Monte-Carlo Masters: Djokovic resists bold Berdych for 23rd crown

Novak Djokovic beats Tomas Berdych in three sets to win the Monte Carlo Masters title

Ask any tennis pundit, any fellow player, any fan whether Tomas Berdych had a chance of beating Novak Djokovic in the final of the first clay Masters of year and, regardless of allegiances, they answer would almost certainly have been no.

It was not enough that world No1 Djokovic had lost only two matches in the 20 he had played against the world No8 Berdych, nor that he had won their last five matches.

It was not enough that Djokovic was a former a champion at this very tournament, and had now beaten the eight-time champion Rafael Nadal not just in the 2013 final but yesterday in the semi-finals too. Nor that the super Serb was aiming for his fourth straight Masters title, a 23rd in all, to draw level with Roger Federer.

All that was bad enough, but Djokovic was reigning supreme in 2015, too, claiming the three biggest titles at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, and on a 16-match winning streak. He had lost only two matches out of 31, his single top-10 loss coming to Federer in Dubai.

It was the style of his winning that also impressed. He had looked and sounded more confident, fit and relaxed than ever before, and exuding an aura of serenity since the birth of his son last autumn. This year, he had already garnered 10 6-0 sets, one of them against the man he was about to face.

Djokovic even seemed to make the transition from months of hard-court tennis to the clay in the space of less than a week look easy. Thus far in Monte Carlo he had dropped only 18 games in four matches—and that included a quarter-final against American Open champion Marin Cilic and Nadal.

If there was one tiny glimmer of hope for Berdych in this gloomy picture, it was that the big Czech’s last victory, six matches ago, came in the quarters of the Rome Masters in 2013—on clay.

Not that the Berdych was enjoying a bad season himself. Monte Carlo produced his sixth semi-final in his seven tournaments, including the Australian Open and Miami Masters, and he was now playing his third final. He was second only to Djokovic in 2015 match-wins, and all six of his losses had come against top-10 opponents. He too had yet to drop a set this week.

For Berdych is always a formidable opponent, a consistently high performer on all surfaces. He turns 30 in 2015, yet is perhaps enjoying the best form of his long career. He has not been outside the top 10 since he reached the Wimbledon final in 2010, and last year he reached the quarter-finals of three out of the four Majors, including his first semi-final in Australia—and he beat Nadal this year for the first time in 17 consecutive meetings.

But if he was to claim only his second Masters title—a decade after the first—he would have to produce the performance of his life.

And just as Nadal had done in the semi-final, Berdych got off to the perfect start—with a break of serve. He had clearly determined to carry on where he left off against Gael Monfils and attack, using his constantly evolving net skills to be the aggressor, and it earned him a 2-0 lead

But Djokovic soon got into some rhythm and produced his first drop-shot of the match, a play that had so broken open Nadal the day before. It was now offensive versus counter-puncher, but come the sixth game, the aggressor Berdych, over-pressed, hit a couple of forehands out and then netted a backhand for break point. He saved it, but two more forehand errors and Djokovic had levelled, 3-3.

Still Berdych managed to stay with Djokovic, first ghosting in on a second serve by the Serb, then powering a return down the line, but Djokovic’s defence-turned-attack denied Berdych a reward for his bold play. Instead, Djokovic broke to serve for the set, 5-3.

Berdych was not done, though. He kept to his game plan, stepped in to make some flat, deep returns, and got a break back, consolidating with a love hold, 5-5.

Djokovic looked edgy, double faulted, but held, and it would be the Czech whose serve let him down. Before match, Berdych had led the tournament in first serve points won, but here he could not even get half his first serves into play. At 5-6, he barely made one, and Djokovic pounced on the second serve. Sure enough, the Serb made a timely break for the set, 7-5.

The second set began just as intensely as the first had finished, now a love hold from Berdych, then a tough hold via break point. Djokovic, too, got himself into problems with a trio of errors to go 0-40 but saved the break when a near-perfect play by Berdych ended with an easy volley into the net.

By now, the gloomy skies had begun to unload rain onto the already damp court, for Monte Carlo had suffered overnight storms, and the air was still heavy. So much so that the ground staff could not drag the surface for fear of making the conditions worse: The only solution was to halt play until the rain passed.

The two men had played for an hour and a half, and would stop for almost as long, and it was still damp when they recommenced. Berdych, who had already objected to the watering of the court after the first set, seemed to come back the worse, too, and was straight away faced with, quite possibly, a match-concluding break, but he chased to the net for deuce and produced two big serves to hold.

Then he went after Djokovic, going for first strikes and drawing enough errors—including a double fault—to make the breakthrough. It was bold and powerful tennis from the Czech and it earned him the set, 6-4, with eight points made from 12 net points. But could he keep it up?

Djokovic made a strong opening statement with a love hold courtesy of a perfect drop winner. He then drew three straight errors off the Berdych forehand to break, and broke again in the fourth, 4-0, as the Berdych first serve again wavered.

But a careless game from Djokovic, trying the drop-lob combo once too often, gave a break back, and Berdych survived a marathon 35-stroke rally and then break point to hold for 2-4.

That drove him on to a couple of masterful backhand winners in the next, too, but Djokovic resisted break point. Berdych, in turn, saved match point at 2-5 but he could not break a clinical closing service game from the Serb.

Djokovic sealed the match, 6-3, after almost two and three-quarter hours of compelling tennis—tennis which proved not only that Djokovic is currently the best player in the world but also that Berdych continues to improve, and is perhaps closing in on that second elusive Masters title.

However on this day, as so often before, Djokovic came out on top. To do so against such a determined opponent, and on the back of the toughest double-header Masters feat in tennis, Indian Wells-Miami, speaks volumes for the level at which Djokovic is performing. And he recognised that this had been a closely fought contest: “I thought I won this match with my heart and with battle.

“I don’t think I’ve played on the level that I wish to play, but also credit to Tomas because he has played very aggressively, staying close to the line, pushing me back. So I had to defend a lot of times.

“It was a battle… it was a real fight. I was trying to mentally stay tough and fight my way through because I didn’t feel the ball very well… I had to adjust my position and movement on the court several times. In the end, I’m sitting here with this trophy that is very special to me, of course. This is what matters. Sometimes winning ugly is necessary. It’s been a remarkable start of the season for me… couldn’t ask for a better start of clay court season.”

Djokovic has now drawn level with Federer in Masters titles and has become the first to win the opening three Masters of the year, but he has one big target on his horizon. He wants, more than anything, to win the French Open to complete his Grand Slam set.

He has beaten Nadal in all three clay Masters already: surely it is only a matter of time before he does the same at Roland Garros.

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