For by the time he took on Feliciano Lopez for a quarter-final place, he was on a 34-1 streak in China and seemingly playing better than ever. In winning his sixth Beijing title last weekend, for example, Djokovic set a 2015 record for fewest games dropped en route to a title—just 18 games in five matches—and that against the likes of John Isner, David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal.
Indeed the super-Serb, Shanghai champion in 2012 and 2013, as well as winner of the Masters Cup in its last Shanghai iteration in 2008, stands head and shoulders above the competition in the rankings with a 69-5 win-loss record and eight titles—the latest of them that win in Beijing. And not just any titles either: He claimed three Grand Slams and four Masters. Along with the final at Roland Garros and two more Masters finals, that made 12 finals in his last 12 events.
With his opening win in Shanghai this year, a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Martin Klizan, Djokovic had stretched his unbroken run to 13 matches, and the odds were on his side to make it 14. No matter that the 34-year-old Lopez was enjoying some of the best form of his life to reach a career-high No12 ranking this year, had reached the quarters of the US Open for the first time, and made the finals in Kuala Lumpur, he had failed to beat Djokovic in all six previous matches—had won just two sets in their eight-year history. And this latest contest showed no sign of changing things.
By the sixth game, Lopez was having to save his seventh break point against some quite wondrous retrieving by Djokovic. But an overlong Spanish backhand, and it was break point No8, and the pressure finally told with a double fault: 4-2 to Djokovic.
Even so, Lopez had an immediate chance, his first of the set, to break back at 0-40, courtesy of a couple of loose volley errors from Djokovic. But an ace, a couple more winning serves, and a lob smashed into the net by Lopez, and the Serb was out of trouble.
The Spaniard tried to keep up the attack, racing into the net at every opportunity, but he faced another winning lob, was passed down the line, and forced wide to bring up set point.
With his first serve deserting him, Lopez could not contend with the returns that dipped towards him: Djokovic broke again for the set, 6-2, after just 35 minutes. The world No1 was countering attack with attack, earning 13 winners for just five errors, and had made the same number of points at the net as the serve-and-volleying Lopez.
The second game of the second set showed just what Lopez was up against. Time and again, what looked like winning plays from the Spaniard were chased down by the super-Serb—whether lobs or drop-shots, to the forehand or backhand—to leave Lopez needing the perfect serve and volley finish or the occasional pass slotted down the line to win a point.
He faced two break points, and was let off the hook by two rare errors from Djokovic. Even so the Spaniard seemed to be running just to stand still. Sure enough, come the fourth game, Djokovic broke with one more pitch-perfect lob over the backhand shoulder of the Spaniard. It was precise and ruthless, and as good as sealed the match.
So good has the serving of Djokovic become that chances to make a winning return were few and far between: Lopez constantly found himself in rallies that had him scampering from side to side, dependent on errors from the Serb, and those were scant. A glimmer of a chance appeared in the fifth game, when a lob went long to produce deuce, but Djokovic played patiently to the Spaniard’s one-handed backhand to draw the error, and held for 4-1.
Lopez managed a love hold, and then fended off two match points when Djokovic gifted a couple of loose returns. But the outcome was never in doubt, as a love hold by the Serb for set and match, 6-3, proved. It had taken him just 71 minutes.
So the remarkable 2015 season continues for Djokovic with his 70th match-win, the fifth time he has reached that total—and it is entirely conceivable that he could exceed his own record of 78 before the year’s end.
For as he admitted afterwards, there are still areas of his game he believes he can improve: “I was brought up that way and thought to always look for some room for improvement. I still believe there are shots in my game that can be better. I think that’s one of the things that keeps me going. It motivates me to play more.”
In the bottom half of the draw, the newest member of the top 10, Kevin Anderson, continued his hot form to beat the No6 seed Kei Nishikori for the first time in a fine display of big-hitting, aggressive tennis by the calm South African, 7-6(10), 7-6(3).
Now he meets No16 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for a place in the semi-finals. The Frenchman has been showing signs of a return to his own top-10 form after backing up a quarter-final run at the US Open with the title in Metz. He had already beaten Tommy Robredo in his Shanghai opener, and reached the quarters with a win over the Spanish qualifier Albert Ramos-Vinolas, 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4, the man who put Roger Federer out in the second round.
The match was just one of a series of high-octane three-setters in a busy Shanghai schedule, but this particular 2hr 45min contest was Tsonga’s 100th victory at Masters level.
Elsewhere in this packed half of the draw, Anderson or Tsonga will go on to face either Rafael Nadal, who beat Milos Raonic, 6-3, 7-6(3), or Stan Wawrinka, who came out the victor of another quality three-setter over Marin Cilic, 7-5, 6(7)-7, 6-4, after almost three hours in front of perhaps the most vocal crowd so far in Shanghai: ‘Stan the Man’ has clearly become a very big favourite in this city.
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