China Open: Novak Djokovic continues flawless run to win sixth Beijing title

Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal 6-2 6-2 to win his sixth China Open title in Beijing

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

The final of the China Open was certainly a crowd-pleaser, featuring as it did two of its former champions, and two halves of the most played rivalry in tennis: the 45th meeting between world No1 Novak Djokovic and former No1, currently No8, Rafael Nadal.

But while Beijing’s 2005 champion led the head-to-head between these multi-Grand-Slam-winning champions, 23-21, Djokovic had won six of the last seven matches, including the title match in the Chinese capital two years ago.

If past records meant anything, then Djokovic was the favourite, for he had dominated Beijing from the first. Every year that the Serb has played here, beginning in 2009, he had won—five titles and counting—and had dropped only three sets in 51 sets played.

Indeed Djokovic’s success in China spread still wider. In five appearances in Shanghai, Djokovic has never fallen short of the semis, had won the title twice, and also won the Masters Cup in the final year it was held in Shanghai, in 2008.

In truth, then, it was hard to see Djokovic veering far from the straight and narrow in China, especially given his overall 2015 season. He arrived in Asia with a 63-5 match record, and seven titles from 11 finals—with all except Dubai at Grand Slam or Masters level. In Bejing, he had added four more wins for the loss of only 14 games, and against some quality opposition that included No6 seed John Isner and No4 seed David Ferrer.

As he entered his 12th straight final of the year, then, he owned a 28-match China Open streak, and it soon looked as though 29 was not far behind.

Nadal had reached the final without facing a seed, but his progress against the big-hitting Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock, and then the flair of Fabio Fognini, had been far from flawless. Opening serve against Djokovic, the Spaniard again looked tight, making shanks in response to deep opening strikes from the Serb, and he conceded an immediate break.

Djokovic had to negotiate a couple of deuces on his own opening serve, too, but he held for 2-0 with some aggressive, angled strikes. Come the fifth game, though, the crowd began to roar as Nadal showed flashes of defensive brilliance and his signature forehand down the line.

He held to love, and went 40-15 up on Djokovic’s serve, but the Serb withstood the pressure, sliding in to pick up a drop shot with a perfect angled return pass. Half an hour on the clock, the Djokovic held for 4-2.

The next game brought drama and tennis of the highest order—a drop shot-and-lob combo by Djokovic was retrieved by a hot-dog lob from Nadal—but the Serb had a reply for everything Nadal threw at him, this time a smash winner, and deuce moved to break point. Some sizzling returns from the baseline brought another break for Djokovic, and the best player in the world served out the set to love, 6-2, with some pitch-perfect serving and a bullet of a forehand winner to close.

The opening of the second set was also tense, with errors coming from both sides. But with the clock at one hour, Nadal suddenly called for a medic for a problem with his right foot—mid-game, 0-30 down on serve.

On resumption, the two men played the longest rally of the match, a criss-cross test of angle, spin and depth that ended with backhand winning pass to Djokovic, and further probing forehands got the break, 2-1

And Djokovic showed no mercy in a testing fourth game as a fine drop-shot-lob winner heralded another break, 4-1, and he then held with ease.

The Spaniard threatened briefly in the final game by forcing a couple of deuces, but Djokovic was simply too accurate, too confident, too good on this, one of his favourite and most successful courts. The five-time champion became the six-time champion, 6-2, with 23 winners to just seven from Nadal.

Djokovic afterwards admitted: “This has definitely been my most successful tournament. Beijing has been a lucky place for me. In 2008, I remember the Olympic Games when Rafa won gold and the tradition of Asian tennis started here.”

The Serb is hugely popular in this part of the world, and he repaid their support by beginning his acceptance speech in Mandarin. He continued: “The fans are very loyal and supportive, and give me strength to come back each year… I played a great tournament overall and continued playing well today.

“I hope Rafas’s foot is fine. It’s always a pleasure to play him on a big stage, I think 45 times now, and I hope we can have many more encounters.”

Nadal touched on the difficult year he has had after missing most of the last half of 2014 with injury and illness. He continues to work towards qualification for the ATP World Tour Finals, but believes his form and fitness is improving all the time: “Congratulations to Novak for today, but every day he is having one of the most memorable seasons in the history of our sport.

“For me, it has been a very positive week. Have been improving every single match. After a not easy year, all matches are good practice for me, especially the big events. It means I have a lot of positive energy to start next year stronger.”

Both men now move on to the Shanghai Masters, where all the very best in men’s tennis are competing.

Nadal finds himself in the same half as defending champion Roger Federer, who is making his first appearance since losing the US Open final to Djokovic. The big question in Shanghai, however, is whether Federer can again turn the tables on Djokovic in China: The Swiss is the only active player to have done so—twice—in the history of this glamorous Masters tournament. Federer is also one of only three men to beat Djokovic since he won the Australian Open this year—also twice—and he will be keen avenge two tough Grand Slam final losses.

Shanghai, then, will hope for the same good fortune as its sister tournament—a replay of what is arguably the only rivalry to match the one played out in Beijing today.

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