Roger Federer drew level with Rafael Nadal on 19 titles with his 2012 Indian Wells victory, only for Nadal to draw ahead in Monte Carlo, Federer to level again in Madrid, and repeat… via Rome and Cincinnati. Both were now ahead of Andre Agassi’s 17, John McEnroe’s 19, and closing on Ivan Lendl’s 22.
By the same time in 2013, Nadal had set a new record, and by the spring of 2014 he had surged to a high of 27—and Federer moved to second in the overall list by the end of the same year.
It was the same story in Grand Slams: Who, many wondered, could ever match Pete Sampras as he sailed past Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on 11 apiece and Roy Emerson’s 12? Well, Federer did just that only seven years later. By 2012, the Swiss had reached 17, and not only that, Nadal had matched Sampras with his 14th Major in 2014.
These were proving to be extraordinary times, ‘a golden age’, an era when two men vied for the accolade of ‘best ever’. What were the chances that a third man would, within an even shorter time-span, muscle his way between both of them to stake his own claim for that GOAT title? Yet that is precisely what Novak Djokovic has done, and is continuing to do.
The mighty Serb, world No1 for the 91st week in a row, the 192nd week in total, already stood shoulder to shoulder with Federer on Masters titles just eight months ago, but continued an extraordinary two-year domination of the tour during which he won 11 of 19 Masters titles and five of nine Majors. Now he stood alongside Nadal with 27 Masters and alongside Laver and Borg with 11 Majors.
This, then, was what world No6 Kei Nishikori faced on the Miami Open stage as he tried to win his first Masters title.
But even if the Japanese star could put those kinds of records out his mind, could he really dent a hole in Djokovic’s invincibility cloak at a tournament where the Serb already owned five titles, where he had not lost his last 15 matches, and where he had dropped just one match in 30 dating back to 2011?
Could he be the one to score just the third win over Djokovic in his last 58 Masters matches? Could he become just the second top-10 player to beat the Serb since the start of last year’s US Open? Could he become only the fifth man to beat Djokovic since the start of 2015, disrupt the Serb’s 109-7 win-loss record?
In truth, since Djokovic was playing a man he had beaten in their last five matches, and was in the kind of form that most can only dream of, it seemed almost inevitable that he would end the day as champion, as he had as a teenager back in 2007, and as a new record-holder several times over.
He would head the table of Masters titles with 28, he would become the only man to win the infamous Indian Wells-Miami double four times, and he would overtake Federer for the top spot in prize money.
Should he need any further incentive, he could strike a blow against his coach and mentor Boris Becker in career match-wins: The final in Miami had drawn Djokovic level with Becker in 12th place on 713.
The conditions for the final, fortunately for both crowd and players, were more benign than they had been all week: Neither as blistering hot nor as exhaustingly humid, but overcast and with a light breeze.
Nishikori, who had played hot tennis to beat both Gael Monfils and Nick Kyrigios, started here in blistering form too: an immediate break promised a real contest, with the Japanese man matching the precision strikes to and from the baseline of the world No1. But the advantage was quickly lost. Djokovic broke straight back, helped by a double fault, and made two love holds before breaking Nishikori against via a stunning forehand cross-court winner, 4-2.
Out of the blue, though, Nishikori earned two more break points, and a return-of-serve cross-court winner levelled things—though the ball was actually just wide. No matter: Djokovic pressed again, and drew a shanked forehand for the break. A superb backhand winner up the line and two good serves, and Djokovic had the set, 6-3, in just over half an hour.
The momentum continued, with Nishikori seeming to fall under the baseline spell of his opponent. He lost a magnificent 33-shot rally, and then Djokovic threw in a drop-shot to break.
With an hour on the clock, Nishikori finally tried a drop-shot play of his own, and held with a net winner, but a love Djokovic hold, and the Japanese man was under pressure again. Nishikori saved break point, but pulled something in his knee, and called for the trainer.
Facing a 3-5 deficit, Nishikori’s serve became a liability—two doubles faults—and though he saved three match points, a final shanked forehand handed the match and title to Djokovic, 6-3, in an hour and 26 minutes.
Djokovic afterwards admitted that Miami was an important place for him: “I have a very special connection to this tournament: Back in 2007 it was the biggest tournament of my career and would be a springboard. I certainly hope the love affair continues in the years to come.”
Yes, he has set a new record for Masters titles, 28.
Yes, he has completed the Indian Wells-Miami double for an unprecedented fourth time.
Yes, he has won three Miami titles back to back, the seventh event at which he has done so, and has equalled Andre Agassi’s record six Miami titles in total.
Yes, he has won more prize money than any other man in tennis.
And yes, it seems that his love affair certainly will continue—and not just in Miami. Djokovic is playing near impregnable tennis, with precision tactics, with remarkable agility and flexibility, and with a confidence that sits around his shoulders like a shield against all-comers.
He continues, then, to also press his claim in the GOAT argument. After all, he could equal Nadal and Sampras in Grand Slam titles this year—and there are few who would bet against it.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge