An Effect So Poetic

Davis Cup, Final

Until last year the tiny proportion of the Czech Republic concentrated in its Davis Cup team had not won the Davis Cup since 1980. They’ve now won it for the second year in a row, by fielding the same two-man squad of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. Last year they accounted for Spain, the most successful Davis Cup nation of recent years. This year they defeated Serbia, who won the title in 2010, spearheaded by the formidable Novak Djokovic. Yet while the two finals were broadly alike in outline – even the configuration of results was vaguely similar – they could hardly have diverged more in detail. Last year’s final was historically significant, and thrilling from first to last. Berdych Stepanek DC 2013 -2This year’s was frankly a bore from start to finish, thus neatly summarising a long season in which a tournament’s deciding match was seldom its best.

Last year’s final usefully proved that even Spain is heavily diminished without its best player, while Serbia has now proved you cannot rely only on your best player, especially if he doesn’t play doubles. In neither final did the Czech Republic boast the best player – in both finals Tomas Berdych was soundly beaten by the opposition number one in the reverse singles – but Davis Cup ties typically aren’t decided by who has the best player, but by who has the least worst. Live fifth rubbers are always contested between the number two players, which is why they so often feature as the hero in close ties. Djokovic was impeccable in the 2010 final, walloping any Frenchman placed before him, but it was Victor Troicki’s dismissal of Michael Llodra in the fifth rubber that is destined to be remembered. Or recall Mikhail Youzhny’s defeat of Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final. More pertinently, remember Radek Stepanek’s dashing defeat of Nicolas Almagro last year. Janko Tipsarevic’s withdrawal several days before this year’s final was thus catastrophic for the Serbian team – Bogdan Obradovic likened his absence to playing tennis on one leg – and removed any tangible doubt about the eventual result. Knowing how things turn out subtracts significantly from the fascination of watching them unfold. There was some chatter as to whether Lukas Rosol should have played instead of Stepanek on the opening day in order to preserve the older man for the hardships to come. The upshot was that really it didn’t matter.

Anyone who doubts the inherent value of chaos was hopefully reassured by this year’s final. This is what sport looks like in a deterministic world. The weekend unfurled with devastating predictability, like those irritating fight scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, in which Iron Man and Moriarty hardly bother engaging in fisticuffs because they’ve already mapped out how it’ll go down. Every match went according to prediction, and none of them went beyond three sets. It was rare for the winning player or team even to cede break points, let alone a break. The closest we came to an upset was Berdych attaining 4/4 in the first set against Djokovic via a series of desperate holds. ‘Anyone with a hat should be donning it for Berdych!’ insisted the Eurosport commentator who wasn’t Frew McMillan. Perhaps he meant ‘doff’, but his yawns affected his diction.

What interest there was was confined to the doubles, as is frequently the case. In last year’s final the Czech team encountered a Spanish duo that had just won the World Tour Finals, yet cleaned them up in four sets. This year Berdych and Stepanek’s opposition proved less fearsome in Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac. After the heady thrill of Boise, where Bozoljac performed magnificently to see off the Bryan brothers, and the semifinal in which he and Zimonjic fought gallantly in a marathon loss, the final was a disappointment. Djokovic DC 2013 -4One could term it a reality check, but that’s an unkind thing to say about a player like Bozoljac who subsists primarily on the Challenger and Futures tours, where every week is a reality check. He did his best, and it isn’t as though Zimonjic set the stadium alight.

The pressing issue was whether Djokovic would have done any better. It’s not much of an issue, but given that it is almost the sole point of contention in a searingly uneventful weekend of tennis, it is the issue that is being discussed at length. I’m not convinced it matters. Djokovic doesn’t have much of a doubles record, although he is at present the finest singles player on the planet, especially on an indoor hardcourt, and that’s historically a recipe for doubles success. Whether it would have been enough to snatch victory is another matter. Word was that after London he was all but spent; winning everything all the time is undoubtedly fabulous, but it does ensure you’re playing all the time. A long doubles match might have hobbled Djokovic for the reverse singles, although admittedly it would have hobbled Berdych as well. The real issue is that Stepanek and Berdych are an excellent doubles combination, and were they to pair up regularly one imagines they would enjoy tremendous success throughout the season. Alas the rigours of the singles tour preclude that possibility. Stepanek of course is a doubles specialist (it ranks highly on his list of endorsed skills on LinkedIn), and has won multiple Majors.

It turns out he is also a specialist at closing out Davis Cup finals – he now is the third player in history to win two live fifth rubbers at this stage of the competition – whether it is against Nicolas Almagro or Dusan Lajovic. Unlike Almagro, who was left alone and forlorn for far too long by his compatriots after last year’s defeat, no one anywhere holds Lajovic’s loss against him and his team was lavish with its consolation. It had been a very big ask. No doubt a Davis Cup final is a tremendous opportunity for a young player to make his name, but there are limits. Sink or swim is beside the point when you’re thrown in with crocodiles. Stepanek was as relentless as the tide, attacking without pause, and gave the youngster nothing.

Afterwards he was overrun by his teammates, while the Czech contingent in the stands went justifiably berserk. Defending a Davis Cup title is considerably rarer than winning one. Stepanek soon extricated himself form the pile of bodies and set to vaulting the net, to the delight of the Czech fans, and no doubt the bemusement of the Serbs. Later he proffered the tactful opinion that not playing Djokovic in the doubles had been akin to ‘leaving your Ferrari in the garage’, ensuring that for some bemusement was transformed into outrage.

Berdych later failed to mollify his hosts by asking why Djokovic wasn’t at the post-final dinner, enquiring whether the world number two was still in the ‘garage’? It gave most of us something to be mildly amused by, and a certain species of plodding moraliser something to get really worked up at, which they duly did. Thus did a forgettable final weekend conclude with a modicum of interest. If only there’d been some tennis to match it. As I said last week, you cannot have everything. If you’re the Czech Republic, however, you can have the Davis Cup, again.

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Direction and Magnitude

World Tour Finals, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/4

Novak Djokovic tonight defeated Rafael Nadal in the final of the World Tour Finals, an appropriately forgettable match  with which to conclude a tournament that one suspects is already evaporating from the collective memory. It was the third time in the last four years that the top two players have closed out the ATP season, but the first time it has been these two. I suppose it had to happen eventually, since they seem to have played finals everywhere else. Consequently everyone knew what to expect, especially given the surface: an extended defensive slog based around the repetition of readily identifiable patterns. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeAs with minimalism – which people persistently confuse with simplicity – great complexity is achieved by the re-iteration of basic blocks, not to mention great length. No one expected it to be simple, and no one expected it to be quick.

I confess to feeling some relief when everyone was proved wrong, at least when it came to length. When two-players face each other thirty-nine times – an Open era record – it’s inevitable that not all of their encounters will be classics, although one hoped that the last match of a memorable season would turn out to be a bit less forgettable. Alas, Nadal commenced nervously and never entirely settled. Meanwhile Djokovic was fierce initially – tearing out to a 3/0 lead – then meek for a while, and then forceful all the way until the end. He seemed to hold break points in most of Nadal’s service games, but only reciprocated the favour once to be broken back in the first set. Whatever hope this kindled of a competitive match was lessened by the consideration that the quality wasn’t high enough that you’d necessarily want to see more of it, then doused entirely when Djokovic lifted again. The point with which he re-broke Nadal to claim the eighth game ranks among the finest defensive efforts I have ever seen, a masterpiece of thrust, parry, loft and touch. Djokovic’s bellow afterwards was long and lusty, and certainly justified. Most of us will never doing anything nearly so masterful in that atmosphere for those stakes.

