ATP World Tour Finals 2011: Djokovic survives Berdych test
Tomas Berdych's impressive start counted for nothing after he lost 3-6 6-3 7-6 to world No1 Novak Djokovic on Monday night
The Novak Djokovic year is eye-watering in its achievements. Ten titles that include three Grand Slams and five Masters, 69 wins from 73 matches plus the No1 ranking. And, for a little icing on the cake, he has earned record annual prize money totalling $10.8m this year.
But not everything has been rosy in the Serbian garden since winning his last trophy of the year, the US Open.
Already fending off injury, the all-powerful Serb retired with a back injury at the Davis Cup and did not play again until Basel. Both there and at the Paris Masters, he was below his clinical best, eventually retiring from the latter event with shoulder inflammation.
On the bright side, Djokovic had two weeks to bring the problem under control. On the down side, he was short on match-play for his first Round Robin, and against Berdych, that was dangerous.
For despite a 100 per cent record against Berdych on hard courts, including three matches this year, it was the tall, powerful Czech who brought the better autumn run to London. He won Beijing and reached the semis at the Paris Masters, where he produced a devastating display of power tennis in beating Andy Murray.
So Djokovic needed to be fit, and the world No1 assured the media before the tournament that all was fine. “I have been serving at 100 per cent in the last three days and for me the shoulder is fine at this moment,” he said. “I can say it is recovered and ready to compete again.”
It looked, after the first few games, as though that may not be the case. Berdych opened with a good service game and immediately gained two break points, converting the second. By 3-0, Djokovic had already notched up a double fault amongst four unforced errors and Berdych had scored five winners””four of them on his mighty forehand””to Djokovic’s zero.
Berdych broke again in the fourth, and Djokovic now boasted eight errors and still no winners. Finally, though, he broke his duck, scored his first winner, took a 40-0 lead and broke to win his first game.
The Djokovic serve was not firing on all cylinders just yet, and he offered up another break chance in the sixth game, but began to show signs of finding some rhythm. Fortunately for the Serb, his opponent’s serve was even less reliable, staying at a depressingly consistent 46 per cent for the entire match.
The frustration worked its way into the Czech man’s ground strokes too: his forehand flew long, backhands went wide and overheads ended up in the front row. But he resisted three break points to hold and eventually took the set 6-3.
The Djokovic game continued to improve through the second set in inverse proportion to the Berdych game. A long, tightly-contested second game went Djokovic’s way and he ran to a 3-0 lead.
His first serve percentage rocketed to 90 per cent at the mid-set stage, while Berdych’s plummeted to 35, and although the Czech held serve for the remainder of the set, he could not break through the Djokovic consistency, even though the normally-deadly Serbian backhand produced just two winners after an hour and a quarter of competition.
What’s more, Djokovic barely came within spitting distance of the net for the whole match, winning just two points from four attempts throughout the two hours and 40 minutes. His focus was clearly on finding a rhythm from the baseline to build his confidence, and that is what he did, point by point.
Three straight winners from Djokovic sealed the set, 6-3, and the two men drew level on points as well as on games. The bad news for Berdych was that Djokovic had drastically cut his error count to a third of its first-set level.
A change of shirt from Djokovic revealed some extensive blue taping around his shoulder but, judging from his constant serve percentage, it was doing its stuff.
In the final set, both began with clean service games and Berdych regained some of his flagging body language to show a bit more attack. Indeed in the sixth game, he worked a 40-15 lead for two break points.
The big Czech forehand of the first few games returned to score a blistering winner down the line and he led 4-2, but it was short-lived. Djokovic pummelled him with heavy, accurate drives until Berdych, ever a weakness, lost patience and went for the outright winner.
And that was a pattern that took hold for the rest of the match, and eloquently illustrated the mental strength of the champion compared with the not-quite champion. Djokovic showed formidable clarity and conviction to stay with the Czech, saving one match point at 5-6, and forced a tie-break.
With Djokovic now in killer mode and Berdych increasingly frustrated and rash in his shot-making, the result was not in doubt. The Serb rushed to a 5-1 lead and conceded just two more points before taking his 70th win of the year.
Djokovic looked more relieved than happy, and there was precious little celebration of a victory that could so easily have been a loss.
With twice as many errors as winners, he was quick to acknowledge that he was simply happy to survive the test. “I wasn’t very satisfied with my performance,” he said. “I know I wasn’t playing on top of my game”¦but look, a win is a win in the end.”
And he will improve with each round, especially with the confidence he has in that shoulder. “To be honest, it feels good. That’s something that I’m happy about, my condition. I haven’t felt any pain in my shoulder.”
Good news for the Serb: less good news for those who lie in wait.