Novak Djokovic realised his ambition of playing before a crowd that loved him and showed their appreciation for his talent, responding to the acclaim which resonated around the Ken Rosewall Arena as he led Team Serbia to overall victory at the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney.
I will remember this experience for the rest of my life as definitely one of the nicest moments in my career. Novak Djokovic
It was a fitting final which went down to the last doubles rubber as at many of the previous ties throughout the ten-day event involving 24 national teams.
Despite a flying start by the Spanish team thanks to Roberto Bautista Agut’s 7-5 6-1 dismantling of Dusan Lajovic over 97-minutes, the Davis Cup champions expected their No.1 Rafa Nadal to finish off the tie in their favour when he faced his rival Novak Djokovic for the 55th time in their careers.
Djokovic through drew inspiration from the packed arena which was dominated by Serbian supporters who certainly made their support of him very clear.
And he didn’t fail them as he frustrated Nadal throughout their match, breaking the world number one in the opening game and running off with the first set after 35-minutes.
Nadal put up stronger resistance in the second but there was no doubt that Djokovic was in control as the Mallorcan netted a forehand to hand him a 6-2 7-6(4) victory in just under the two-hour mark, sparking off an explosion of red white and blue from the now very noisy Serbian army of spectators.
“Every time I get to play Rafa we get to play a lot of exciting points. There were some incredible exchanges today,” Djokovic said later.
“I started off the match perfectly, everything worked. I’m just really glad I held my nerve in the end.”
There can be no doubt that Djokovic was on a high as he returned to partner Viktor Troicki for the deciding doubles, and expecting to see his rival Nadal teaming up with Pablo Carrena Busta, only to discover Feliciano Lopez was to playing in his place.
Nadal had pulled out of playing the doubles citing in a press conference, that he was tired after a very hectic few days on court, stating that his energy levels were “a little bit lower than usual”. He had played a total of eight singles and doubles matches in nine days.
“I have been playing a lot of tennis the last couple of days,” Nadal said. “My team-mates have been playing great yesterday.
“My energy is a little bit lower than usual, because I played long yesterday, very long before yesterday, very long in (Perth) the last day. So it’s a team decision and we believe in our team.”
He had faith in the Spanish doubles pairing and that looked to be paying off as they quickly took a 3-0 lead by concentrating on a nervous Troicki. However, Djokovic was able to take control and conduct both the play on court and to some extent his vocal supporters to turn the tide by reeling off five consecutive games to pocket the first set and march into 2-0 lead in the second.
Despite every effort by their opponents the Serbian duo held firm, staved off break points on the Djokovic serve in the sixth game, and collected the ultimate prize by becoming ATP Cup inaugural champions after 75-minutes.
Djokovic, who hasn’t played in Sydney in a decade, was quick to acknowledge the part the crowds had played over the past few days and in their 63 6-4 doubles win. “I have never experienced an atmosphere like this on a tennis court. You carried us to victory and we owe you a big thanks,” he told them.
Speaking of his own feelings he added: “I will remember this experience for the rest of my life as definitely one of the nicest moments in my career. I have been very fortunate and blessed to have an amazing career in the last 15 years – but playing for the team and the country with some of my best friends for a long time, you can’t match that. That’s just too special.
“We are part of an individual sport where we play by ourselves, but even when we were playing singles it never felt like it was only you out there. You always have a team in your corner giving you strength and focus. This was the highlight of the competition, along with the support of fans and the flags.”
Nadal was also appreciative of the crowds during the event. “Honestly, the crowd was fantastic every single day but sometimes people from some countries, they probably don’t understand how the tennis goes,” Nadal said.
“They think it’s about football or this stuff and atmosphere in tennis is different, no?
“The respect for the players should be there, and at some point, I think, the respect of a small part of the crowd were not there.”
The birth of the ATP Cup was a noisy affair but it must be said, a very welcome one.