Djokovic broke early in the second set – more shouting – and threatened to do so repeatedly as the set wore down. Insurance breaks are nice, but aren’t necessary if you never face calamity (much like all insurance, really). The Serb was never again threatened on serve, rarely conceded the baseline, and ended up with atypically excellent numbers at the net. Nadal was almost always on the move, and even when he could set his feet on a forehand found it hard to shift his opponent for long. The length on his groundstrokes was a constant problem, except for Djokovic.

In truth Djokovic was the real problem. Afterwards Nadal conceded that his opponent had simply been too good. On this surface, playing at his best, Djokovic truly is. The homogenisation of the court surfaces has helped ensure that these two end up facing each other at nearly every tournament everywhere, and that when they do they barely have to alter their basic game, but between them the surface still matters. Nadal is better on clay, and Djokovic is superior on hardcourt, assuming both men play at their best. In both cases the gap is closing, but it is still there.

Since the beginning of his career, Nadal fading through the late part of the season has come to feel like a structural requirement of men’s tennis, although it says a lot about his magisterial 2013 season that losing in the final of the year end championships can be construed as a let-down. It is also a testament to his evolving mastery of all surfaces that one’s definition of ‘late’ has had to be pushed further and further back as the years rolled by. Initially that late part of Nadal’s year kicked off very early, once the main clay tournaments were over. Admittedly that was long ago, when he was very young. Soon he learned to commence fading after Wimbledon, with the results petering out by the US Open. In 2008 he became a factor in the later stages in New York, and has never since failed to reach at least the semifinals, assuming he turns up at all.

Yet the period after the year’s final Major – pollen-choked Australians find it difficult to call this the ‘fall season’ – has remained unaccountably lean. In his entire career he has won just two titles after the US Open, and one of those was in 2005 in Madrid, enabled by an extravagant collapse from Ivan Ljubicic. That remains Nadal’s only indoor title, since the Ariake Coliseum roof remained open through his Tokyo title run in 2010, his only other career title in what northern hemisphere fans obdurately refuse to term ‘the Australian Spring’. But this year one could be forgiven for assuming the usual rules don’t apply, especially on hardcourts. Up to and including the US Open Nadal hadn’t lost a tournament on that surface. After that he contested four events – the same ones as Djokovic – and for all that he seemed more determined than ever to secure the few important trophies that have eluded him, didn’t win any. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course. Winning these things is really, really hard.

Djokovic, of course, won them all, though in the process lost his number one ranking. The extent to which those two events are connected is open for debate. Some felt that losing the top spot firmed his resolve. There’s probably something to this. After a strong start to the year Djokovic’s form grew patchy, even within matches. Transcendent sets would be interleaved with uncharacteristic dreck, as he would unaccountably lose his way. Since Beijing however these periods have grown fewer – there was a bizarre one in the Shanghai final – and he has looked more like the Djokovic who swept through the first two thirds of the 2011 season. (Surgically combining the first part of his 2011 season with the last part of his 2013 yields a year of near-perfection.) One shouldn’t forget he almost did exactly the same thing last year, but for that strange loss to Sam Querrey in Bercy. Last year he was chasing down Federer for the number one spot, successfully as it turned out. Grand purpose certainly sharpens his focus.

On the other hand, it’s probably pointless to search for additional reasons for Djokovic to play superbly on hardcourts. At his best he is without question the world’s best player on that surface. His current streak of twenty-two matches isn’t the longest by any means, but it is unsurpassed for quality. It includes twelve victories over the current top ten (aside from the injured Murray), including two wins each against Nadal, Federer and Wawrinka, and eight in less than two weeks. That’s hard to top. The appropriately renamed Brad Drewett trophy, bedecked with blue streamers and bestowed amidst a blizzard of confetti, was a fitting reward.

Thus ends the latest edition of the World Tour Finals. It certainly wasn’t the most memorable instalment, from any point of view. Perhaps it was the absence of Murray, but the entire week has felt slightly deflated. The Sky Sports commentary was certainly less demented as a direct result. Recall their tedious tut-tutting during last year’s semifinal over the London crowd’s divided loyalties, particularly Sir Ian McKellen’s unforgiveable decision to sit in the Federer box. Sir Ian was nowhere to be seen this year. No doubt he’s hewing monsters in Mirkwood. One wonders whether Murray’s absence was a deciding factor in keeping other celebrities away. Last year there was a cameraman tasked with capturing Kevin Spacey’s every facial tic, and apparently no one could get enough of Pippa Middleton. This year there were endless footballers and one of the heinous mannequins from One Direction. Still, you can’t have everything.

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A Madman’s Dream

World Tour Finals, Round Robin.

As innovations in sports coverage go, the two tendencies with the patchiest success rate have typically entailed attempts to introduce more technology into proceedings and vain efforts to bring viewers closer to the players, or vice versa. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeThe former tendency gave cricket the third umpire. The latter gave tennis those idiotic pre-match interviews, upon which it is impossible to heap too much ridicule.

Unsurprising therefore was Sky Sports’ latest innovation, which was to amalgamate these two tendencies into a single, and potentially unholy, feature. Within minutes of each match concluding the victorious player was invited up to the studio, whereupon he was sealed in a room with Mark Petchey and forced to analyse key moments from the match on the Sky Pad, a large interactive touchscreen. It seems like a response to a madman’s dream, but the result, to my surprise, is not half bad. New technology and live television are generally a recipe for disaster, but this worked surprisingly well. (Petchey probably isn’t integral to the enterprise, but he has obviously spent thoughtful hours mastering Sky Pad’s intricacies.) One doubts whether it would be half as successful if they invited the losing player along.

It’s also not an exercise that would work for every player, since many aren’t especially voluble even in victory. Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic were about the best of them, chatty, thoughtful and affable. Indeed, Berdych remarked unprompted that he actually found it quite valuable to look at the match this way, while it remained fresh in mind. He was invited to discuss the point whereby he’d gained the break in the first set, concluded with a fine backhand volley. He revealed that as he was lining the shot up his mind had flashed back to an identical volley he’d duffed in a different tournament, and was mostly determined not to repeat it. It would have been nice to hear from David Ferrer or Richard Gasquet, but of course that wasn’t possible. Both went home winless. Gasquet also went home with fewer coaches than he’d arrived with.

The final round robin match between he and Djokovic will hopefully – though probably not – provide a useful counter to those who scream ‘Tank!’ every time a player loses a match they statistically shouldn’t. Too often the loudest shrieks emanate from the player’s own fans, meaning that for many poor sportsmanship is preferable to merely losing – a sign of bad times. But if ever a player had good reason to tank a match, this was it. The result would have no effect on the final group standings: Djokovic had already topped the group, and it was already decided that he’d face Wawrinka in the semifinals. Furthermore, he’ll be playing that semifinal in under twenty-four hours, against a Wawrinka who has enjoyed an extra day’s recuperation, and who’s already driven Djokovic to the edge several times this year. Beyond that is a final with either Nadal or Federer. Assuming the Serb gets through all that, he then has the Davis Cup final next week. But he didn’t tank: he played on, sometimes desperately, sometimes grimly, often loudly. I’m not convinced his decision to do so merits applause, since not throwing a match is hardly an act of nobility, although it is being treated as such. In bad times you take what you can get.

I’ve no doubt that tanking does occur in professional tennis, but I do doubt whether it occurs as frequently as cynics suggest, especially the ones whose cynicism forms a world-weary veneer for naivety. In this case it reveals a failure to grasp that the pride of elite athletes exists at a depth that can be hard to fathom for those of us operating nearer the surface, and impossible even to sense for those who’ve never achieved anything of note. Djokovic was entirely conversant with the benefits that tanking this match would confer, and undoubtedly the possibility did cross his mind. Perhaps he even discussed it with Marián Vajda. But he doesn’t like to lose any match, which is part of the reason he has now won twenty of them in a row, stretching back to the US Open. This streak isn’t so impressive for its length – Djokovic himself has posted longer ones in recent years – but for its quality and its circumstances. He hasn’t lost a match since he lost the number one ranking, and of those twenty victories, half have been against top ten players. One of them was against Wawrinka last week, and he’ll certainly fancy his chances tomorrow.

