Paris Masters 2019: Djokovic battle for year-end No1 stays alive after Nadal withdraws injured
Djokovic into 50th Masters final; Denis Shapovalov into first Masters final
At the sharp end of the last full-draw tournament of the season, and with the ATP Finals line-up done and dusted, the focus was fairly and squarely on two men. Not for the first time, those two were the current No1 Novak Djokovic and No2 Rafael Nadal.
Current, because Nadal led the Race to London—effectively the race to the year-end No1—and irrespective of the result at the Paris Masters, he would take over Djokovic’s year’s tenure at the top come Monday.
The big issue in play in the semi-finals was whether Nadal could also sign, seal and deliver the year-end No1 by Monday. If he reached the final, and Djokovic lost his semi-final, Nadal was assured of the No1 for the rest of the year. And if they should both win, and therefore contest the final, victory by Nadal would also guarantee No1 until the start of 2020.
As an extra incentive, the Spaniard was also chasing one of the few Masters titles missing from his trophy cabinet, and extend his record tally of titles to 36.
More worrying for his next young opponent, the explosive 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov, Nadal was yet to drop serve, 31/31 games held, and that despite facing formidable opposition in the shape of Stan Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The young Canadian, though, now playing his fourth Masters semi-final, was on a surge of his own, after winning his first title in Stockholm, and taking three big scalps in Paris, Alexander Zverev, Fabio Fognini and Gael Monfils.
In this form, he must surely have relished taking on Nadal for a third time, considering they had split those two previous matches. But Shapovalov was to be denied with just minutes to go: Nadal announced his withdrawal after picking up an abdominal injury during his warm-up for their semi-final match. The Spaniard admitted:
“I hope to be ready for London. That’s the biggest goal right now.”
Understandably so. Not only is the end-of-year ranking on the line; Nadal has never yet managed to win the prestigious year-end event, the ATP Finals. It is, in short, the only big title missing from a resume that includes all four Majors, the Davis Cup, and Olympic gold in both singles and doubles.
And while Nadal’s withdrawal from the Paris semis may have been good fortune for the Canadian, inasmuch as it marked his first Masters final and another ranking hike to around 15 next week, it was a ‘win’ that would also carry an asterisk.
Could he compensate by taking on and beating four-time former champion and, for now, world No1, Djokovic? Could he, in short, join that select band of players to win a Masters title. Sunday would bring the answer.
For prior to Nadal’s withdrawal, Djokovic had maintained his side of the No1 bargain by reaching the Paris final in what proved to be one of his toughest tests of the week, and the third time he would be taken to an opening set tie-break.
Djokovic certainly started, on paper, with the advantage, in the shape of an 8-1 head-to-head, with Dimitrov’s only win coming more than six years ago.
However, the Bulgarian’s plunging form to a rank of 78 following shoulder injury had taken a turn for the better. He made the semi-finals at the US Open, and sailed past Dominic Thiem and David Goffin in Paris. He would return to the top 20 with this semi run, but could he go still higher?
It took 62 minutes and 75 points to reach another opening-set tie-break, and for much of that hour, Dimitrov was at least the equal of the world No1. He was fast, aggressive, and found probing angles to draw errors from the Serb. However, both held serve with relative ease, facing not a break point on either side.
From 6-6, it was again nip and tuck, and Dimitrov had a golden opportunity to work set point after a gruelling, corner to corner 32-stroke rally, but thumped a forehand volley wide rather than place an easy winner to the opposite corner.
It rang the set’s death knell: Djokovic upped his pace, precision and defence to win the following 35-stroke rally, and he now had set point, 6-5, and made no mistake: 7-6(5).
He called on the crowd to show their appreciation, and they did. But what damage had that wayward error done to the Dimitrov confidence? He had scored just one point less than Djokovic, as if to reinforce the weight of that careless volley.
Dimitrov started the second set strongly enough, but Djokovic followed suit. And with relentless penetration and accuracy, the Serb worked the first break points of the match, drawing the error for the key break, 3-2.
That would be enough: He would offer up not a single break-back chance, and served out the win to love having lost just four points on serve in the second set.
That he had made only 13 winners to 20 errors certainly did not tell the story. It was the timing of the Djokovic winners and errors that counted, just as it had been for Dimitrov. Had the Bulgarian scored a 21st winner on that tie-break volley, it may have ended very differently.
But the mental and tactical fortitude of Djokovic, and his ability to maintain line-licking accuracy through an entire match, is what has earned him the No1 ranking for so long. And while he will certainly lose the top spot before the ATP Finals, the door is now open to reclaim it for the year’s end.
By reaching the Paris final, his 50th Masters final overall, Djokovic is within 1,040 points of Nadal in the Race, and he can reduce that to 640 points if he beats Shapovalov in the final.
As for the Spaniard, he can only wait and hope for a speedy recovery:
“I have played three great matches, and I have been enjoying a lot being on court. So it’s tough to finish like this. That’s it. I need to accept, and recover well mentally and physically from that.”