Shanghai Masters: Djokovic’s run stays firm against wayward Tsonga

Shanghai Masters 2013: Novak Djokovic reaches the final after a 6-2 7-5 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semi-finals

novak djokovic
Novak Djokovic is through to the final in Shanghai Photo: Marianne Bevis

Were it not for the fine form shown by the charismatic Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, since returning to the tour after almost three months away with injury, the first semi-final of Shanghai Masters looked certain to place defending champion Novak Djokovic back in the final.

It was almost four years since Tsonga had beaten Shanghai’s No1 seed, in a memorable five-setter at the Australian Open in 2010. And although Tsonga challenged the Serb at Wimbledon the next year and at Roland Garros last year, Djokovic had won every match since to compile a 10-5 lead.

Djokovic was also continuing to prove that the hard courts of China were a very happy hunting ground when it came to titles and match wins. Last week, he beat Rafael Nadal in Beijing to claim his fourth title there in the last five years.

Meanwhile in Shanghai, Djokovic had reached at least the semi-finals in all three previous visits, winning the title last year, not to mention the Masters Cup on the same court in 2008. Now he was in a fourth semi. So with two consecutive Beijing titles sandwiched around last year’s Shanghai trophy, Djokovic had stacked up 18 consecutive wins on Chinese soil.

But Tsonga’s return to the tour saw him reach the final in his first tournament in Metz, the second round in Tokyo, and now the semis in Shanghai without dropping a set. And the stats he had notched up in beating Pablo Andujar, Kei Nishikori and Florian Mayer were some of the best in the tournament: No1 in return games won, No2 in second serve points won, break points saved and break points converted, and No4 in his first serve percentage and service games won.

He also had the not inconsiderable incentive of moving to No7 in the race to London, leapfrogging both Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer, if he reached the final.

But he would need to replicate those fine stats if he was to do so, and right from the start, he struggled to get anywhere near them.

His opening service game was dire: two double faults and two poor net plays to concede a love break.

After eight minutes and a love hold, Djokovic was 3-0, and Tsonga faced two more break points in the fourth game. This time, though, his serve came to the rescue, and by the time he got on the scoreboard he had fired three aces and made a winning backhand pass.

With his nerves apparently now under control, Tsonga pushed Djokovic to deuce, and a powerful return of serve brought up break-back point. In a persistent tactic that would continue to let Tsonga down, he was punished for a poor net approach, but after three deuces, he had another break chance, and this time he used his easy power to make a winner from the baseline.

The two men were back on level terms for barely a minute. Tsonga’s see-sawing form dropped again, and two more poor net approaches made him an easy target for the Djokovic pass. The Serb led again, 5-2, and his infamous backhand kept Tsonga at bay for the hold and the set, 6-2.

The story was in the statistics: Djokovic had made just four errors, Tsonga 14; Djokovic had recorded 13 winners, Tsonga only eight. Most telling of all, Tsonga’s biggest weapon, his serve, was hitting the mark just 46 percent of the time.

The second set had an inauspicious start for Tsonga, too, with yet another failed net rush. On serve, though, he enjoyed a very rare love hold. In the fourth game, more wayward play from the Frenchman—winning shots followed by careless errors—saw him forced to defend another break point. Yet he persisted with his net-racing tactics, despite so many failures, and a spectacular serve and smash winner kept him level, 2-2.

And so the pattern continued. Djokovic made few errors, and in return was frequently handed either easy plays or free points from the unpredictable racket of the Frenchman. Another loose serve-and-volley play from Tsonga handed Djokovic the break.

Then came what had the makings of a match-turning incident. Tsonga came out the winner from a long 27-shot baseline rally, and another winner from the baseline gave Tsonga an unexpected two break points. He hit a fine cross-court slice onto the side-line, Djokovic left it—believing it was out—only for a challenge to prove it was indeed in. It gave Tsonga the break-back, but Djokovic was livid at the umpire’s ruling not to replay the point—a decision exacerbated in the Serb’s eyes by a similar call in the previous game.

Djokovic’s mood was not improved by a misguided challenge on the first point of the next game, and meanwhile Tsonga was starting to play the kind of touch volleys that have made him such a favourite with fans. He levelled the set, 4-4.

But the see-saw now moved in the opposite direction once more: Djokovic refocused, cut out the errors and held serve, while Tsonga’s play vacillated between brilliant and dreadful. The Frenchman retrieved a 0-30 position to hold one more game, but in the next, Tsonga’s inconsistency proved fatal: Djokovic broke for the set and match, 7-5.

Tsonga had notched up 35 errors to Djokovic’s 14 and made just 13 points from 31 at the net. Whether it was the pressure of playing Djokovic or for a place in the World Tour Finals, it is hard to say what affected Tsonga’s decision-making—repeated net-charges on poor approach shots—and serving. His work continues.

Djokovic, already qualified for London, has other things on his mind: another Chinese final, another possible final against Nadal should the Spaniard beat Juan Martin del Potro, another World Tour Final, and another Davis Cup final. It’s a big schedule but one he looks ready to take in his stride.

Meanwhile, this most consistent of players has notched up some neat, round figures with this particular win: a 25th Masters final, a 60th final overall, and his 30th final on hard courts.

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