Wawrinka’s passage to the semifinals is a suitable reward for a superb season, which included a final in Madrid, a semifinal at the US Open, and myriad strong performances elsewhere. His key result this week was the defeat of Berdych on the opening afternoon, especially the excellent third set. It was arguably the key result for Berdych as well, although the Czech certainly had his chances against Nadal yesterday, and by winning would have broken Wawrinka’s heart. But Nadal survived his only fraught moments this week, and by winning ensured a vast outpouring of goodwill towards Wawrinka, who is like Ferrer in that all the main fanbases are united in their approval of him. As with Ferrer, it’s much easier to bestow affection upon a guy who almost never beats your favourite. We can say that Wawrinka is unlucky to face Djokovic in the semifinals, against whom he is 2-14. But he is a combined 1-24 against the other semifinalists. Adorable.

Mind you, Wawrinka temporarily alienated a few fans when he complained that Toni Nadal’s coaching had grown sufficiently ostentatious that even the umpire might be prevailed upon to sit up and take notice. The Swiss entreated the chair to issue another warning, but none was forthcoming. Nadal was more obliging, and requested his uncle tone it down:  “Wawrinka is one of the players that I have a better relationship with on tour. I felt sad during the match that he felt that way. I told him ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen again’. That’s why I told Toni to stop because the relationship is more important than any match.” That’s class.

Afterwards Wawrinka worked it out with Nadal and his coach, another example of the players resolving a minor issue amicably behind closed doors, while outside their more deranged fans mobilised, whipped themselves into a wild frenzy, then drowned in the collective froth of their own rabidity. The difference, one suspects, is that the players have more important matters to think about. The match itself was close, although in Nadal’s case he was only close to losing a set. This would have been the first one he’d ever dropped to Wawrinka, so that particular record remains pristine.

Wawrinka then took his vestigial frustration out on Ferrer, as everyone has all week. Ferrer failed to win a match at this year’s tour finals, proving once again how cruel the format can be. This has been the Spaniard’s best season, at least numerically, but it has ended in four consecutive losses. He did himself no favours by choosing to play for seven straight weeks, reaching three finals in the penultimate three weeks, and winning none of them. He has conceded as much afterwards, though I expect his schedule next year will be exactly the same.

The most exciting match of the round robin phase was undoubtedly today’s between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro, who’ve lately taken to scheduling one of these each week. There’s talk of another exhibition tour through South America, for just the two of them. This week’s match was billed as a one-match shoot-out, with the winner to earn a coveted place in the semifinals and the loser to depart in shame, or at least in a water-taxi. It all sounded terrifically exciting until one recalled that they played for precisely the same stakes last week in the Bercy quarterfinals. Indeed, those are the stakes everyone plays for every week. Somehow the logic of the round robin format has scrambled pundit’s brains.

Anyway, it was a terrific match, at least in terms of drama. Quality-wise it largely confined itself to that wide channel between the lower bounds of the transcendental and the upper reaches of the execrable, only occasionally straying into both. Del Potro steamed out to a 5/1 lead in the first set, augmenting meat-and-potatoes rallying with an extravagant assortment of forehand errors from Federer. The Swiss eventually found his range, upped his pace, and came roaring almost but not quite all the way back. Federer’s early-set let-downs have now become sufficiently regular that even he no longer bothers to look surprised. He was duly broken at the start of the second set, but soon responded in kind. The standard lifted, and eventually a tiebreak arrived, at which point only Federer continued to lift, taking it 7-2. Del Potro appeared spent.

Federer has built a forgettable season on his new-found conviction that momentum is but a fool’s conceit, and ensured he had none left for the third set by availing himself of a long toilet break. He was, predictably, broken almost immediately. When I say ‘predictably’, I mean precisely that. Tennis TV revealed some fascinating statistics that clearly chart Federer’s decline: since 2008 the likelihood of him being broken in the first three games of a deciding set has risen year-on-year from 61% to 100%. It was a perfect example of the obscure stat that tells the tale. Unfortunately no numbers were forthcoming on how often he recovers that early break. ‘Too often’ is undoubtedly del Potro’s feeling, although the Argentine didn’t help his cause with some very soft errors at inopportune moments. Federer broke late, the London crowd went bananas – remember how they were roundly excoriated last year for supporting Federer over Andy Murray – and he finally sealed a desperate win with one last ace. Del Potro had contrived to lose despite leading by a break in every set. It kind of felt like a final, as Federer admitted in his on-court interview, but it wasn’t. He had merely earned the privilege of facing Nadal, the latest instalment in a rivalry so putatively epic that it must be denoted with Roman numerals. Beyond that, it’ll be a one-match shoot-out to the death, otherwise known as a semifinal.

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The Measure of Defiance

Paris Masters, Final

(2) Djokovic d. (3) Ferrer, 7/5 7/5

David Ferrer didn’t quite defend his first Masters title at the Paris Masters this week, falling in the final to Novak Djokovic. But he wasn’t far off, and came considerably closer than most believed he would. This is not to diminish expert opinion, but merely to laud Ferrer’s endeavour. There were plenty of good reasons to suppose he would not reprise his efforts from twelve months ago. Despite his lofty number three ranking, his form has been inconsistent this season. The Bercy draw was not only much stronger this year, but all the best players were unusually committed – all top eight seeds reached the quarterfinals – eschewing the common practice of offering a token appearance before absconding for London. Julian Finney/Getty Images EuropeHistory also provided no comfort: no one has ever won consecutive titles at the Paris Indoors. For these reasons, and others, I’d suggest Ferrer’s efforts this year have exceeded last year’s, for all that his greatest title ultimately fell undefended.

Ferrer’s defiance of common expectation has to some extent defined the European Indoor season this year. In Stockholm he defied the widespread assumption that he’d easily account for Grigor Dimitrov, given the Spaniard’s hitherto cherished role of keeping upstarts in their place. In Valencia he overcame the advantages of a slow court and overwhelming home crowd support to lose to Mikhail Youzhny. In Paris he defied expectations that he’d lose early in the tournament, or easily in the final. There is little chance that he’ll win the World Tour Finals next week, so pencil him in for that one.

Last year Ferrer won the Paris Indoors without contesting a match in which he wasn’t the strong favourite. For a diminutive claycourter this was an unlikely scenario, since aside from the World Tour Finals, Paris is the sport’s most prestigious indoor event. Sam Querrey and Michael Llodra had thoughtfully cleared any impediment on his way to the final, and once there Ferrer discovered that Jerzy Janowicz had usefully obliterated the other half of the draw. This year he enjoyed no such favours. In the quarterfinals he faced Tomas Berdych. Admittedly Ferrer boasts a strong record against the Czech, even on this surface, including comprehensive thrashing in last year’s Davis Cup final in Prague. But Ferrer’s form, as I mentioned, has not been stellar this season, and he has recently developed a knack for losing important indoor matches to aggressive shotmakers. In the semifinal he defeated a curiously downbeat Rafael Nadal in straight sets, a result that I hadn’t believed to be more than theoretically possible. The hardcourt head-to-head between the two top Spaniards was admittedly 3-3 before this match, but two of Ferrer’s victories came six years ago, while the other was in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals, when Nadal could barely move. Nonetheless, Ferrer performed with quiet magnificence, enough to take advantage of Nadal’s off day. In the final he insisted he played even better. The highlight was the stone-dead dropshot winner with which he claimed the tournament’s longest rally. It is rare Ferrer to be described as a genius, but the commentators were entirely justified in doing so there. Perhaps we should be quiet while he works.

