Indeed since his first-round loss at the Rio Olympics, it has been something of a hit-and-miss affair for the world No1, with wrist problems keeping him out of Cincinnati and elbow problems forcing him to withdraw from Beijing.
But there have also been signs since his highly-charged but draining French Open victory, that he has been mending a few emotional as well as physical problems. It was a thoughtful Djokovic who confirmed as much in Shanghai this week. Aside from putting his injuries behind him, he said, he had come with a new outlook, one more able to cope with the peaks and troughs of this demanding sport.
“I guess I’m not the only one in the world that has to face these kind of life lessons and challenges—and I guess evolution of some sort. Each day for all of us is different… I try to be in this moment and take things slowly… I’m not in a need to achieve anything. I feel like I have overcome that step.
“Right now it’s about just following my gut, following my instinct, whatever I feel like doing… It is a transition of some kind. That doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna play tennis. What I’m saying is, I’m still playing because I enjoy it, but that’s my main priority… I have plenty of inspiration in the tennis world, outside the tennis world. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I enjoy my life. But in tennis, things happened differently for me the last three months and that’s it.”
In his first two matches in Shanghai, things followed the familiar path to swift, imposing wins over Fabio Fognini and Vasek Pospisil. Djokovic plied his accurate, ruthless, tactical game—and many supposed that his quarter-final against the No110-ranked Mischa Zverev would be more of the same.
But history might have shown the many that the 29-year-old Russian had the kind of game that could disrupt the famed rhythm and precision of the top seed. For the left-handed Zverev plays an old-fashioned style built around the serve and volley, low, sliced returns, chip-and-charge—the kind of tennis that breaks any attempt at rhythm.
Djokovic has, of course, perfected his game in offence and defence, on both wings, on serve and receive, to such a degree that only a handful of players have broken it down.
Players like Stan Wawrinka, who twice in Grand Slam finals played first-strike tennis, stepped in to power balls through the court, or slowed it down with angled slice to draw a defensive return the he could attack.
Roger Federer beat Djokovic in three of only six losses last year by taking time and rhythm away from the Serb with strong net play, varied pace and slice, front-foot, inside-the-baseline tennis.
This year, Sam Querrey and Jiri Vesely wrenched control with big serving and penetrating follow-throughs, as did Ivo Karlovic last year.
And players who have stolen unexpected sets from Djokovic are often those who have either played unpredictable or attacking tennis: Mikhail Kukushkin, David Goffin, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Kevin Anderson, Kei Nishikori.
It quickly became apparent that the elder of the Zverev brothers had such an array of weapons. Even in surviving break points in his first two service games, he took to the net with alacrity, and broke Djokovic to find himself 3-1 ahead. And as the set progressed, he did not back off, breaking again to take a surprise lead, 6-3.
Djokovic looked bemused: He was no doubt aware of the German’s playing style, but perhaps had not expected him to execute so well. The Serb had yet to find any rhythm, and even given the occasional chance to make the kind of pass he would normally make in his sleep, he netted or went wide. He looked up towards his highly vocal fans, smiled, but remained entirely calm.
His solution, in the second set, was to deny Zverev the net and come in himself, and that pressure drew rewards. A superb lob from Djokovic onto the baseline brought up the first of four break-point chances, and although Zverev saved three with serve-and-volley plays on his second serve, Djokovic slotted his signature cross-court backhand to take the lead, 3-2.
However, a seemingly casual service game from Djokovic—a double fault plus forehand errors—and Zverev broke back for 4-4 and held to love. It would be decided by a tie-break, but could Djokovic find some of his usual intensity, and cut down on the 31 errors thus far?
He was helped, it must be said, by some opening gifts from Zverev—one smash way wide, an easy volley netted. Djokovic led 4-0, and went on to close out the set, 7-6(4).
Zverev’s energy and confidence now began to lose their edge, and that enabled Djokovic to take command. He won 12 of the first 14 points in the third set, led 4-1 as two hours came and went, and smiled, this time with relief rather than bemusement, as a Zverev backhand clipped the net on break point.
The match ended on Djokovic’s terms, too, with a baseline rally that drew a final error from the German, 6-3. But it had been a strange and rather muted performance from Djokovic, followed by no on-court interview, and a no-delay press conference.
There, he revealed one of the new changes he was endeavouring to make on court. Rather than smash his racket in frustration when his tennis was not up to scratch, he hummed to keep himself calm: “Instead of the occasional tantrum that I used to have, I transformed it in a tune… I was using it to just forget about my previous mistake. And it worked.”
Djokovic may have been uncharacteristic in his demeanour, but the statistics suggested that his tennis had stood up pretty well to the tricky Zverev test. He made more winners than errors, won 30 from 40 net points, and looked as fit after 2hrs 20mins as he had at the start. He also racked up his 30th Masters match-win and the 21st win in his last 22 in Shanghai.
So it will take a special performance to deny him to a fourth title here, one unlikely to come from his semi-final opponent, Roberto Bautista Agut, who he has beaten in all five previous meetings—and who plays the kind of baseline tennis on which Djokovic thrives.
However there is another player in the draw who has the means—and fitness—to beat Djokovic: Andy Murray. The Briton has found his rival a tough nut to crack, but since they locked horns in three finals in a row on clay this year, it is Murray who has dominated the tour.
And Murray, too, has made adjustments: improved his second serve; become more tactically aggressive and forward-moving; channelled his own frustrations with the help of written notes.
He is also one of the few who can play Djokovic at his own game while injecting some disruptive changes of pace and tactics. Murray has, too, played flawless tennis in Shanghai, beating dangerous seeds with ambitions for the World Tour Finals, Lucas Pouille and David Goffin, without losing a set.
First Murray must play Gilles Simon, and though the Briton has won in 14 of 16 previous matches, the Frenchman is always a testing opponent. Just ask Stan Wawrinka, who Simon beat in straight sets, and Jack Sock, who he beat in a thrilling final-set tie-break in the quarters.
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