Defending champ Djokovic into record 14th final to set up Murray title bout

Novak Djokovic beats Stanislas Wawrinka 6-3 3-6 6- to set up a Paris Masters final against Andy Murray

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

Two former champions lined up in the final four to contest the last Masters 1000 of the year in Paris Bercy.

In the bottom half, David Ferrer became, in 2012, one of the very rare band of players in the last five years to win a Masters title here in Paris. But he took on, in No2 seed Andy Murray, an 11-time Masters champion and, what’s more, a man who had beaten him 10 times in 16 meetings, five times in the last six.

Murray was in outstanding form in Paris, too, after a valuable break following Shanghai in a personal season best of 68 match-wins. And that form was in full flow over Ferrer in a 6-4, 6-3 victory to reach his seventh final of the year.

In the top half of the draw, the odds, on paper, were stacked in favour of the defending and three-time champion, world No1 Novak Djokovic, even though he too played that rare beast, a winner of a Masters title: He took on last year’s Monte Carlo winner and world No4 Stan Wawrinka.

This year, Djokovic had already reached the final of 13 tournaments in a row, won nine titles—including three Grand Slams—and 76 matches from 81.

Indeed, he had barely lost a match since he arrived here a year ago, little more than a week after the birth of his first child. He won his third Bercy title and went on to win the World Tour Finals crown unbeaten. And that made 11 titles in 15 finals, a win-loss of 85-5, in the space of 12 months.

Go back still further, and he had another remarkable unbeaten streak: He had not lost on an indoor hard court since his opening-match loss in Paris in 2012.

Now into the semi-finals again, he had extended his match-winning streak to 20—beginning with the US Open and taking in Beijing and the Shanghai Masters—and had not dropped a set in the last 28 played.

Yes, on paper he was, as he had been since this very place last year, the man to beat. But in Wawrinka, he faced one of the very few to have broken through the Djokovic defences during that time. As one of just four men to beat the Serb this year, he had scored his biggest victory in the final of the French Open, a match that denied Djokovic the complete set of Grand Slam titles.

Wawrinka also pressed Djokovic hard in a five-set Australian Open semi-final in January where, incidentally, he also beat Djokovic in 2014. Indeed these two men had gone to five sets in five of their seven Grand Slam and Davis Cup matches.

However, when it came to best-of-three matches, Djokovic was the dominant ‘partner’: He stood at 9-0 in Masters tournaments—including their last meeting in Cincinnati this year—and had not lost a set to Wawrinka since Basel in 2009.

There was one more element that would play a part in this latest meeting. Wawrinka’s match against Rafael Nadal was the last of the four to take to court on quarter-final Friday—and each the preceding matches had extended to well over two hours. Wawrinka would not seal the 7-6, 7-6, 2hr 20min tussle until 1.20am—and that before his post-match media and warm-down routines were taken into account.

So as if the emotional and physical toil of beating Nadal in the early hours was not enough, he had to face the impregnable Djokovic the very next afternoon.

The combination of all these elements clearly weighed heavy on Wawrinka’s tennis in the opening stages of the match. Djokovic won the first six points, and pressured the Swiss through three deuces and a break point in the second game.

Wawrinka held on, but a run of loose shots in the fourth game gave Djokovic the break-through, 3-1. The Swiss pounded his thighs with his racket in frustration, desperate to find the energy and strength to deal with a Djokovic in cruise control, but the first set was done and dusted in 40 minutes, 6-3.

In truth, Djokovic was not playing at the top of his game, either, but with a quick break and a love hold at the start of the second, 2-0, this had the makings of a one-sided affair.

However, Wawrinka found a clutch of first-strike winners to hold in the third game, and with it he also found a pocket of energy to drive him through the most competitive game of the match, an intense 12-minute marathon of punch and counter-punch between the two men.

Wawrinka at last slotted a signature bullet of a forehand past Djokovic to bring up break point. Even tumbling over as he hurtled to his forehand wing did not undermine the Swiss surge, and a couple of smart angled sliced backhands drew errors from Djokovic to work four more chances and the break to level, 2-2.

Buoyed up, it seemed, by adrenalin, Wawrinka continued his run to five games, finding aces here, backhand winners there, and another break as Djokovic struggled to adjust to the new level of the tennis.

Normally so clinical in converting break chances, he let three evaporate in the seventh game, and hammered his racket on his shoe in anguish. But three big serves and a serve-and-volley finish rubber-stamped the second set for Wawrinka, 6-3.

The Swiss, though, had used up his resources, both physical and mental. In his opening service game of the third set, he made three poor shot choices when apparently in control of the rallies, and was broken at the third time of asking. It was a similar story in the fourth game, this time a misfired forehand bringing the break, and Djokovic took full advantage with his accurate plays from the baseline and swift finishes at the net, 6-0.

So Wawrinka had stemmed the Djokovic run of straight sets at 29 but could not halt the 21-match-winning streak, nor the unprecedented run of finals that this remarkable player has reached this year: Paris makes 14, and it will be down to Murray to try to stop one of his oldest rivals making it 10 titles.

But while Murray is one of the four men to have beaten Djokovic this year, in the final of the Montreal Masters, he has lost five of their six meetings, and nine of their last 10. And it was the last of those matches that Djokovic recalled, for “It’s always a special kind of challenge because we have the rivalry that goes back for a long time. We played just recently in Shanghai. I played one of my best matches against him. I’m hoping I can play as well as I did there, but I’m sure that he’s going to try to do something different.

“I’ve seen he is playing some terrific tennis this week. He’s feeling good. It’s going to be a close one… it always is. It’s always very physical, also very psychologically demanding. We push each other to the limit.”

Djokovic has now recorded a career-best 77 match-wins this season. It’s hard to see anyone denying him his 78th, or that 10th title—and make that 11 if he goes on to retain his World Tour Finals crown in a fortnight.

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