Nowhere is it decreed that easy titles count for less, although some insist otherwise, concocting complicated metrics whereby we can waste time measuring one player’s achievements against another’s. There’s such a thing as an honourable loss, although no one would confuse it for a win. I’ve no doubt that Ferrer, if given the option, would choose a comfortable run to a Masters title over a heroic slog that falls just short. He doesn’t shirk toil, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily prefers hard times over an easy ones. It is therefore ironic that he so consistently makes his own life harder than it needs to be. The Bercy final proved to be a valuable illustration of this. He lost in straight sets, yet served for each of them. In both cases he saved his worst tennis for late in the set, although Djokovic played a large role in that, characteristically lifting precisely when circumstances required he must. There is no shortage of broken-hearted opponents who can testify to the Serb’s sense of timing, nor his immaculate focus in parlous situations.

Until he needed to be, the Serb was rarely at his best, and certainly nowhere the level he displayed against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, or against Nadal in Beijing, let alone the consummate flogging he visited upon Ferrer back in Melbourne, or myriad other cruel beatdowns he has delivered this year. Despite that, Djokovic afterwards claimed he was playing his best tennis of the year. Perhaps he was speaking in general terms. Unquestionably he is playing better than everyone else right now. In his current winning streak of seventeen matches he has beaten every other player in the top ten besides Andy Murray – who has a great excuse – and Berdych, against whom Djokovic no longer need prove anything.

Today it was understandable that his mind might be elsewhere. Yesterday he won a tough semifinal against Roger Federer, and must immediately ford the Channel in order to play him again on Tuesday. There is thus no opportunity to savour his second title at a venue that has in recent times known few repeat winners. The last multiple champion in Bercy was Marat Safin in 2004. There was barely time to play with his new trophy, which is some kind of tree, and different from the old trophy, a modernist homage to tangled wreckage. I missed the old Masters shields. This would have been Djokovic’s sixteenth Masters shield, and third this year. Next week he’ll attempt to win his third year end championships. Even if he does – he is the favourite – he almost certainly won’t finish the year at number one, since for Nadal to do so he must win only one match in London, and has been drawn in a round robin group that could be purpose-built to ensure precisely that. When Nadal recovered the top ranking after Beijing I had supposed that the gap between him and Djokovic would widen considerably before it closed. That is probably still the case, since Nadal has nothing to defend until February, but Djokovic has done everything he feasibly can to remain as close as possible, with ‘everything he feasibly can’ here defined as not losing ever. He has defended every title he already held, and now added the Paris Masters, a display of defiance that must reduce even Ferrer to envy.

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Small Miracles

Paris Masters, Quarterfinals

It is rare at any level of professional tennis for the top eight seeds to populate the quarterfinal stage of a tournament, a result that was guaranteed the moment Rafael Nadal defeated Jerzy Janowicz in the last of the Paris Indoors fourth round matches. At Masters level this hadn’t occurred in over four years. Julian Finney/Getty Images EuropeMore gratifying still was the fact that the last eight men remaining at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy were the same eight who’ll descend upon London’s O2 Arena next week for the World Tour Finals.

Apparently such a miracle has never happened before, although if it was going to, this was probably the year for it. Coming in to this week, three qualification spots remained open, meaning that a number of men had every reason not only to turn up but to give their best effort, which is precisely the kind of effort that can be lacking at this tournament. Added interest came in the form of Roger Federer, who was prominent among those yet to qualify. By winning his first round match against Kevin Anderson he took care of that, and yet another comfortable victory over Philipp Kohlschreiber saw him attain the quarterfinals. By joining him at that stage both Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet ensured their spots in London as well, although whether they’ll do much more than make up the numbers is a nice question. The very best players seem unusually committed this year.

Novak Djokovic lost to Sam Querrey in strange circumstances last year, withdrew the year before after proving he cannot lose to Viktor Troicki under any circumstances, and fared badly against Michael Llodra the year before that. Yet this week he has hardly looked like losing or withdrawing. Indeed, through the first set of his quarterfinal against Wawrinka he seemed reluctant to give up points. The Swiss had an early chance to recover an even earlier break, didn’t take it, and was reduced to spectating for the next twenty minutes. The second set was tighter, especially at the start, but Djokovic always had it well in hand.

Nadal often doesn’t turn up in Paris at all, as a culmination of his disinclination to contest any of the other European indoor events that precede it. One can understand his disinterest, given that conditions don’t suit his game, and he hardly needs the points. He has won precisely one indoor hardcourt title in his career (Madrid 2005). But in a season in which he cleaned up the American summer and went undefeated on hardcourts until September, who is to say he cannot win the Paris Indoors? Gasquet certainly had little say in the matter, thrashed four and one in just over an hour. There was a belief that the last three rounds in Bercy would provide a preview of what to expect in London. It seems that this is the case.

Many are convinced Nadal will not only win Paris, but the Tour Finals as well, thereby tripling his collection of indoor titles. One viewer took the trouble to email Sky Sports to that effect, adding, however, that she would be equally happy if Federer never won another match. Marcus Buckland and Barry Cowan professed themselves shocked by this, suggesting neither man spends much time on the internet, which is largely powered by schadenfreude and self-importance, and is thus self-sustaining. Wishing catastrophe on total strangers based on perceived minor transgressions is an even more popular online hobby than charmless grandiosity, though the two are easily combined.

Cowan confessed he did not understand how anyone could actively dislike watching Federer play, even if for whatever reason you do not care for him off the court. Buckland invited the viewer to email in their reasons, which they naturally did. It turned out to be the usual tedious guff about arrogance and poor losing. Ho-hum. Cowan still didn’t get it. To his credit I’ll hazard that the reason for his confusion is that he fundamentally doesn’t grasp how many ostensible tennis fans are a fan of a particular player more than they’re a fan of the sport. For all Cowan’s manifold shortcomings as a commentator and a player, the fact that he was a professional sportsman means that only a tiny portion of his engagement with tennis concerns any particular player. For the fan who emailed in, and many others just like her, the opposite is true. Their approach to professional tennis is primarily concerned with the deification of their favourite player, and the revilement of whichever players they’ve been taught are diametrically opposed. You’ll observe that fanatics always reserve their unkindest hopes for rivals. No one wastes time wishing Ivo Karlovic never wins another match.

It was another reminder, as if more were needed, that many sports fans are dullards who cannot function without a depressing little assortment of heroes and villains, and that these roles are by necessity cast within very tight parameters. Thus, say, the soft-spoken and sardonic Robin Soderling is a villain, held by some to be morally on par with Timothy McVeigh. The reality is that most of us encounter considerably worse people than any professional tennis player every time we leave the house, or even when we don’t. You can hear the squalid thoughts of the ethically bankrupt merely by switching on commercial radio, and after listening to many politicians speak you’ll want to take a dip in the septic tank just to feel comparatively clean. Remember the supposed falling out between Federer and Nadal at the beginning of last year over the ATP Player Council? I must have attended half a dozen more acrimonious meetings than that in the last month, and am daily obliged to shake hands with far bigger wankers than any man in the top ten. As far as I can make out, and for all that it matters, all the top players seem like pretty nice people.

The fan who’d emailed Sky Sports can’t have been happy with Cowan’s mystified response, and was surely brought to a high simmer by the subsequent coverage, which was unabashedly Federer-centric. ‘I’m not even looking at del Potro right now,’ declared Andrew Castle in commentary as the second quarterfinal commenced, ‘All my focus is on Federer!’ He went on to add that for him Federer was the story of the next twelve to eighteen months in men’s tennis, which seemed rather disrespectful to Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is poised to commence his audacious run to the number one ranking. (Mark my words.) It was also somewhat disrespectful to del Potro, who has been in tremendous form of late, and will be a legitimate title-contender in London next week. He at least deserved a look-in.

