The world No.1 broke out of his slump, beating second-time finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, never finding himself under threat throughout the match.
I wasn't playing my best tennis after Australia so I was looking to regain the momentum this week. Novak Djokovic
N. Djokovic (Srb, 1) d. S. Tsitsipas (Gre, 9, seeded eighth) 6-3 6-4
Novak Djokovic offered a control clinic on Sunday afternoon, hitting 28 winners to just 18 unforced error to topple Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in an hour and 32 minutes.
The two players had won very hard-fought semi-finals, taking about two hours and a half each to overcome the best clay specialist of the last few years, Rafa Nadal and Dominic Thiem. However, despite this nearby toiling, they arrived to the final in very different conditions, to be fair: Tsitsipas was on an eight-matches winning streak, but with the caveat that he had played them all in the last eleven days, as he had flown to Madrid right after winning a 250 event in Portugal. Moreover, before beating Nadal, the previous feather on his cap had come after another lengthy match against defending champion Sascha Zverev. Finally, his season-defining Saturday win was obtained only shortly before midnight, which means that he probably didn’t sleep before three or four in the morning, given the customary combination between adrenaline surges, interviews, and post-match treatments – now that he is consistently bidding for a top five spot, he might reconsider his schedule.
Djokovic, on the other hand, had been more considerate with his engagements: he had only played in Monte-Carlo on clay (where he and Tsitsipas had been eliminated, consecutively, by Danil Medvedev), and before the intense semi-final had played two quick matches against Fritz and Chardy, eschewing his quarter-finals tilt after Marin Cilic withdrew due to food poisoning – obviously, this isn’t to say that a fresher Tsitsipas would have won, it’s just a preamble to what happened on court.
The two displayed very interesting tweaks to their game during their Spanish sojourn. Djokovic had looked focused, after the political controversies that had followed Kermode’s dismissal as ATP Chairman, which had directly involved him, as president of the Player Council, and perhaps was aided in his psychological stabilisation by the constant presence of his brother Marko, recently named as his new assistant coach, and de facto in charge in Madrid given Marian Vajda’s absence. His game, so well-rounded that it translates well to every surface, as his resume very clearly showcases, re-commenced to be precise, suffocating, and generally an utter imposition of will, predicated on the human peak of flexibility, and on consistently deep groundstrokes. Particularly effective, with Madrid’s faster conditions, had been his flat backhand, an all-time shot that flies faster here than in other clay events, taking the timing away from his opponents. His serve, while not as powerful as in the past due to to elbow and wrist issues, is still very hard to read, and is paired with best return in the history of tennis – perhaps along with Agassi’s.
So, while Djokovic essentially needed to restore his previous plateau, Tsitsipas had actually shown new things, filling the smallish gaps in his game. Other than having added a few pounds of muscle, which helps him not to be shock-waved towards the stands on long rallies, allowing him to stand forward and dictate more, the Greek showed a much improved return of serve, his Achilles’ heel, both with deep backhand parries on hard body serves and with anticipated topspin impacts, and had been very proactive, taking the net with frequency and running quickly around the ball to hit his marvellous inside-in forehand from the centre-left. Moreover, he had confirmed previous assumptions about his one-handed backhand benefitting from the longer backswings allowed by the slowness of the surface, using it to hit high-bouncing balls to his opponents’ left shoulder or to move them with a cross-court shot when they pressured him on the left side.
However, practically none of Tsitsipas’s variety was to be witnessed during the actual final, which is what happens most of the times when a player faces a dialled-in Djokovic, since the main strength of RoboNole isn’t really what he does, but rather what he prevents his victim from doing, a gift that, while not as appealing as those of his rivals Nadal and Federer, has arguably made him even more dominant in his best seasons, 2011 and 2015, or whenever he decides to switch it on.
A pre-match statistic indicated that Tsitsipas had managed to seize control of rallies behind his serve by hitting a forehand as the first shot on 90% of occasions. Well, Djokovic, who works with ATP’s numbers guru Craig O’Shannessy, knew this very well, and immediately targeted his backhand with the return in the second game. The young man’s clear nervousness did the rest, and two trivial mistakes gave Djokovic an early lead, which he would then administer like a retired man administers his small investments.
