what I said last time they met. Surface homogenisation has eroded the concept of surface specialists, but not entirely. At their best, Nadal is still better on clay and Djokovic is better on a hardcourt. Today Nadal wasn’t really at his peak, but that was mostly thanks to Djokovic, who was.
The only vaguely fraught moment came early in the first set, when Djokovic fended off a break point, although it was early enough that he would have fancied his chances to break back. As it happened, he didn’t need to, and set about running the Spaniard hither and yon beneath the Miami sun. The air was presumably as thick up Djokovic’s end of the court, but he seemed to be moving more easily through it, and his shots certainly penetrated it more readily. His crosscourt backhand was particularly dangerous. Djokovic’s technical excellence is such that when he is playing this well it’s hard to believe he cannot go on playing like this indefinitely, in stark contrast to the million moving parts of Nadal’s technique, which seems mostly miraculous in that it doesn’t desynchronise more. Today even Djokovic’s rare errors looked purposeful.
Nadal was broken at the start of the second set, and thereafter the only tension seemed to accrue in his following service games, as he grimly held on to remain only one break behind. Djokovic was typically marvellous on return. Has anyone ever been so good at consistently landing returns within a foot of the baseline? Nadal won only 59% of first serve points for the match. He tried at various points to get the crowd into it, with some success, but it didn’t affect the outcome. A fine final point saw them both finish up at the net, though Djokovic was the one who collapsed in triumph. He sprang up soon enough, and shared a handshake and hug combo with Nadal that lacked many outward signs of warmth. The world number one looked like he really didn’t want to hang around.
Fortunately he didn’t have to, since the trophy ceremony was abbreviated for American television. No doubt there was some pressing commitment to broadcast amateur sport played by university students. There were the usual bubbles, confetti and crystal trophies, and that was that. Sky Sports had nowhere else to be, though. Annabel Croft asked Djokovic whether at a certain point today he could feel that he’d broken Nadal’s spirit. ‘Of course,’ responded the champion, and began to riff on the concept of confidence from a position of plenty. He was probably justified in feeling a little cocky.
The imperious manner in which Djokovic smothers and thereby neutralises those parts of Nadal’s game that have tormented the tour for a decade have been amply catalogued, although there have been few occasions in which the Serb has showcased it better. One such was the first set of last year’s Monte Carlo final, which Sky Sports handily demonstrated by showing highlights of after today’s final. Network programmers have learned to set aside at least four hours for any best-of-three match between Nadal and Djokovic. When today’s final concluded in a mere 83 minutes, there was time to kill, and Greg Rusedski – mercifully – can only go on for so long.
Djokovic and Nadal between them now hold all nine Masters 1000 events, as well at the World Tour Finals and two of the four Majors. If this isn’t unprecedented, it’s awfully close. (In 2006 Federer and Nadal held all four Majors, the Tennis Masters Cup and six of the nine Masters. I’ll leave it to others to rank these achievements.) Six of the nine Masters 1000 events are played back-to-back, in three groups of two. It has almost grown commonplace for a single player to grab a pair. Last year Nadal won Madrid and Rome in consecutive weeks, and Canada and Cincinnati. In 2011 Djokovic won Indian Wells and Miami consecutively, as well as Madrid-Rome. This doesn’t speak to the modesty of the achievement, but to the high quality of the players achieving it. Winning two of these things in a row – especially Indian Wells and Miami with their absurd 96 draws, abrupt shift from desert to swamp, and over-reliance on Kiss-Cam – is still a mighty accomplishment.
Overall, it is Djokovic’s eighteenth Masters title, which puts him one clear of Andre Agassi at third on the all-time winner list, trailing only Nadal and Federer. Speaking of Federer, the Swiss has returned to the top four, while David Ferrer by failing to defend his runner-up points has fallen to number six, which should hopefully ensure a few more balanced draws in the coming months. Andy Murray, who was defending champion but lost early, has fallen to number eight. Nadal remains at number one, though his margin has been more than halved in recent weeks. Djokovic, champion in Indian Wells and now Miami, is right on his heels.