It was clear as the first set proceeded that Federer wasn’t about to give him one. Federer was quite magnificent, hitting seventeen winners to just four errors and comprehensively shutting down the forecourt. It was almost justified the presumption that Federer was eager for another shot at del Potro so soon after the Basel final. His success against tall powerful players traditionally entailed exploiting their lack of agility with constant variations of spin, width and depth. Del Potro moves superbly for a man his height, but compelling him to lunge, dip and pivot is still a wiser strategy than trying to trade lusty blows from the baseline. Federer’s first set was a testament to this; 47% of his backhands were slices, the kind of figure he used to post when dispatching the arch-villain Soderling. Unaccountably he went back to hitting over his backhand more in the second, although until 4/5 he remained untroubled on serve. Del Potro so far had had an awful day on return, but at this moment unleashed his biggest forehand, and subsequently broke to take the set. The third set was patchier, with a string of breaks each way. Federer steadied quicker, and eventually served it, to his evident relief and the visceral contempt of at least one fan. Del Potro didn’t appear particularly fazed. If anything he’d looked a trifle fatigued as the match wore on, and I imagine the longer rest will do him a power of good.

Federer has now posted just his second win over a top-ten player for the season, offset by five loses. Andrew Castle reminded viewers that by the end of next week he might conclude his season with a more respectable win-loss tally of 9:5, assuming he defeats Djokovic in the semifinals, Nadal (probably) in the final, then everyone in London. This seems rather a generous assumption to make, even by Castle’s standards. We were also reminded that Federer has now beaten at least one top five opponent at least once in each of the last fifteen years. It seemed a strange point to belabour, since he is after all Roger Federer. He is not Philipp Kohlschreiber, although soon Philipp Kohlschreiber won’t be, either. Mark my words.

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The Eternal Wonder of Nature

Basel, Final

(1) Del Potro d. (3) Federer, 7/6 2/6 6/4

Roger Federer this afternoon enjoyed the unusual sensation of entering Basel’s St Jakobshalle as the underdog, although perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the word. In truth he probably enjoyed it about as much as the Swiss crowd, which for the better part of a decade had been sustained on easy brilliance, but must now seek additional nourishment in hope, a notoriously fickle dietary supplement. Delpo Federer Basel 2013 -1It has been that kind of season, and in Juan Martin del Potro he was facing a fine player who has transformed himself into a fearsome contender on every surface, roofed or not.

Last year in Basel Federer performed about as patchily as he has this year, and eventually fell to del Potro in a reasonable three set final. At that time he was the world number one, and all the commentary centred on his doomed bid to retain his ranking until the end of the year. His return to number one had been masterful, and entailed visiting an unusual number of dispiriting losses on del Potro, indeed rather more than seemed necessary. As a consequence, Federer was still the strong favourite for last year’s final. This year he certainly wasn’t. Before the final, he hadn’t defeated another member of the top ten since the quarterfinal of the Australian Open, and was now ranked lower than del Potro. After the final, both those facts are still true. The interest this year lies in wondering whether he will qualify for the World Tour Finals, an event he has won six times. Sky Sports’ resident math-whiz Barry Cowan has run the sums, and reassured us that Federer will be there. Even so, it has, to put it mildly, been a horrible season.

Even that is misleading, though, since the concept of a single season in professional tennis is mostly meaningless. The suggestion that Federer is having a bad season glosses over the reality that he has been playing quite poorly for much longer than that. In fact, though I might be courting a measure of disapproval by saying so, I don’t think he has looked truly impressive since last year’s Olympics. This may seem a contentious point, given that soon after the Games he claimed the Cincinnati Masters without dropping serve, bagelling Novak Djokovic in the final. To the already potent mixture of injury and slumping form, one cannot help but add the question of desire. Overall, his hunger no doubt remains as undiminished as he insists when asked, but at those crucial moments in important matches when every choice must be razor sharp and the execution flawless, his instinct lately seems blunted, the old audacity dulled. Perhaps it is merely a question of confidence, the least tangible casualty of injury and prolonged poor form, and always the last to recover.

Still, Federer looked amply committed today, and wasn’t all that far from winning, and far from sanguine when he didn’t. It was a decent final, and tangentially diverting for how the shape of the whole match was thoughtfully captured in the first set, the way a tree’s form is reprised in each leaf, or the entire idiocy of pop culture is present in a single Kardashian. Nature’s wonder truly is eternal. Anyway, both players looked good early, before del Potro broke and moved ahead, but was broken back to love as he served for the first set. They reached a tiebreak, and Federer’s level plummeted while the Argentine’s didn’t. Federer stormed back in the second, as del Potro conducted an ill-conceived experiment to ascertain how well he’d do without a first serve. Not very well, it turned out.

Having satisfied himself of this, he set about proving the corollary in the third set, winning sixteen of the seventeen first serves he put into play. On Basel’s reasonably quick court, this rendered him all but unbreakable. If only Federer had been. Alas, the key moment came early in the set, as Federer forwent several chances of maintaining his second set momentum, and gradually gave away his serve. His only opportunity to break back came immediately, but del Potro held steady when it counted. The rest of the match turned out to be a long coda. Del Potro, afterwards, was ecstatic. Look for him in Paris, and London. Look for Federer, too.

Valencia, Final

Youzhny d. (1) Ferrer, 6/3 7/5

Mikhail Youzhny won’t feature in London, although by claiming the title in Valencia a short while later he has reinserted himself back into the top twenty, displacing a few others, and settling at number fifteen. Ferrer meanwhile will be in London, since despite losing today he remains comfortable at world number three. Mikhail Youzhny from Russia celebrates winning the final match against David Ferrer from Spain, at ATP 500 World Tour Valencia Open tennis tournament at the agora building of the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia, Spain, Sunday Oct. 27, 2012. Mikhail Youzhny won 6-3, 7-5. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)I cannot help but think this lofty position does not reflect his current form.

Unlike Federer, the last twelve months have been the finest of Ferrer’s career, including a maiden Masters title, a Roland Garros final, and a career high ranking. Again I’ll court perversity, this time by arguing that Ferrer has achieved these results in spite of his form and not because of it. If anything this renders his achievement greater still, although I also suspect he has enjoyed a healthy slice of luck, which at the right dosage is hard to gainsay. Consider this: he won the Bercy title last year without playing a match in which he was not the clear favourite, a pretty unlikely scenario when you think about it. He reached the Australian Open semifinal only by the grace of Nicolas Almagro’s brain, while the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga whom Ferrer encountered in the Roland Garros semifinal was a mere shade of the majestic Frenchman who’d trounced Federer the round before. A similar case can be made for Ferrer’s run to the Miami final. I’m not one of those who take pleasure in deriding Ferrer. He’s likeable, is rightly commended for the extent to which he maximises his gifts, and all any player can do it take advantage of situations that fall his way. But I do think he was a much better player last year.

That being said, I also thought he’d beat Youzhny in the Valencia final. For all that victories over Almagro shouldn’t be considered a form guide for anything – even allowing for the degree to which match-ups between compatriots can go haywire – it seemed that Ferrer’s inherent advantages over Youzhny would only be rendered overwhelming by the environment. People euphemistically call Basel Federer’s court, but Valencia really is Ferrer’s court. He co-owns the event, which is staged in the Agora, an attractively stylised bone-cathedral that helps it feel like a novelty level from Topspin 4. One presumes Ferrer’s interests are at least partly responsible for the chemical miracle of Valencia’s surface, so far the world’s most successful attempt at rendering molasses into a shade of cobalt. Unlike Stockholm where the court rewards excellent value for shots, a fact Grigor Dimitrov eventually exploited by hitting a few of his in, the Valencia surface is notoriously difficult to penetrate. Like Ferrer, this court is built for retrieval. For an aggressive yet self-destructive player like Youzhny, whose passage through the draw had mostly entailed outlasting even flakier men than himself, it was a tough proposition.

