October 14, 2012

Reversal of Fortune

Things can get surprisingly interesting during the back quarter of the tennis season. Even with all the Majors in the books for the year, the sport's top stars still turn up the heat post-U.S. Open as they try to make up for what some might consider lackluster recent performances.

A couple years back Nikolay Davydenko came off an early, fourth-round loss in New York and put together a three-title streak, which included wins over Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer and the year-end championship. In 2011, Federer was unstoppable after squandering semifinal match points at the Open -- his 17-0 record buoyed him toward a sixth World Tour Final and served no small role in getting him back to the #1 ranking.

This time, it seems, it's Novak Djokovic's chance to turn his luck around. Not exactly having a bad season -- the leader in the race to London has four titles, including a Slam, already -- he has nevertheless ceded the spotlight a bit to the resurgent Roger and the groundbreaking Andy Murray. And with very few points to defend from this time last year -- he went trophy-less after his own win in New York -- he didn't have a lot to lose.

Nole might not have faced a seeded player until the semis in Shanghai, but that didn't mean he was without challenges. He opened against rising star Grigor Dimitrov, squared off against a tough Feliciano Lopez in the third round and finally ended the streak of comeback story Tommy Haas in the quarters. He might have had trouble against Tomas Berdych -- the tall Czech stunned the then-#3 on his way to the 2010 Wimbledon final and has put up some big fights in the past -- but Djokovic kept his cool and walked away with the win in just under ninety minutes.

Meanwhile, the Serb's recent nemesis Andy Murray was working his way through his own half of the draw. He'd actually had a bit of a struggle in his quarterfinal, going down a set to Radek Stepanek before pulling through, but against Roger Federer in the semis, he raised his game. He won over eighty percent of his first serves, capitalized on a handful of double faults and broke the world #1 three times during the match. In a routine two-setter, Murray notched his second win in a row over, making his way to the seventh final of his year, and his third
in Shanghai.

It was the first time Djokovic and Murray had met since that devastating final in New York, actually just a month ago. With that win capping the Scot's already-successful year and giving him three wins to the Serb's two this year, momentum seemed to be on his side. And he rode that wave through at least a set and a half of Sunday's final. After losing his first service game, Murray won three in a row himself. The pair traded an inordinate number of breaks during the first set, but kept their level high, with the #3 seed finally getting the early lead after more than an hour of play.

He got a break in the second, too, and earned a chance to serve out the match at 5-4, but a glorious between-the-legs shot got Nole on the board in the tenth game. Murray failed to convert any of five championship points in that game and the ensuing twenty-four point tiebreak, and eventually was forced to a decider. With the tide turning now towards Nole, it was only a matter of time before he closed things out. He took advantage of some weak legs from his opponent and mediocre serving to break Murray twice in the decider. And in three hours, twenty-one minutes -- the longest non-Major final of the year -- Djokovic had claimed his first Shanghai Masters crown and, maybe more importantly, stop the sting of that last big loss.

The win gives Djokovic a 10-0 record since the U.S. Open and marks his seventieth win of the year. It's certainly a better showing than he put up at this time in 2011 when, after a record-breaking kick-off he seemed to suffer a bit from exhaustion. But now that he's figured out how to control his success -- and his schedule -- it looks like he's poised to end this season the way he started the last one.

And if he keeps it up, it looks like there will be a whole new set of headlines in the coming months.

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