First, he had to contend with the near stranglehold that four men have taken on the elite level of the men’s tour. Of the last 52 Masters tournaments, 48 have been won by Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Then Raonic had to contend with the edifice that is the world No1. For Djokovic has almost twice as many points as the second in the rankings, has topped the table since July 2014, won 11 titles from 15 finals last year—including six Masters, among them Indian Wells—and was already 21-1 on this season. That single loss, in Dubai, came courtesy of an eye infection, but there had been precious few other weaknesses in the Serb’s condition or tennis for a long time.
In Indian Wells, for example, he already owned four titles to set a 45-6 tally, and had won his last 16 matches in this magnificent venue.
And so consistent had the mighty Serb been that he was now into his 10th straight Masters final, dating back to Paris in 2014.
How then, Raonic had to ask, could he break through an opponent who had beaten him in all five previous matches, and had conceded just one set in 14?
After Raonic beat David Goffin to reach his third Masters final, the big-serving Canadian was asked about his next opponent. He admitted, simply: “I definitely would like to change that storyline.” However it would prove a lot harder to say than to do.
Djokovic broke in the very first game, and again in the third. The Canadian did not strike a first ace, usually his biggest weapon, until the fifth game, only to then double fault under the constant pressure of Djokovic’s precision returns.
Raonic finally held that fifth game, but had not won a single point from 10 second serves. By the end of the set, 6-2 to Djokovic, the stats spoke loud and clear: The Raonic serve was ‘off’: He was making only half his first deliveries and had won just three points on 16 second serves. Djokovic had offered up not a break point.
It became clear that Raonic had some physical issue, and he left the court between sets with the physical trainer. Play resumed around 10 minutes later, but in a very similar vein. Three straight errors from Raonic, and Djokovic broke, held to love, and broke again, 3-0.
This time, however, Raonic struggled even more to make inroads either on the Djokovic serve or through the Serb’s remarkable defence—which switched to attack in the blink of an eye. The Canadian’s first serve was barely making 40 percent, and while he did make 10 of his 12 first serves, he lost all 14 points on his second serve. Djokovic? He dropped just three points in the set.
It was the work of around half an hour for Djokovic to deliver the final second-set blow to seal a devastating 6-0 scoreline, which he afterwards explained thus:
“I think I was raising my form as the tournament went on, and today was from my side the best of the tournament. Was evident that Milos was not feeling his best, he wasn’t making many first serves, and that allowed me to step in and dictate from the baseline.
“I wanted to win every game possible. It gets tricky when an opponent is injured. I didn’t want to give him any look at a comeback: It as a great performance.”
There was no denying that, and there is no denying that Djokovic, in mind and body, is ready to sweep through 2016 with as much determination as he did in 2015: He has, thus far, three titles—including the first Grand Slam and first Masters of the year—and two Davis Cup wins.
Meanwhile, his 62nd title added a couple of extra cherries to the cake: Djokovic now has the record for titles won in the desert, with five, and he has equalled what seemed the insurmountable tally of 27 Masters held by Nadal.
Who knows where the Serbian story will end?
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