But it was the dream final for bringing together the most played-out rivalry in tennis history, a remarkable 47th match between two of the most decorated players ever to pick up a racket, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. What’s more, they stood at 23 wins apiece, 62 sets to 61.
The head-to-head, though, belied the current state-of-play between the two top seeds. The world No1 by a country mile, Djokovic, is the dominant force in tennis, a position encapsulated in the 12 months since he last played in Doha.
A year ago, he lost in the quarter-finals to Ivo Karlovic, and has not fallen short of a final since, claiming 11 titles from 15 finals—with all but one 500 title being at Masters or Grand Slam level. He ended 2015 as No1 for the fourth time in five years, and with almost twice as many points as the second player, and took his record against top-10 opponents to 44-6 since the 2014 French Open.
Nadal, on the other hand, has been working his way back from a dip in 2015 following injury and illness at the end of 2014. He won three titles from six finals through the year, but none at Masters or Grand Slam level.
And as Djokovic has risen to the top of tennis, Nadal has struggled to keep pace with him. In the last five years, Djokovic has won 16 from 23, and eight of the last nine of their matches. Nadal has not won a set in their last four matches, even at his former strongholds, Roland Garros and Monte Carlo.
So Nadal knew only too well that he had a fight on his hands in this his 99th final, and that was without looking at his hard-court title run. For Nadal had not won a title on this surface in 18 tournaments since winning in Doha two years ago.
That aside, Nadal’s gradual rise back to No5 in the world, and a clutch of wins over fellow top-10 players—he beat Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer before losing to Djokovic at the World Tour Finals—set up this final to be an early yardstick of his level against the very best.
And if most critics picked Djokovic to win the title, few probably expected such a one-sided contest as this became, particularly after the Serb admitted in press that he had a slight problem in his serving arm. But so it would be.
Djokovic took a few rallies to warm up—the first game comprised 10 points—and Nadal grabbed the initiative against the Serb’s serve to bring up an immediate break point. Djokovic responded by coming forward himself, and held.
The Serb then pressed on with a 19-shot rally on Nadal’s serve to go 0-30, and a drop-shot beat Nadal for three break points. Djokovic grabbed the 2-0 lead on the back of his eighth point in the last 10 played.
There seemed little problem with the Serb’s serve either, as he went 3-0 with his fourth ace. Nadal did finally hold with the help of a net-cord, but Djokovic was slipping into his dangerous rhythm of relentless depth and angle from the baseline. He outpaced Nadal on both forehand and backhand wings, cranking up winners that, at times, left the Spaniard rooted to the spot. A 13th winner cross-court off the backhand broke again, and Djokovic served out the set, 6-1, with a fourth ace in just 31 minutes.
The world No1 did not relent, producing near-flawless tennis that pinned Nadal back and forced uncharacteristic forehand errors. Djokovic broke in the first game and held with ease for 2-0.
By now, the Serb had won 22 points from 31 at the baseline, so little wonder that the packed Doha arena roared their approval for a swinging serve-and-volley winning play from Nadal to hold.
By now, Djokovic was already up to 22 winners to Nadal’s nine, and had made only eight unforced errors. Even his reflexes seemed flawless—he lunged to reach a Nadal forehand drive for a put-away pass, and went on to break Nadal again with a bruising baseline rally that made the super-fit Spaniard look leaden-footed.
Djokovic served for 5-1 with a serve-and-double-volley winner, and Nadal’s hold simply put off the inevitable, a 6-2 victory for Djokovic of extraordinary and relentless accuracy in 73 minutes, 30 winners to only 13 unforced errors.
It takes the world No1 into the lead in this rivalry for the first time, 24-23, and his 60th title takes him into a special club the includes only the elite in this sport, with the likes of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer and, of course, Nadal.
Djokovic admitted: “Every time we play, there is a lot at stake, it is always a great challenge. Both of us go through a lot of emotions before the match.
“I played pretty much perfect tennis to day. I managed to get every shot the way I wanted it, the way I imagined it before the match. Obviously easier said than done but the way I played today gives me confidence and satisfaction playing against Rafa, a great feeling.”
This time last year, Djokovic bounced back from his Doha loss to begin that all-conquering season with a fifth Australian Open title. In truth, with tennis like he produced in this match, it is hard to see how he can fail to win a sixth.
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