However, while I maintain that there’s more that can go wrong with an attacking game than a defensive one, Ferrer this year is living proof that inherently defensive tennis still requires more than a pair of legs. He remains as quick as ever, but his retrieving lately has been nowhere near as accomplished as one might expect. Youzhny was superb, bold from the very beginning, from all parts of the court, varied in his approach, and fearless when pressed. Once he finds his groove there are few players more attractive, although his recurrent issue is that he can be degrooved so readily by a really tenacious opponent. Often the one extra shot is one too many, but today Ferrer only sporadically forced the Russian to come up with it.

There was a brief period in the second set when it felt like Ferrer would tear the match away. Suddenly Youzhny could barely win a point, and the local crowd found its voice as their man pulled ahead. But Ferrer’s momentum mysteriously faltered, and a poor service game saw him repeatedly out-rallied and broken back. Soon he was broken again, and Youzhny stepped up to serve for the title, after spending a precious minute pre-visualising it under his towel at the changeover. I cannot say whether it went as he’d planned, but it went as well as he could have hoped. His backhand up the line is unorthodox and beautiful, and today it was instrumental. The last point was thus an appropriate summary: Youzhny launched an attack, Ferrer scrambled desperately, and finally managed to get the ball safely up high to the Russian’s single-hander. The Russian, despite many excellent reasons to grow timid, launched a fearless backhand up the line. Ferrer could reach it, but not control it, and that was the match. Youzhny’s smile afterwards as he saluted the Valencia crowd – far more civilised than Madrid’s – was immense, but exceeded easily by that of his coach. Boris Sobkin doesn’t smile often, but it’s always worth the wait.

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Living In A Blue World

Stockholm, Final

(7) Dimitrov d. (1) Ferrer, 2/6 6/3 6/4

It is consistent with the ATP’s belated commitment to greater coherence that the European Indoor season, which began this week in Moscow, Vienna and Stockholm, now wastes so little time getting to the point. It was a move long overdue. If the season as a whole makes little sense, muddled as it is by the timing of the Majors, at least the little mini-seasons that comprise it can achieve some internal logic. Now the European indoors is structured just like the Asian swing, as a three-week escalation from 250 level events, through a pair of 500s, and culminating in a Masters 1000. Dimitrov Stockholm 2013 -4The clay season and the US Summer trace similar arcs, and presumably the grass season would as well if it only had more time.

Nevertheless, I confess I miss the more amorphous proportions the indoor season used to have. Whereas now it is crisply marketed and boasts a discernible shape, it was once baffling and went on seemingly for ever, filling the back-end of the season with an indeterminate number of ghoulishly-lit, interchangeable events differentiated only by their trophies, which strove to surpass each other for nightmarish modernism. It was kind of wonderful. You could tune it at any point and know what you were getting, yet rest assured that none of it mattered very much.

Along with Basel’s dusted pink – now a confected memory – the hyperborean gloom of Stockholm was the season’s highlight, if that’s the word. It was thus with some disappointment that I tuned in earlier this week, and discovered that the Swedish tournament’s overall look has been sharpened. Since before I can remember it has been so unrelievedly blue that it left viewers in no doubt that the spectacle before them was taking place somewhere very northern and very cold. The way the image seemed to darken and grow fuzzy at the edges helpfully evoked the sensation of freezing to death. Perhaps it was merely an issue with the coverage, not helped by the time difference that ensured I was always watching in the small hours of the following morning. Sadly, although the court is still blue, the colour has deepened, and the space around it has been recoloured green, thus helping it look exactly like a lot of other tennis courts. Thankfully Stockholm’s other trimmings have remained untrimmed, including the net contraptions used by the ballkids – why are these not used everywhere? – and a trophy that looks like one of Dr No’s discarded doomsday devices.

This device – I am assured its depleted palladium core has been removed – is now in the possession of Grigor Dimitrov, his reward for becoming the first Bulgarian supervillain ever to win a tour title. His victory also completed rare day of triumph for one-handed backhands and vindication for the select group of men who’ve rightly or wrongly been dogged by comparisons with Roger Federer. Dimitrov is merely the latest to be burdened by the title ‘Baby Fed’. The original Baby Fed, you will recall, was Richard Gasquet, who an hour earlier recovered to defeat Mikhail Kukushkin in the Moscow final. Tommy Haas was spared the dubious Baby Fed accolade through being older than Federer. Instead, for large parts of last decade he was held up as an example of stylish potential untapped, of what Federer might have been had it not all worked out so well. The irony, if we can even call it that, is that Haas this year has won twice as many titles as Federer: two. Maybe it isn’t irony, but it is somewhat miraculous, given Haas’ age. During the trophy presentation Robin Haase remarked that he himself might have been the thirty-five year old, while the German could pass for twenty-five. ‘If you only knew,’ replied Haas.

Both Gasquet and Haas recovered from a break down in the final set against sporadically inspired opponents, eventually claiming their titles within about ten minutes of each other. Initially it appeared unlikely that Dimitrov would reprise this pattern. He and David Ferrer commenced the Stockholm final in the traditional manner of fast indoor tennis, by breaking each other constantly. Dimitrov soon wearied of this, though Ferrer didn’t, and soon won the first set. Mostly this was achieved through the universally-applied tactic of directing everything at the Bulgarian’s backhand, though it would be unfair to suggest that it ever truly broke down. Indeed it held up admirably through the tighter second set. Ferrer had by now tired of breaking as well, instead developing a fondness for unforced errors. He lost his serve late, and then the set.

The stage was thus set for Dimitrov to fall down an early break in the deciding set, and then storm heroically back. Sadly, for Ferrer and for those of us pointlessly hoping that all three finals would play out almost identically, Dimitrov was never quite broken, though it was a near-run thing. Instead, again, it was the top seed Ferrer who found the crucial error at the worst moment, and double-faulted to give away the break. Dimitrov served it out, and commenced his celebration routine. Thankfully this has evolved from earlier in the year, when he would roar ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ with arrhythmic gusto, uncannily echoing Gru in Despicable Me.

He began his year by reaching his first tour final in Brisbane, then characteristically lost his way. I was sitting with his old coach and manager as he fell dismally to Julien Benneteau in the first round of the Australian Open – a meticulously rendered example of a backhand crumbling apart – and could hardly have imagined that of the two men Dimitrov would be the first to win a maiden title. One of course should not underestimate Benneteau’s capabilities in this area, especially after Kuala Lumpur. The real risk is that after Stockholm we’ll overestimate Dimitrov. He has always attracted heightened expectations, especially in an era in which the next big things have proven slow to appear.

Presumably his new coach will help with that. Stockholm was Dimitrov’s first tournament with the ineffable Roger Rasheed, ‘ineffable’ in this case denoting that species of incomprehensibility that contrives at profundity. Rasheed’s gift for impenetrable neologism is of course legendary, and certainly hasn’t gone unexamined in these pages. In the case of Dimitrov, however, I can see its legitimate value: by having to focus so hard on deciphering what Rasheed is saying he ensures that his mind remains empty of whatever it is usually filled with. Rasheed thus stands revealed as a kind of Zen master, with corporate-calibre motivational aphorisms taking the place of ‘Om’.

Beyond his capacity to spout claptrap, though, Rasheed is nothing if not a taskmaster, and notoriously intolerant of any player giving less than his best. His true value will be in addressing those periods, altogether too common, when Dimitrov decides not to bother. Everyone looks good when he’s playing well, and Dimitrov looks better than most. It’s what happens when you’re playing badly that counts. Yesterday in the semifinal he came back from a set down, though admittedly that was against Benoit Paire. But today he recovered from a poor start against Ferrer, and held his nerve admirably through a tight final set. Afterwards Dimitrov insisted that he was happier with his perseverance and resilience than with the actual silverware. I can’t say how true that is – it sounds like the kind of sentiment Rasheed would endorse, although he’d certainly use different words – but I suspect it is at least partially the case. In any case, one can hope.

