Not that there was any surprise about the best tennis player in the world making it through in China. Djokovic’s record showed he was virtually impregnable on Chinese soil, up to 37 wins in his last 38 matches, with nine titles—six in Beijing and three in Shanghai.
He was almost as impregnable on any court in any country in 2015. This was his 13th consecutive final, and had won eight of them already: Three Majors plus the final at Roland Garros; Four Masters plus two more finals in Cincinnati and Montreal; 72 match-wins for just five losses.
But in a bottom half that featured defending Shanghai champion Roger Federer, French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, plus a Rafael Nadal on the rise with each tournament he played—not to mention Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic and the newest man in the top 10 Kevin Anderson—and it would be a brave person to predict Tsonga for the final.
Yet the Frenchman, who missed three months at the start of the year with injury, arrived in Shanghai having won his first title in over a year in Metz, and he beat both Anderson and Nadal to claim a tilt at a third Masters title.
As it happens, Tsonga’s last match against Djokovic was a win on his way to the Toronto title last year—though that broke an 11-match streak by the Serb. And it’s a rare player indeed who has broken the dominance of the ‘big four’ in winning Masters titles. Such was the Frenchman’s surge of form that he had jumped from No15 at the start of the tournament to No9 in the Race to London.
However where Djokovic had dropped only 19 games and no sets in Shanghai this week, Tsonga had not only played one more match but had been taken to four three-setters. The odds were well and truly stacked.
Sure enough, Tsonga failed to dominate from the very start, and that put him on the back foot through most of the match. Djokovic broke twice for 3-0, and although he suffered a surprise break back, he then broke again with what would be a recurring pattern: first a long 21-shot rally to Djokovic, then three straight return-of-serve errors from a Tsonga who could not handle the precision of the Djokovic spin and length either straight to the baseline or dipping at the incoming Tsonga’s feet.
By the time Tsonga was 0-40, 1-5 down, he had won just 10 points on his own serve, but rallied well to survive a total of four break points. However, Djokovic swiftly served out the set to love, 6-2, a picture of calm confidence.
Tsonga was faced with the task of producing his very best serving if he was to avoid his second delivery getting the same treatment time and again—or at least avoiding long, rhythm-strengthening rallies for Djokovic.
But in practice, even when Tsonga did make his first serve, Djokovic outperformed him on that front too: The Serb’s accurate, varied and penetrating delivery has become a formidable weapon in its own right, and he would make 14-14 first serves in the second set and drop just one point on his second serve, producing love holds one after the other.
With such pressure on his own serve, then, Tsonga gained little purchase, and faced break points in the third and fifth games, deuce in seventh and finally conceded the break at the third attempt in the ninth—with a double fault.
Djokovic served out the match after 78 minutes, 6-4 having made just eight errors for 18 winners, and showed one more evolution in his game: 12 points made out of 15 at the net, better by far than Tsonga’s results.
The Frenchman was upbeat about how far his level had come this season, and he remains in contention for a London place if he performs well in the ATP500 in Vienna next week and then at his home Masters in Paris.
“The first set went quick. It’s not easy to stop him. He is really consistent on his return. Today I didn’t serve well enough, especially in the first set. After that, in the second, I served a little bit better, and it gave me a chance on his serve. But finally I was not able to do it… [But] I’m very satisfied. To come back at your best level, it’s always a long process. I’m happy today to be back really close to the top 10. It gives me energy to continue to work hard and try to achieve other good things.”
Djokovic highlighted his own return of serve as key to this victory: “Today the key was to get as many serves back into play because he has one of the biggest serves in the game. [But] generally I felt always in control of the match. I felt like I’ve done everything right. I’ve won many of my service games very comfortably. I didn’t allow him to get into the rhythm, get into the match.”
So now, all eyes remain on Djokovic. For a man who is dominating the field to such an extent, the evolution of his attacking net game must make unwanted reading for the rest. He is, it seems, adding still more strings to his bow, and looks the favourite to complete his best-ever season with the remaining Masters in Paris and the World Tour Finals.
For now, the super-Serb takes his points in the rankings to over 14,000, more than twice the second in the Race, Murray. He also moves into second place ahead of Federer in Masters titles with 25.
However, it is his serene and confident state of mind as much as his physical supremacy that shone from his final comments on Shanghai’s stage, to the Sky Sports team. What keeps him achieving such perfection in all parts of his game, he was asked.
“Consistency, passion for the sport, dedication, commitment to a focus on daily the routines. Being well balanced. [It’s] not a single thing I can point out as the secret of success. It’s been a long road, especially early in my career. I’m just glad I managed to find the proper balance and formula for me.”
No doubt much of that balance derives from a contented home life in particular: “My next step is going back home and being with my family: my boy turns one a few days.”
But he added: “I have won all my indoor matches in last two to three years, and that obviously gives me confidence.”
And there’s the clue to an inner strength and determination that are the equal to any man’s on the tour. Djokovic has not lost a match in this autumn indoor swing since the second round in Paris in 2012—that’s a run of three consecutive unbeaten World Tour Finals and two similar runs in Paris, one that last year saw him barely miss a beat when his son was born.
It’s probably fair to say that this year will be little different.
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