With the ATP World Tour seeing many of its key names struggling with injury or lack of form over the last 12 months, the Madrid Open threw up one of the most intriguing draws in some time.
While several juicy clashes were on track for round two (think Grigor Dimitrov versus Milos Raonic), the standout first round match-up was – without question – Novak Djokovic’s meeting with Kei Nishikori.
Arguably the second-best clay-court player (as far as consistency goes) of the last decade, Djokovic’s struggles for form and fitness since the 2016 French Open have been well documented. For someone with the 30-year-old’s treasure trove of achievements, the headline never really gets old. For 24 months from 2014 through to 2016, Djokovic was a virtual machine of dominance – especially at the Grand Slams. While the occasional loss greeted him on the lower rungs of the tour, the Serb’s ability over best of five sets on any surface was simply ridiculous – especially when you consider that he never really had a clear cut physical weapon. Djokovic was incredibly athletic, highly flexible. You could stretch him from one side of the court to the next, and he sprang back like a rubber band time and again. His best assets were his sheer consistency, and his total self belief. When his game could not inflict fear, his sheer presence on the court covered the job.
To see that self confidence and rock solidness suddenly dissolve – disappearing like air from a balloon, first burst by unlikely assassin Sam Querrey – was mind-boggling. Fatigue after capturing his maiden French Open title soon wore off, and Djokovic’s wayward form largely became a product of something that he was deeply unfamiliar with. Mental weakness.
On Monday in Madrid, the 2016 champion appeared more confident than he has in some time. Over the past few weeks, we have seen flashes or promise from Djokovic – including back-to-back match wins at the Monte Carlo Masters a few weeks ago, before a hard fought loss to current world no. 7 Dominic Thiem.
For the Djokovic of old, that run would have been considered a poor result. But – reunited with former coach Marian Vajda, who was part of a winning formula for the 12-time major champion throughout his peak years – the current world no. 12 displayed several of the qualities that previously assisted him to ATP domination. In round one, he displayed dialled-in consistency to thrash countryman Dusan Lajovic 6-0 6-1. And in round two, he hung tough, scrambled, and claimed the biggest points to scrape past Borna Coric: one of the most promising and dangerous young players on tour.
Deep in the third set of Djokovic’s battle with Thiem – 2017’s ‘Prince of Clay’ – things were too close to call. Inching down the wire with long rallies aplenty, this was the type of match that 2015 Djokovic would have thrived upon: breaking his opponent’s spirit in the final few games to rise victorious. Instead, at game point on serve at 3-3 – having led 40-15 – he made two badly timed unforced errors. And Thiem gladly capitalised on the opportunity.
Against Nishikori in Madrid, Djokovic proved that he has learned from those mistakes. Despite both missing and gifting opportunities throughout a close first set – in which world no. 20 Nishikori, serving second, continually pegged the Serb back – the no. 10 seed held it together internally. When sloppy errors followed a well-finished rally, he shrugged it off and moved on with purpose. And when Nishikori fought through a 5-5 service hold, fending off break point, Djokovic held without fuss before firing a return winner to take the set.
In the second set, Djokovic was the lone man to be taken to deuce twice before the final game. Nevertheless, champions know all about the significance of timing. The Serb stayed in the moment, and broke for the victory at the first opportunity. Before that final game, the Japanese star had dropped just four points in his three previous service games. While he faltered in the pressure moments against Thiem, Djokovic was clutch when it mattered against Nishikori.
This was a meaningful 7-5 6-4 triumph for the Serb, and there are two main reasons for it being so. Firstly, this is the struggling legend’s first top 20 win of the season – and it has come over one of the best clay-courters in the game. Nishikori is another player who knows all about troubles with injury, and it was during the 2016 season – when he was able to play many matches on the dirt – that he was able to demonstrate how good a fit the surface was to his all-court game.
Without a doubt, this was a more unfortunate match-up for Nishikori – who only returned to tour from his latest physical woes a couple of months ago – than for Djokovic. The former world no. 1 was on a ten-match winning streak against the 27-year-old, with Nishikori never having beaten him on clay. But after the step backwards that Djokovic took in Barcelona two weeks ago, stumbling against hot and cold Martin Klizan, no opener in Madrid was going to be an easy one – especially not a meeting with a recent Masters 1000 finalist.
But most encouraging is the attitude with which Djokovic approached his game throughout the clash. The unforced errors mounted up – totalling at 33 by the end of the match, with 21 of these coming in the opening set. But neither this, nor Nishikori’s persistency, deterred Djokovic from knowing what he wanted and going after it. The accuracy of his cross-court groundstrokes and serves out wide put Nishikori on the back foot, and his own surety allowed him to play the point the way he wanted to on many occasions. Despite the worst smash that anyone will see all year, and a few unsuccessful showings at the net, the Serb made a point of wrong-footing his opponent when he could have swung into the open court on multiple approach shots. He painted the lines with off-forehands. It all showed a presence of mind, and a presence of confidence.
If he can maintain that confidence for his next clash, then these will be the biggest steps in the right direction of Djokovic’s drawn out ‘comeback’ so far. While neither of his potential opponents have the status and all-court ability of Nishikori, both are steadily making their way on tour. Kyle Edmund, Australian Open semifinalist, made his first ATP final on clay a few weeks ago, while Daniil Medvedev is no stranger to causing an elite upset. Either one would pose a good test – and the benefits of a consolidating victory could be immense.
The road has been a long one. But right now, it is on an upward slope for Novak Djokovic.
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