It’s part of the plan at some point to get physically better, do everything better, be more professional…because Djokovic and Nadal have been doing well in tournaments over and over again, week by week. -Stefanos Tsitsipas
Three key elements emerged straight away: first, Djokovic wasn’t suffering at all against higher trajectories, cutting the angles with his anticipation to impose a swifter rhythm to the rallies, thus preventing his opponent from swinging effectively. Second, Tsitsipas was bent on hitting as many drop shots as he could, with mixed to negative results, a not very rational choice against the best mover in the men’s game, but that was probably originated by the awareness of not being able to keep up in the rallies. Finally, the scary part: Djokovic was having a field day with his forehand, not just seldom missing as much as full-out blasting (he hit 16 winners to Tsitsipas’s 12 with the stroke). Particularly, he hit countless inside-out shots to the backhand side, opening the court for his trademark backhand down the line – the proficiency of the latter is actually nothing to be surprised of – or simply wrong-footing the eighth seed with more of the same shot. The corollary to the last point is that the slice serve on the deuce side didn’t hurt him at all, as he emphatically showed with a couple of cross-court daggers to go 15-30 up in the sixth game – at a certain stage, it looked as if the the painter working behind the players, a classy feature of the tournament, might not have enough time to complete their portraits, given the sullen repression happening a few yards from him.
The rest of the first set was perfunctory, with Djokovic winning 84% of points behind his first serve (Tsitsipas was at 56%), and never letting his opponent get to a deuce. The Greek tried to offer different heights and spins, but couldn’t break down Nole’s wall, although to his credit he didn’t concede further break points in the set. Anyway, Djokovic ended as he had started, i.e. firing, bagging the first set in 41 minutes with a winning slice serve on the heels of an inside-out forehand and a backhand down the line.
The second set told a story that was only marginally more enthralling. Tsitsipas pushed more on his serve (the percentage of first serves decreased a little while average speed augmented) and took the initiative on a number of occasions, using sudden injections of pace catch the first seed off guard, and finally taking the net with more frequency, something that he hadn’t been permitted to do in the early stages. However, only peak Wawrinka managed to take such risks against Djokovic and succeed most of the times, so, while the strategy kept him afloat, errors piled up. Moreover, he still couldn’t hit an assertive return, failing to touch the Serbian’s serve.
The drama was very predictable, and Djokovic broke exactly when everyone in the Caja Magica knew he would: in the ninth game, he suddenly started pushing with the return, and got to a double break point with an impossible defensive lob that rebounded at the intersection of the baseline and the left sideline, forcing Tsitsipas to mishit and take the net to cover some ground, but to no avail, as Djokovic passed him with another backhand down the line. A forehand mistake in the ensuing point was the logical sequitur, setting up the No.1 to serve for the match – again, inevitability.
Surprisingly, in the final game Tsitsipas managed to get something going on return, mainly due to the tension in his opponent’s arm (he hadn’t won a tournament on clay since the 2016 French Open, when he completed the career Grand Slam), for, after Djokovic hit him with a drop&passing combo followed by a serve&forehand one to get to a double match point, he scored a brace of forehand errors out of the blue, followed by a third one on another championship point. The importance of the ensuing point led to time violation, but, just like against Thiem, Djokovic actually benefitted from the umpire’s affront, slicing a great serve out wide to finish with a double overhead. The fourth match point was the definitive one, as Tsitsipas tried to shield himself with a seldom employed low slice, but Djokovic hit an inside-in winner to lift the weirdly sceptre-like trophy, putting an end to a great week of tennis that attracted a tournament record of 278,110 attendees.
For the milestones corner, Nole won his second title of the season, after the Australian Open in January, without dropping a set this time (he only played four matches though), and finally managed to win his record-tying thirty-third Master 1000 title, which puts him on par with Nadal, although the Serbian has the distinction of having won them all – it was his 74th title, out of 107 finals. Moreover, he retained his top status in the Race to London and leads in the ATP Rankings as well, with an over 4,000 points margin on Rafa, and will be among the top contenders in Paris at the end of the month, where he’ll go for his second non-calendar Grand Slam.
For his part, Tsitsipas is the only player on tour to have reached 4 finals in 2019, and will reach a best-ranking of world No.7 on Monday (he is fourth in the Race, closely trailing Nadal and Federer). He lost his second Master 1000 final, but it would be a surprise not to see him win one before the end of the year.
The two will now move to Rome, where completely different conditions, much more akin to those of the Roland Garros, will await them.