China Open: ‘More complete’ Novak Djokovic begins pursuit of sixth title

Novak Djokovic races to a 6-1 6-1 victory over Simone Bolelli as he begins his quest for a sixth China Open title

With so many points and so much prestige on the line in the brief but vital Asian swing, it’s little wonder that 40 of the top 45 players in the world, and 13 in the top 15 Race to London, are in contention at the 500 double-header in Beijing and Tokyo this week.

Both venues feature remarkable facilities, perhaps the best in the world in this second tier of competition. The Japan Open, the oldest tennis tournament in Asia dating back to 1972, is played at the 48-court Ariake Colosseum that boasts a centre court with one of the first retractable roofs in the sport.

As for the Beijing Olympic Green Tennis Centre, built especially for the 2008 Olympics, it too has extensive courts, and the magnificent 15,000 Diamond Court at its heart emulates the ground-breaking technology introduced at its sister arena in Shanghai—which is where the tour heads next week for the penultimate Masters of the year.

Beijing’s top three seeds have dominated the tournament for almost a decade. No3 Rafael Nadal, won his Olympic gold in 2008 having taken the China Open trophy back in 2005. He also reached the final in 2013.

In 2011, this year’s second seed Tomas Berdych won the title. But the man who has taken Beijing by the throat almost from the first is world No1 Novak Djokovic, and as it happens, he opted out of Beijing in 2011 on his way to a remarkable 10-title season with a 70-6 match-run. But every year that the Serb has played here, beginning in 2009, he has won—five titles and counting.

Djokovic, then, remains unbeaten in the Chinese capital—except at the Olympics, where he picked up the bronze medal. Indeed he has only dropped three sets in 51 sets played in Beijing.

And the ‘China’ factor extends beyond the capital: In five appearances in Shanghai, Djokovic has never fallen short of the semis, and has won the title twice—and he also won the Masters Cup in the final year it was held in Shanghai, in 2008.

In truth, then, it is hard to see Djokovic veering far from the straight and narrow in China, especially given his overall 2015 season.

For Djokovic comes to Asia with a 63-5 match record so far, and already owns seven titles—and not just any titles: three Grand Slams and four Masters crowns. Then there are the four additional finals: another Grand Slam and two Masters among them.

He has just hit 167 weeks as No1 and so will overtake the current all-time No5 John McEnroe’s total of 170 next month—and that’s not all. Djokovic sealed the year-end No1 with the US Open title last month, and currently sits more than 6,000 points ahead of the field.

This year, the remarkable Serb became only the third player in the Open Era to reach all four Grand Slam finals in the same season, joining the illustrious company of Rod Laver and Roger Federer. He did so with 21 wins over top-10 opponents, and since the Australian Open, has lost only to Federer—twice—Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.

The 32-man draw in Beijing has already opened up favourably for him, too. Nadal has fallen into the bottom half with Berdych, while Djokovic’s scheduled semi opponent, the No4 seed, Milos Raonic, lost to unseeded Viktor Troicki in his opener. Meanwhile, Tommy Robredo, a possible quarter-final opponent, also went out to No76-ranked John Millman in the first round.

However, Djokovic’s first opponent, Simone Bolelli, has enough flair to ruffle feathers. This year, for example, he beat Berdych in St Petersburg, Kevin Anderson in Madrid, Raonic in Marseille, David Goffin in Sydney. Admittedly he had not beaten Djokovic in three meetings, but he should have provided a Djokovic with a good warm-up. Not a bit of it.

It took just 71 minutes, five breaks of serve, and two-thirds of the total points to dispatch the Italian, 6-1, 6-1. And after the multi-lingual Djokovic had signed the camera with a Chinese greeting to fans, he was off to win another match, this time partnering 20-year-old brother Djordje in doubles.

The top seed’s second match is against Chinese wild card, the 219-ranked Ze Zhang: So far, so good, then, for the well-oiled Djokovic machinery.

However, his own view of his ‘state of play’ this year will ring alarm bells with his opponents.

“I just feel like a more complete person and player. I’m a father and a husband, just different circumstances that happen in my life have helped me to enjoy all the success even more. 2011 was absolutely an incredible year, but I feel this year I’m enjoying even more because I’m more, I would say, fulfilled, more complete, more mature as a person and a player.”

Djokovic barely missed a beat when his son was born in October last year: He reached the Shanghai semis before returning to win the Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals. One can only imagine what he might achieve this autumn.

Nadal’s progress to Beijing’s second round was rather less straightforward against another Chinese wild card, the No230 ranked Di Wu. It took the Spaniard, who is still to seal his place at the World Tour Finals, an hour and a half to win, 6-4, 6-4, and he suffered multiple breaks in the second set to trail 4-2 until he found his baseline groove to overtake the slight Chinese man.

Nadal next faces a bigger test in both senses: The 6ft 4in Canadian Vasek Pospisil, a former No25, is currently ranked 44, and reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in an otherwise a patchy season.

A year ago, Nadal was struggling on all fronts, hit hard by fitness problems and losses: He played only seven matches between Wimbledon and the year’s end as he succumbed to back and wrist injury and then appendicitis. It has subsequently taken him longer than anticipated to regain his peak level, but he asserted since arriving in Beijing: “[I’m] practising well, the level of tennis going to be there sooner or later. I am working a lot to make that happen. I think I’m closer to that. I know it is obvious that I need results to confirm that, but we are almost at the end of this season and I have time to keep playing the last tournaments of the year with the chance to practise the things that I need to do for next year.” 

Nadal is signed up to Shanghai, Basel and Paris after Beijing, and it seems almost inconceivable that he will fail to achieve his oft-repeated target of reaching the London finale this year after qualifying—but having to miss—last year.

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