ATP World Tour Finals 2011: Djokovic gives way to Berdych
Novak Djokovic out of season-ending World Tour Finals after 3-6 6-3 6-3 loss to Janko Tipsarevic as Tomas Berdych reaches semis
The permutations ahead of the final day of round-robin competition were near impenetrable, but one or two things looked pretty certain.
David Ferrer would take his place in the semi-finals and Novak Djokovic would beat friend and fellow Serb, Janko Tipsarevic. The only big question was whether Ferrer would beat the other man in the group, Tomas Berdych: the answer to that would resolve everything.
Before that last question was answered, though, there was another story to tell, for Djokovic””who has shown growing signs of physical and mental strain since his last title of 2011 at the US Open””was clearly struggling at the World Tour Finals.
The outstanding player of the year squeezed out a victory over Berdych in a final set tie-break after facing a match point but looked drained and sluggish in losing to Ferrer with just four games alongside his name.
However, when it came to his Davis Cup colleague, practice partner and holiday chum, Djokovic had an unbeaten record in their three previous meetings, each of them on a different surface: grass, clay and hard. But that bald fact hid a few significant stats.
The two had never before played indoors, Tipsarevic had taken a set in each of those three meetings, and he happened to be one of the most improved players on the tour this year.
He began 2011 at 49 in the world, reached five finals and won two indoor events in Moscow and Kuala Lumpur this autumn. It was his late indoor surge that took him to a career-high ranking of nine, enough to take him to London but not enough to play as of right. Then the call came: Andy Murray withdrew injured and the lesser-known Serb was catapulted into the limelight.
There were still few who thought his impact would be significant, but he has a fighting spirit, an impressive work ethic and a deep resolve. He was quick to point out that, while all three of the top men””Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray””talked of exhaustion at the end of a long season, he was second only to Nadal in the number of matches played, and nothing was going to dim his desire to prove his worth in this company.
First, he came within a match point of beating Berdych but lost his chance of qualification with one missed volley. And by conceding that match to Berdych, he also enabled the Czech to stay in the race for a semi-final place.
The full extent of the Tipsarevic role, however, did not become clear until he played his fellow Serb. He threw himself into his match against a pale and drawn Djokovic and, in overcoming a one-set deficit to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, he became the first alternate to join the year-end tournament at the midway stage and win a match since 2005.
Tipsarevic admitted that his opponent had not been up to his usual standard: “I can freely say that this was not Novak Djokovic from the US Open and Wimbledon.” But he went on to add: “I’m giving credit to me because I managed to beat the world No1″¦I feel that’s a victory that no-one can take away from me.”
At the very least, though, the two-hour-plus match had drained still further the Djokovic reserves should he find himself in the semi-finals. He faced the prospect of the in-form Roger Federer the very next afternoon and that had the makings of a similar trouncing to the one he suffered at the hands of the Swiss exactly a year ago in these very semi-finals.
But the rest of the saga was still to be played out.
Ferrer’s incentive to beat Berdych, apart from points, prize money and the kudos of topping the group, was to avoid meeting Federer himself, for if Berdych won, the Czech could top the pool, push Djokovic out of contention and knock Ferrer down to second place.
But the Spaniard was playing some of is best tennis of the year, no mean feat in a season of 73 matches, six finals”“two of them Masters””and a pair of titles. He had not lost a set in beating Murray and Djokovic””both men against whom he had negative head-to-heads””so coming up against a man who he had beaten in their past four meetings, twice on hard courts, he seemed to have Pool A in the palm of his hand.
Neither man served well and, for an attacking player willing to come to the net such as Berdych, that is a problem. For Ferrer, a supreme hustler able to run down all but an outright winner and prepared to take the ball early and transition into attack, Berdych’s 38 per cent first serve and 16 unforced errors gave him the momentum and he broke in the eighth game. He served out the first set to love, 6-3.
The Spaniard continued to attack and broke in the third game, but Berdych broke straight back. Ferrer had another chance in the seventh, breaking the Czech with a ripping forehand down the line, but then tightened up on his own serve, made three errors and saw Berdych also make a down the line winner.
It was the optimum moment for the Berdych serve to kick in and it did””a succession of 130-plus mph missiles gave the momentum to the big man, helped not a little by more errors from Ferrer. He broke in the 12th to take the set 7-5 and never looked back. Berdych raced to a 5-0 lead, winning 20 out of 24 points, and went on to take his 53rd match win of the season with his 24th winner, 6-1.
So on a day that began with seven possible scenarios, the surviving version was one of the least expected:
“Regardless of score, if Tipsarevic defeats Djokovic and Berdych defeats Ferrer, then Berdych wins the group and Ferrer qualifies second.”
So Ferrer has not avoided his poison chalice after all: He plays Federer in the semi-finals while Berdych takes on the confident Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in what could be a blockbuster of big serving, net attacking and all-court fireworks. They have played only once, just last month on a hard court in Beijing. Berdych won in three.
Meanwhile, two Serbs are on their way home before going off on a previously-booked holiday together in the Maldives.
Looking at the Djokovic body language in practice and in competition on his last day in London, he looks ready for a long rest before beginning the defence of his Australian title.
But listening to Tipsarevic, he may also be tired but he is ready for yet more hard work as he aims to stay with the top eight through 2012.
“I feel that next year is going to be even tougher than this. I know that I need to improve my tennis even if I want to stay where I am. I promise you, if I play the tennis that I played this year, I will drop out of the top 10. I am aware that I need to improve and play even better.”
For now, he is simply one of the happiest men in London: “If someone told me this would be the way to finish the year, I would take it in a heart beat. Beating the world No1 in the last match of the season is something that I feel everyone is going to remember.”
And he is absolutely right.