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Keeping Track

Shanghai Masters, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (6) del Potro, 6/1 3/6 7/6

Novak Djokovic this evening won his second straight Shanghai title, and fifteenth Masters title over all. It was also his twentieth consecutive victory in China. He was understandably thrilled, though it’s tough to ascertain which particular achievement meant the most to him. Perhaps, in the moment, it was just winning this one fine match. Either way, it’s hard to quell one’s sense of scepticism when he insists that losing the number one ranking has not steeled his resolve. It’s also hard not to feel sympathetic towards Juan Martin del Potro, who fell agonisingly short of claiming his first Masters title, and didn’t seem consoled by the knowledge that he’s never looked closer. Djokovic Shanghai 2013 -11His runner-up streak at this level now stands at three.

Djokovic this week also extended his winning streak against Frenchman to twenty-eight, despite Gael Monfils’ best efforts to abbreviate it. There was also a two game period in the first set of the first semifinal when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looked threatening, and really showed us what he can do. He was out-rallying Djokovic from the backhand, punishing him around with his forehand and moving beautifully. Then came a much longer stretch of games in which Tsonga demonstrated that he can’t do it often or for long enough. Thus was dispelled any  lingering mystery of why he isn’t ranked number one or two in the world, and has yet to claim a Major.

Djokovic on the other hand is ranked number one or two in the world, and was hardly fazed by his opponent’s brief resurgence. He hasn’t lost to Tsonga in three and a half years, and learned long ago that these little spots of brilliance soon tarnish. The second set was closer – breaks were traded, lovingly – but even as a tiebreak hove gradually into view it never much felt like Tsonga would win it. As it happened, the tiebreak never arrived. Djokovic broke late, and that was that: his nineteenth straight victory in China, and eighth in a row against Tsonga. More streaks.

I’ve no doubt various others were augmented, as well. We are living through an era in which records both grand and minor tumble every other week. It turns out there’s such a thing as milestone fatigue. It can be taxing to get too excited for the more trivial of these. Those achieved in a particular country or against citizens of a different country are about my limit. It’s conceivable that I might one day regale grandchildren with tales of where I was when, say, Jerzy Janowicz captured the calendar Grand Slam (I predict I’ll be at home debating whether I should buy some bread or just keep spooning marmalade from the jar). I haven’t yet decided whose grandchildren they will be; boring random kids will be my right as a lonely old loon in a shopping mall. Whoever they are, I doubt they’ll stand still while I explain that Djokovic went unbeaten throughout his career while facing left-handed Canadians in Paraguay.

It’s also conceivable they won’t really care that for just the second time in 2013, Rafael Nadal failed to reach the final of an event in which he was entered. (The first time was of course at Wimbledon, when he fell in straight sets to Steve Darcis. Mentioning that one will surely result in stunned disbelief from all future generations, requiring carefully preserved documentary evidence.) Nadal by his own admission played fine, but was unlucky to run afoul of Juan Martin del Potro in truly fearsome touch. The first set in particular was astonishing from the Argentine. The second was merely very, very good. Nadal’s peculiar post-US Open record continues. Since 2005 he has claimed only one title in this part of the season, which was in Tokyo three years ago. You can bet the grandkids will hear about that.

Del Potro no doubt extracted a healthy portion of hope from his semifinal performance, not to mention his excellent run to the Tokyo title last week. He was thus well-placed to relearn the lesson that when faced with Djokovic (in China) hope sometimes provides no more nourishment than a mouthful of ashes. Del Potro admittedly didn’t reproduce his level from the day before – faced with a superior returner he was compelled to go after more first serves, and thus missed a lot – but he was still decent. He has won plenty of matches playing worse. The difference was that the bludgeoning groundstrokes that pushed Nadal around left Djokovic unmoved, and were faultlessly redirected up the line. Twice Djokovic gained a point for the first set bagel, but didn’t take either, though he served it out in the next game.

The change came in the second game of the next set. Djokovic has shown a tendency in those parts of the season staged outside China for his focus to waver. It would be tempting to say something similar happened here, but the issue really seemed more physical than mental. Perhaps it was spiritual. Whatever it was, suddenly Djokovic’s forgot how to use his feet when hitting forehands, at a very fundamental level. Delpo Shanghai 2013 -7He was lurching all over the place, spraying balls everywhere, as though someone had spiked his magic tennis player water. ‘Bambi on ice,’ was Marcus Buckland’s apt description. This enabled del Potro to break. Improved serving helped him eventually hold for the set.

Last year’s Shanghai final was superb for two sets, then rather faded away in the third as Andy Murray’s legs and will gave way. Today’s final, by contrast, only really got going in the third. As these things go, this is probably the more memorable configuration. Djokovic had by now untangled his feet, while del Potro continued to blast away with that forehand. Finally, the best two players of this year’s Asian swing were playing well at the same time. Break points came and went for both, and in nearly every case were saved with heroic, fearless play. Djokovic gained a couple of match points at 4/5, with del Potro serving, but wasted one with a tight return, and as punishment was obliged to hand back the other as well. The tiebreak never felt inevitable, but it arrived anyway, and once it did it felt fitting. Sadly for Argentine hopes, once it started it was almost entirely Djokovic. There seemed to be hundreds of Argentines present in the Qizhong Forest Sports City Arena, most of whom had ignored the signs at the entrance warning them to abandon all hope. It didn’t help that the signs were written in Serbian. These fans looked terribly disappointed, but tearfully and rightfully proud of their man, who’d made a mighty effort.

Djokovic sealed it with a last backhand winner up the line, his 47th winner of the match, whereupon he and his opponent availed themselves of their customary hug at the net. Del Potro wandered to his chair and buried his face in his towel. Djokovic launched himself into more extravagant celebrations. Until 2012 the Shanghai Masters had never produced a great final. Now it’s threatening to become a habit. Its streak of great finals is now two, and counting. Rest assured the grandkids will hear all about it, whomever they belong to.

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Deeper Blue

Beijing, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (2) Nadal, 6/3 6/4

Until yesterday, the only hardcourt tournaments that Rafael Nadal hadn’t won this year were ones he didn’t enter. It doesn’t take much to mar a perfect record – just one loss to a rampant Novak Djokovic – though falling short of perfection hardly precludes greatness, and Nadal’s 2013 season is nothing if not great. It isn’t done with yet; weeks remain in which it can become greater still.

Consider this: Nadal has just reclaimed the number one ranking despite accruing zero points at two Majors (Melbourne and Wimbledon), three Masters (Shanghai, Paris and Miami) and the World Tour Finals. Staggering, indeed, and it suggests that the gap between him and his nearest rivals will widen to a chasm before it begins to close. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPacDjokovic is already making the right noises about regaining the top spot, but he’ll need to win Shanghai, the Tour Finals and the Australian Open merely to maintain the points he has. Barring catastrophe or a precipitous waning of interest, Nadal will be number one in the world for a long while yet.

Last week was Djokovic’s 101st at number one, which strands him one week short of Nadal at equal-eighth on the all-time list, though not for long. This week will be Nadal’s 103rd. (Next week will be his 104th. I think you grasp the sophisticated mathematics involved.) I do wonder how many men have lost the number one ranking by winning a tournament, in the final defeating the very man who would supplant them. I cannot be that common. (Still, if it was going to happen, this would be the pair to manage it. They’ve now faced off something like fourteen thousand times. The ATP made a desultory effort to drum up some interest for yesterday’s final with yet another historical retrospective, but given that their previous encounter was a Major final and that the new survey mostly reprised the last one, it was hard to get too worked up.)

