Novak Djokovic does not enjoy playing the supporting role on the men’s circuit. Stripped of his number one spot by Rafael Nadal this week, the Serb made his intent to reclaim the top ranking crystal clear at the China Open final on Sunday.
In what is regarded as the greatest rivalry of all time, Djokovic and Nadal squared off for a record 38th time, the most meetings between two players in the Open Era. Having showcased some absolute masterpieces and marathon battles in the past (the two hold the record for the longest Grand Slam final at the 2012 Australian Open), their latest episode in Beijing did not live up to its expectations.
Three time champion Djokovic got the better of the Spaniard in a straight forward final, winning 6-3, 6-4 inside a packed stadium at the Olympic Green Tennis Centre. The Serb snapped a three-match losing streak against his arch rival for his third title of the year. Nadal, who will top the world rankings for the first time since 2011 come Monday, was far from his best. This was largely attributed to Djokovic’s flawless play.
The 26 year old Belgrade native got off to a flier, breaking Nadal’s serve in the second game of the match with his punishing forehand drives. He consolidated the break with a service hold of his own to race to a commanding 3-0 lead. With the pressure of the number one spot chase off his back, Djokovic looked relaxed and opened up his shoulders to take charge of the rallies from the word go. Rafa, unbeaten on hard courts this year, had difficulty finding his timing and rhythm on the slick blue courts.
Games went on serve, with the Spaniard unable to make any major inroads into the Serb’s service games. Utterly dominant, Djokovic dropped a total of two points on his own serve to clinch the opener in 38 minutes. A telling statistic from the first set was Nadal’s 25 percent success rate on second serves to Nole’s 80 percent.
Onto the second set and a response was required from the Mallorcan. Locked at 30-all on Nadal’s opening service game, the two exchanged a series of meaty blows, moving each other side to side with Rafa finishing the point off with a high forehand volley in response to Nole’s tame lob. However, Djokovic went into the ascendancy again with an early break.
The quicker conditions clearly favored the Serb’s flatter shots. He maintained good length and accuracy off the ground, enough to keep Nadal at bay throughout the encounter. Another shanked return and another love hold for the top seed. This seemed to be the order of the afternoon’s play. Rafa, who won this title way back in 2005, faced more resistance from Djokovic in the third game. Down a couple of break points, the Spaniard had to hit two lines in a row to hold on to his serve.
Nadal tried to change things up with his backhand slice but there was no stopping the Serb on Sunday. He looked a man on a mission. Serving for the title at 5-4, Djokovic thumped a service winner on match point to clinch his fourth title at the Chinese capital.
With Nole’s win here and Rafa temporarily back to number one, the battle for the year-end top spot has heated up. And with the Shanghai Rolex Masters kicking off on Monday, it will be interesting to see who rises to the occasion.