November 16, 2008

Shanghai Surprise

I don't think anyone believed we'd get to the last weekend in the 2008 men's tennis season and not see either of the two top players of the year battling for the ATP title.

But here we are and neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer are in the finals -- neither even made it to the semis.

Instead we saw two men who've consistently been in top form this year -- Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko, respectively #3 and #5 in the world -- take on two who've really seen their stars soar in 2008 -- Gilles Simon and Andy Murray.

Given the momentum Simon and Murray had brought with them, I admit I was surprised on Saturday when both ND's were successful. Apparently the rigorous schedules of their opponents finally took their toll -- Murray had only taken one week off after his U.S. Open final appearance, and Simon had entered a mind-blowing twenty-eight tournaments this year. And so both Novak and Nikolay were able to exert their slow and steady pressure and advance to the championship game.

I said earlier that I questioned whether the four semifinalists really represented the best of men's tennis this year -- and to some extent I still have my doubts. But after watching the final match, I'm not quite as indifferent about the two players who made it to the end.

The Djokovic-Davydenko final was somewhat of a reprise of their Gold Group second round-robin match-up which Nole won, despite losing the second set 0-6. This time, however, he wasn't willing to let his nerves take over, even for a second. The 21 year old Serb dominated the first set, taking it 6-1. Despite some excellent points Nikolay, looking much older than his 27 years, just didn't seem that into it until late in the second. Facing two championship points at 3-5, Davydenko not only impressively served out the game, but broke Dkojovic immediately following. But Novak quickly regrouped, won the next two games, the set, and the tournament.

With his win Novak cemented his position at the top of men's tennis. After a booming start to the year, with tiles in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Rome, Djokovic had become rather quiet. Even though he advanced deep into the draws at the French and U.S. Opens, he couldn't win another title -- and he lost three straight times to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the runner-up at the Australian Open.

But his win here proves Novak is not just a one-title wonder and even brings him within spitting distance of the #2 spot -- not a bad way to end a year. It could make Rafa and Roger a little nervous when they look to defend their rankings in 2009.

Incidentally, Djokovic wasn't the only Serb to see success in Shanghai. Compatriot Nenad Zimonjic teamed up with Canadian Daniel Nestor to take the doubles championship, beating the Bryan brothers in straight sets. Their win makes them the #1 doubles team this year, ending Bob and Mike's three-year hold on that title.

Looks like there's going to be some sparks flying on the doubles' courts as well!

See y'all in January!

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