“When he has these patches of utter brilliance, the only thing you can do is try and stay calm, wait for the storm to pass,” Rafael Nadal wrote in his autobiography about playing against Roger Federer.
And that’s how Novak Djokovic beat Juan Martin del Potro in London to reach the World Tour Finals final. (What an awkward turn of phrase. Thanks, ATP!)
As anyone with eyes can tell you, Del Potro’s forehand is one of the most damaging weapons on the ATP Tour. He doesn’t always use it as frequently as he should, but today he came out going for his shots against Djokovic.
When playing against del Potro at his best, an opponent must understand that those on-the-run forehands are going to crush the lines of the court with lightning speed. He will hit huge, unreturnable serves. And there’s really nothing they can do about it.
But at the same time, for having the capability to be such a power hitter, del Potro has a curious weakness, which is that occasionally he will slip into an inexplicable “pusher” mode and lose focus, making far too many errors.
For thirteen games, del Potro was in the zone. Djokovic was decidedly not. Del Potro took the first set, 6-4, and had broken for 2-1. It looked like del Potro was well on his way to his fourth “Big Four” win of the year.
But del Potro played just a couple of loose points, and those errors would prove to be the most costly kind. A wide running forehand, a netted backhand, and a wide backhand gave Djokovic break points. And there was no looking back as del Potro handed back the break for 2-all.
When one is playing against an opponent who’s struggling, it’s easy to gain a false sense of confidence. When Del Potro broke for 2-1, he celebrated as if he was just a few points away from victory. In reality, he was closer to defeat.
After Djokovic broke back for 2-all, suddenly, his backhand down-the-line wasn’t misfiring anymore. That shot began to clip the lines with devastating accuracy. And when that happened, del Potro began to panic.
In this case, del Potro’s panic manifested itself in a bizarre mix between lack of pace and needlessly aggressive play. Serving at 3-4, del Potro pulled the trigger too soon when he didn’t have a shot set up properly. The result? Another break for Djokovic. On a del Potro forehand shanked into the rafters, the match was leveled at one set all.
In the final set, Djokovic’s level climbed even higher. As Djokovic began to yank del Potro side-to-side with increased pace on his groundstrokes, del Potro looked weary and battered. The match had been wrestled out of his control, and he was powerless to make inroads.
The ESPN commentators seemed convinced that it was a fitness issue from del Potro, but I don’t think that’s right. Though del Potro’s footwork was decidedly worse, that had more to do with Djokovic getting him wrong-footed than any sort of fatigue. He wasn’t expecting the kind of shots Djokovic was making, because he hadn’t been making them for most of the match.
After more of the same, a double break for Djokovic put the match out of reach. Djokovic the escape artist had done it again.
To state the obvious, Djokovic’s composure under conditions like this are what handed him the World No. 1 ranking in the first place. Weathering the storm against a hot opponent is one of the most challenging things to do of the sport of tennis. It can be mentally crushing to feel like the opponent is bludgeoning every shot.
But armed with his knowledge that the wheels can come off his opponent at any time, and his refusal to give up on a single point, it’s impossible to count Djokovic out of a match until the umpire calls, “Game, set, match.”