You can usually tell when a tennis player is being schooled just by the sounds you hear from the crowd. When Roger Federer is carving his opponent into a dazed mess, the oohs and aahs give the venue an artsy theatre-like feel. And when Rafael Nadal is bulldozing his opponent into submission, there are throaty yells that rival Nadal’s own cries of “Vamos!” in volume and passion.
But that’s not quite the case with Novak Djokovic. When the Serb is putting on a clinic the air seems to go out of the stadium, with the noise levels receding considerably. There is indecisiveness all around the stands; the things Djokovic does look so machine-like, so impossible, that it becomes difficult for the crowd to decide whether to scream in amazement or shake their heads in disbelief. How do you appropriately react to a performance that goes beyond all our ideals of human creativity and imagination?
That’s what Stefanos Tsitsipas is likely asking himself today. He seems like the kind to ponder such philosophical questions, doesn’t he? When Tsitsipas lost to Nadal in the Australian Open semi-final this January, he said the Spaniard had played tennis from a ‘different dimension’. In Madrid this week he conquered that dimension and defeated Nadal in the semi-final, but then ran into the World No 1 in the final.
The tennis he got from Djokovic was not from a different dimension, but that’s only because a dimension where everything is perfect simply doesn’t exist.
Djokovic could do no wrong in the Madrid final. He struck 28 winners, made zero double faults, and didn’t face a break point all match. He committed just 18 errors against one of the best defenders on the planet, and about a third of those came in the last game alone where he seemed to lose a bit of focus trying to close it out.
Whatever Tsitsipas tried in the match, Djokovic was always one step ahead and one shot better. The Greek’s best forehands came back with interest, his best drop shots were casually bunted away for winners, and his best serves were treated with disdain.
The accuracy that Djokovic put on display was particularly jaw-dropping. Nearly every third shot he hit seemed to paint the line; whether it was his serve, forehand or backhand, he repeatedly found the smallest possible margin that caused the largest possible damage.
This was the Australian Open final all over again, but on a surface considerably less conducive to Djokovic’s game than the hardcourts of Melbourne.
After the match, Tsitsipas seemed in awe of Djokovic’s backhand. “He has the best backhand I have ever seen in a human being,” he declared. Did he add the ‘human being’ part for dramatic effect, or was he trying to convince himself (and us) that the Serb is indeed human?
That’s a question we’ve asked ourselves several times in the past, but not in the last couple of months. The Serb had been going through a rough patch since the end of the Australian Open, losing early in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo while blaming off-court issues for his struggles. His lack of motivation for the daily grind of the tour seemed painfully evident, and it made us wonder when he’d bring his best to a non-Slam event again.
His best wasn’t quite visible even in Madrid until about the half-way point. While he didn’t face much competition in the first two rounds against Taylor Fritz and Jeremy Chardy, he looked distinctly second best in the early going of the semi-final match against Dominic Thiem.
Thiem had gone an early break up in the first set, and Djokovic’s offensive game seemed too erratic to be effective. So, the Serb put aside the attacking tools and started playing within himself; he essentially asked Thiem to win the match on his own racquet. Not surprisingly, Thiem’s game unraveled as he kept being made to hit one extra shot, and that in turn helped Djokovic regain his confidence.
By the end of the match, the World No 1 was playing like a World No 1 again. Thiem tried his best to hit through Djokovic, but that’s considerably harder to do when the ball is not just coming back repeatedly, but coming back with pace and depth.
Djokovic’s mental indestructibility also returned in the middle of the semi-final, but that may have been partly by accident. Towards the end of the first set, he was given two 'time violations' in the same game, and on the second one, the umpire took away his first serve. That was all the ammunition he needed; he glared at the umpire angrily, tossed the ball in the air, and hit a second serve ace.
That was as good a sign as any that Djokovic the champion was back. You just knew there was no way he was losing the match from there.
Djokovic has now won 33 ATP Masters 1000 titles, tying the all-time record with Nadal. It’s difficult to predict who will eventually win this race, because it’s difficult to predict how motivated Djokovic will be for Masters events in the future. He was fully dialed in at Madrid, yes, but he was far from that at the previous Masters in Monte Carlo. What will his state of mind be like at the next, in Rome?
We don’t really need to answer that. The great thing about Djokovic’s current career phase is that Masters records and week-to-week performances are almost irrelevant. His Madrid run was a self-contained statement; a short but sweet journey that gradually picked up steam and culminated in an afternoon of perfection. It may not lead to anything concrete in the immediate future, but it will stand as concrete evidence of what (still) happens when the full force of Djokovic’s tennis lands on the court.
That evidence will be of particular importance at the end of this month, when Roland Garros rolls along. After the last two months, we all needed a bit of reminding who the top dog in the sport was, and now we’ve got our emphatic answer. Djokovic is still a strong contender at every Slam he enters, and given Nadal’s recent claycourt struggles, the Serb may even be the outright favorite for the French Open.
“I’m very pleased,” Djokovic said in his post-match interview. “I was saying after yesterday’s semi-final win that it was a very, very important win for me for my confidence. I wasn’t playing my best tennis after Australia so I was looking to regain the momentum this week.”
“I played some of my best tennis here,” Djokovic finished.
There can be no arguing against that last bit. Djokovic showcased his version of a masterclass on Sunday, dousing the challenge of Tsitsipas like it was a walk in the park. And as the slightly muted crowd atmosphere in Madrid suggested, nobody knew whether to scream in amazement or shake their heads in disbelief.
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Updated Date: May 13, 2019 11:34:38 IST