August 22, 2009

The Quiet Killer

People don't give Novak Djokovic enough credit.

I'd never seen either him or Rafael Nadal play live before tonight at the second semifinal at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters in Cincinnati. But in the numerous matches I'd seen televised, he'd only impressed me maybe a handful of times.

Tonight was an exception.

Nadal and Djokovic had played each other eighteen times before tonight, with the Spaniard holding an impressive 14-4 lead. But though he had won their previous five matches, the last time Nole did pull off the victory was on this court in the semis last year. In fact all four of his wins have come on hard courts, the only surface on which he holds a lead against the newly-minted #3.

Djokovic is hardly a slouch -- ranked just below Nadal at #4 in the world, he's won 13 titles during his career, including two in Dubai and Belgrade in 2009. He's also made four other finals and three more semis, amassing a 52-15 record. But like other overshadowed stars, he's easy to forget.

But he's been in top form all this week in Ohio. After losing in the quarterfinals last Friday in Montreal to Andy Roddick, he hasn't lost a set here. Through the semis he held serve 30 of 33 games and let the final four in winning eighty-five percent of his first serves. And with an injured Nadal only playing his seventh match since the French Open, surely Djokovic had to know that this would be the best opportunity he'd had to beat Rafa in a long time. In his post match press conference he acknowledged his confidence:

"Hard court is my favorite surface and the surface where I achieved the biggest success so far in my career. I just feel comfortable playing on this surface. It just suits my game. I was aware that I would have to raise the level of my game tonight in order to win against Rafa."

And did he ever raise his level. He played some of the most graceful strokes I'd seen in a long time, getting eighty-one percent of his first serves in and converting his first two break point opportunities to take the first set 6-1, in less than a half-hour.

In the second set, too, Djokovic stayed strong. Though he lost three chances to break Rafa yet again in the opening set, he wasn't rattled and only ceded one point in his next game. After earning a break in the fifth game, Nole was tested a few times as Rafa got ahead on a few of the Serb's service games -- but his game was on point and after an hour-long second set, Djokovic earned his spot in the Cincy finals for the second straight year.

There he will meet Roger Federer, another man he has a surprisingly good record against. Though he still lags the current #1, he has notched victories in their last two meetings in Miami and Rome. He reflected on what awaits him tomorrow afternoon:

"He's a different kind of tennis than Rafa. Rafa runs more and gives you more time to do things that you like. But with Roger the points are shorter, so if he plays the way he was playing most of the year so far, it's going to be really difficult."

But if he continues to play at this same level, Djokovic has certainly shown that he's capable of doing it.

And while the semifinal loss may have been a disappointment to Nadal and his fans -- me included -- he was happy with his performance over the last two weeks, but knew he had some things to work on:

"This match is gonna be a good experience for me right now. These two weeks, winning three matches here and two matches there, five match wins and seven matches in total, it's enough matches I think…Djokovic played with very high intensity, and for me it was a little bit hard to keep at this intensity all the time. I can play some points, but I need to be ready to play at this level, to do something special, do a little bit more than usual."

And I know we'll be seeing him do just that in but a few week's time!

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