Nor, however, is it particularly significant. Rankings are based on twelve months of results, not two hours’ worth, and Djokovic in Beijing is coming to feel like Djokovic in Melbourne. Just arriving there lofts his form into low orbit. There’s no shame at all in losing to him, no matter what you’re ranked. This week he looked better than he has since January, savaging Richard Gasquet in the semifinals, and comprehensively shutting Nadal out of the final. Much has rightly been made of his serving, which was superb. But his returning was typically accomplished – Nadal won twenty-five per cent of points behind second serve in the first set – and his groundstrokes reflected a boldness that is unfortunately atypical in this rivalry. The swift, low bounce didn’t hurt.

Meanwhile Nadal wasn’t overly convincing. Generous souls suggested he was experimenting with aspects of his game this week. Perhaps they’re right. He did take time to test just how far behind Fabio Fognini he could fall without looking in real peril of losing. It turned to be quite a long way: a set and 1/4. Conditions also did not favour him, though rather too much was made of this: conditions don’t favour most players most of the time. Whatever the cause, level-headed types had predicted Djokovic would take the final, though few predicted straight sets. The Serb has looked all tournament like he did in the second set of the US Open final, which is to say like the best hardcourt player going around.

But in order to be ranked as the best player one must sustain it for longer than a set, or even a week. Djokovic hadn’t won a tournament since April, and was on borrowed time. Those level heads were correct this week, but they’ve also been predicting losses for Nadal all year, and so far none had gotten it right. Broken clocks have a better rate of success. To be fair Nadal’s losses have been as unpredictable as they’ve been rare, and as curious. Who realistically believed that the third man to defeat Nadal in a clay court final would be Horacio Zeballos, contesting his first tour final, outmuscling the Spaniard in a deciding set? Or that Nadal’s only loss on European clay would come in Monte Carlo in straight sets, the first of which was very nearly a bagel? Or that Steve Darcis would remove him from Wimbledon in the first round? Or that . . . Or that there wouldn’t be any others, and none on hardcourt?

As much as the scarcity of the defeats, the comprehensiveness and plenitude of the victories has been telling. Nadal’s more ardent fans can fan themselves into orgasmic dread whenever he steps on court, and afterwards are eager peddle the conceit that his victories are testament to an ineffable warrior spirit, but realistically there have been barely a handful of matches this year in which he has looked at all like losing. Mostly he wins because he’s better than everyone else. This is precisely as it should be for the world number one.

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Interesting Times

Kuala Lumpur, Final

Sousa d. Benneteau, 2/6 7/5 6/4

“I took my chance, it didn’t pay off and it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s very hard. But it’s sport.”

Not immediately but surprisingly quickly, Julien Benneteau grew philosophical about his loss to Joao Sousa in the final of the Malaysian Open. He has had more practice than most. It is his ninth loss in a final so far in his career, balanced against no wins. He now has sufficient runner-up plates that he can have the Nazgûl around for a meal without embarrassing himself, though his despondency at receiving the latest one suggests this might not have been a particular goal. (This is one of the ways he and I differ.) Benneteau isn’t the highest ranked player yet to claim a maiden title – the present honour falls to Jerzy Janowicz – but he is unquestionably the player most notorious for it. Stanley Chou/Getty Images AsiaPacIn a way he’s right: it is sport. But it’s a pitiless aspect of the sport his peers aren’t obliged to face, a losing streak so constant that it has come to feel folkloric, woven into the texture of men’s tennis.

But it isn’t unprecedented. Perhaps Benneteau can gain a measure of hope from the revelation that Cedric Pioline also lost his first nine finals, though that measure dwindles if one points out that Pioline wasn’t thirty-one when he started winning them, and that there was a US Open final amongst those nine. Several years ago Benneteau tore through qualifying and the main draw in Winston-Salem, winning nine matches in eight days in foul conditions, only to fall to John Isner in the final after leading by a set. I remarked at the time, as he spilt hot tears into his towel, that he looked like ‘a man who was now 0-5 in tour finals, and suspects there won’t be a sixth’. Happily I was wrong about that, and since he hauled himself back into the top hundred that week he has never looked like leaving it. This issue certainly isn’t that he isn’t good enough to win a final, at least at those parts of tennis that involve hitting a tennis ball, especially indoors.

For almost two sets Benneteau was strikingly superior to Sousa in every way that counts on a tennis court. Meanwhile Sousa, in his first final and attempting to become the first Portuguese man to win a tour event, looked overmatched and overawed. He’d beaten David Ferrer earlier in the week, and then seen off Jürgen Melzer so comprehensively that the Austrian afterwards abased himself on social media. But this was a final, and the dynamics are different. The guy up the other end knew all about that, though for almost two sets he usefully forgot the lessons learned over a long career. Eventually he remembered, though, and discovered all over again that tennis matches aren’t won by the guy who wins almost two sets, and that outplaying your opponent for dozens of points counts for little if you cannot win the last one.

The last point, from Benneteau’s point of view, should have come while Sousa was serving to stay in the second set at 4/5, simultaneously facing break, match and championship point. The Frenchman’s limbs had grown frigid and sluggish. He’d never been this close. Still, he brought up match point with a bold backhand return winner, then assembled a fine next point, and eventually forced his way forward. Unfortunately he committed a grievous sin, though at the time he wasn’t to know that it would prove mortal. He approached to Sousa’s forehand – the overwhelming strength – but not only that, he approached such that the forehand pass could be run at, and whipped hard and low past him. Thus it was that Sousa not only saved the championship point, he did so in a manner that instantly supercharged him with confidence. Paul McNamee in commentary breathlessly declared it the ‘shot of the match’. Admittedly he did go on to bestow that accolade on any number of Sousa forehands over the next hour. Commentators of course say all sorts of things. We were informed that if Sousa could hold that game the match might get interesting. It was a point hard to argue with, since if Sousa didn’t hold the match would be over. But he did hold. To Benneteau’s dismay, the match got interesting.

In a sense McNamee was right. Sousa’s forehand was the shot of the match, and in general it would thenceforth define the contest, abetted by Benneteau’s comprehensive failure to keep the ball away from it. From a more arrogant player it might have looked like overconfidence, but overconfidence has never been Benneteau’s problem. The same forces that rendered his arm leaden also scrambled his brain. His rallying patterns grew repetitious and predictable, and Sousa, with commendable clarity, began to dictate almost every baseline exchange via the sophisticated tactic of hitting the ball hard into parts of the court where his opponent wasn’t. He broke the Frenchman, and served out the second set. Benneteau, as is becoming customary in professional tennis, availed himself of an extended toilet break, meaning he went off and presumably broke a toilet with his foot.

If his sojourn was intended to be cathartic, it didn’t work. Sousa broke again to open the deciding set, and almost gained a double break a few games later. This would have put the match well beyond doubt, but Benneteau held, rather valiantly, and doubt was never dispelled. Sousa was obliged to deflect fistfuls of breakpoints as the set wore down, even in the last game. But Benneteau’s ability to create opportunity was exceeded each time by his incapacity to capitalise on it, and he unerringly saved his weakest returns for the ad court. One match point was saved, but not a second. Benneteau’s final backhand fell wide, and Sousa fell to his back, utterly exultant, and utterly spent. This was his eleventh match in a shade over two weeks, including two Davis Cup rubbers and last week’s run to the St Petersburg semifinals. He’d been exhausted even before he arrived.

If I’ve focussed more on Benneteau, it is because I suspect opportunities to do so are running short, although I’ve admittedly made that mistake before. Sousa meanwhile joins a select group of men who won their first tour final, and the even more select group of men who’ve done so while Portuguese. So far he’s the only man ever to do it. For exclusivity that’s hard to beat. Not only that, but today’s victory has propelled Sousa into the top fifty, and he has become his country’s highest ever ranked male player. I cannot doubt he’ll climb higher. Nor can I imagine his title count will stop at one.

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