ATP World Tour Finals: Djokovic downs Del Potro to reach semis
ATP World Tour Finals 2013: Novak Djokovic beats Juan Martin fel Potro to become the second player to reach the last four
If Roger Federer and Richard Gasquet provided a taste-bud-tingling aperitif in the second round of Group B action, what followed promised to be one of the high-spots of the week’s round robins.
But that was not down purely to the heavy-weight tennis of the two combatants, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, who have between them put together the best post-US Open runs on the tour.
World No2 Novak Djokovic arrived in London with back-to-back victories in Beijing, Shanghai and Paris, an 18-match streak. Del Potro came with the Tokyo and Basel titles and as finalist in Shanghai, along with a quarter-final finish in Paris—a 16-2 streak.
Nor was is down to their rivalry this year, though all four of their 2013 matches had been highly competitive affairs—they split wins in Indian Wells and Shanghai in three-setters, and Djokovic edged del Potro in one of the matches of Wimbledon in a the fifth set. Even their only previous meeting at the O2 had gone the distance, Djokovic taking the win.
The real drama was about who might and might not qualify for the semi-finals.
Having won his opener against Federer in three sets, and with Gasquet subsequently losing to Federer, Djokovic needed only to beat del Potro to qualify, regardless of the scoreline. And if del Potro won in straight sets, he would be the one to guarantee a place in the semis, but if he did not, his fate would be in Federer’s hands in the last round-robin match on Saturday.
In between lay a grey area where every game won and lost could make all the difference when the calculations were eventually made.
In the event, Djokovic did not need to await calculations, though he looked perilously close to doing so.
Although the Serb looked nervy on his opening serve, having to fight off two break points in a four-minute tussle, del Potro took almost as long to win the second game. Then the momentum seemed to swing firmly towards Djokovic, who was moving faster, hitting more crisply and placing the ball with clinical precision.
After a love hold in the third, he pressed del Potro through three break points, and although he could not convert, it was simply a matter of time. Djokovic threw in the occasional drop shot and foray to the next but it was his penetrating baseline play that did the damage and he broke to lead 4-2. Another love hold, with an ace, took the set, 6-3.
There were precious few errors on either side in 40 minutes of play—seven each—but Djokovic had pounded 13 winners past the Argentine, and began the second set just as convincingly with a love hold.
Then slowly, slowly, the del Potro forehand, followed by the backhand, began to find some rhythm, as though a giant was awakening. The pace and depth of his hitting, accompanied as it always is with a groan of effort, began to draw errors—up to 14 after five games. Suddenly, it was Djokovic facing break points, and a net-cord from del Potro made an effective drop-shot winner for the break.
Del Potro went on to hold to love with an ace and served it out, 6-3. The Argentine had made just three unforced errors in the set and Djokovic looked rattled. His opening game of the decider brought his first double fault—the only one from either player in the entire match. But he withstood two break points to hold.
Such is the mental resilience of Djokovic that, rather than fade in the face of his opponent’s bombardment, he became even sharper, and it was the kind of reflex return of serve that has saved match points before now, that drew the fatal error. He broke for 4-2 and from then on, never looked like losing. He served out the match, 6-3.
Little wonder, perhaps, that afterwards he sounded ominously calm and confident:
“I just feel well at this particular part of the year. I know most of the players are exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally, after a long season. But, you know, I try to find that as an opportunity for me to get extra motivated to kind of push myself to the limit and deliver the goods when needed.”
He also admitted to some relief that the Paris-to-London scheduled worked in his favour:
“I had luck that my group was selected to play Tuesday, Thursday, and I played night matches, so it gave me more time to rest, gave me more time to get ready. I won the two big fights against Roger and against Juan Martin today. Both went the distance, both matches were decided in a few points. So I’m just very glad to be able to play my best when it’s needed.”
So Djokovic can sleep easy in his bed—and no doubt will after almost two hours of draining tennis—knowing that he is already through to the semis. Del Potro, with a two-and-a-half hour match in his legs before today’s loss, will have to take on and beat Federer in a make-or-break concluding round-robin match.
The tournament could hardly ask for more: a third meeting in a fortnight between these great friends and rivals, with one three-set victory apiece.