Novak Djokovic masters comeback, tops Andy Murray for Shanghai title

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Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic rallied from a set down to defeat Andy Murray to win his fifth title of the year at the Shanghai Masters. (Peter Park/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic closed the gap toward recapturing the No. 1 ranking with yet another remarkable comeback victory, rallying from a set and a break down to save five match points and defeat Andy Murray 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 in the Shanghai Masters final on Sunday. Clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes, this was the longest ATP final of the season and ranks right up there as one of the best three-set matches of the year.

Three thoughts on a match that, at least for two-thirds of the way, was shaping up to be an outright classic.

Novak Djokovic, the Comeback King: Djokovic has a flair for the dramatic and once again he hit a shot to remember that turned around the match. Murray served for the match at 7-5, 5-4 and built a 30-0 lead when Djokovic summoned some of that same magic that helped him stun Roger Federer at the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011. Chasing down a perfectly placed lob from Murray, Djokovic went for the between-the-legs “tweener” that Federer made famous against him, nailing it deep into Murray’s forehand corner. The shot got Djokovic back into the point, which he eventually ended with a perfect drop-shot winner. The crowd roared, Djokovic pumped his fist and smiled, and the match was turned on its head. Djokovic would break to even the set, and though Murray showed great resiliency to force a tiebreaker, the Serb wasn’t done with his theatrics.

THE TOSS: Murray-Djokovic the next great rivalry?

Murray would have four match points in the tiebreaker, and Djokovic saved them all, three of them with gutsy outright winners. But as the tiebreaker wore on, Murray blinked first. At 11-all, he overcooked a forehand long to give Djokovic the minibreak, which he converted. Having been outplayed for most of the match, Djokovic drew it even and then ran away with the third set as Murray’s fatigue crept in.

What is it about Djokovic’s makeup that allows him to play with such audacious courage when he’s on the brink of defeat? He’s not the only guy who can manufacture these comebacks. We’ve seen Rafael Nadal claw his way back into matches and Murray is no stranger to reeling off six straight games when his opponent is serving for it. But those comebacks don’t have the stunning effect that Djokovic’s does. He doesn’t just mount a comeback. He blindsides his opponents with a two-by-four across the cheek with a shot that no one in professional tennis has any business trying, let alone making. A tweener? Federer made that shot famous when he posterized Djokovic in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinal, executing it perfectly when he was two points from victory. Djokovic went for it on Sunday when he was two points from the loss. In Federer’s case, the scoreline permits the shot selection. “Eh, why not?” In Djokovic’s case, it was more along the lines of “Are you &$^%*#$ crazy???”

Yet given his track record, it’s hard to be surprised anymore. Because as we’ve seen time and time again, this is what Novak Djokovic does. And he does it better than anyone in the game.


For Murray, a tough loss but a statement week: I’m hesitant to label this a choke-job from Murray. Yes, he was up 7-5, 5-4, 30-0, and yes, he had five championship points. But the way Djokovic saved those points, four with outright winners, would leave anyone clapping his racket with respect. The Brit was the aggressor through those first two sets and the continued evolution of his game in that vein is great to see. He’ll still walk away from Shanghai with his second straight win over Federer, a 6-4, 6-4 triumph in the semifinals.

One cause for concern is Murray’s heavy schedule to finish the year. He looked absolutely wiped in the third set against Djokovic and he still has Basel, Paris and the World Tour Finals on his calendar. Something to keep an eye on as London approaches. His body forced him out of the WTFs last year and given his spectacular second half of the season, you know he’ll want to do well in front of his home crowd.

Your move, Roger: Djokovic came into Shanghai with a 1,585-point lead on Federer in the 2012 rankings and he’ll leave with an even bigger lead of 2,195 points as they battle for the year-end No. 1. His back-to-back titles in Beijing and Shanghai now shifts the pressure onto Federer, who may have to replicate his 2011 title runs in Basel, Paris and the World Tour Finals to hold on to the top ranking.

Bonus bit: Check out The Novak Smash, a racket smash to end all racket smashes.

  • Published On Oct 14, 2012

    even if Federer wins Basel, Paris and London, he will finish as no 1 only if Djokovic wins only about 800 points in Paris and London - so it is not all on his racket.. the way Djokovic is playing, I cant imagine how we would fail to make, say, the semis at Paris and win two rounds at London, that would be good enough even if Federer sweeps all 3..  Shanghai was really Federer's last chance.


    Had Murray won his first match point (at 7-5, 5-4, 40-30), this match would have been three points shorter than the Murray-Federer semifinal. Murray should have ended the match on that first match point. Djokovic's cross court backhand return landed short. From inside the baseline, Murray should have put away his backhand down the line for potential winner -- especially since Djokovic did not move after hitting his backhand return. But Murray  choked a weak backhand cross court directly back to Djokovic that landed short, allowing Djokovic to pounce on it for the easy winner. Murray made poor decisions and poorly executed most of his five match points (of Djokovic's outright winners, perhaps only two were truly stunning).


    Djokovic's tweeners don't have the same pace as Federer's. Murray would have had an easy volley had he followed his lob up to the net (like he did the second time Djokovic tried a tweener). Those tweeners are easier to try when Djokovic had nothing to lose.


    Despite being the "Comeback King," in reality Djokovic has made few comebacks -- he still loses the vast majority of matches where he's faced match points. For example, while they were each the No.1 ranked players, Djokovic's win-loss has been 63-13 (82.9%) compared to Federer's 417-52 (88.9%) and Nadal's 140-22 (86.4%). In 2012, Djokovic's win-loss has been 70-11 (86.4%) compared to Federer's 64-9 (87.7%). Over the past 52 weeks, Djokovic's win-loss has been 76-14 (84.4%) compared to Federer's win-loss 79-9 (89.8%). Since Djokovic's famous comeback against Federer at the 2010 US Open, Djokovic's win-loss has been 157-23 compared to Federer's 149-23. Anyway you look at it, the older Federer won his matches more efficiently while Djokovic's 'comeback matches' really indicate his inefficiency in such matches. So perhaps another way of looking at Djokovic's few comebacks: What is it about Djokovic’s makeup that led him to the brink of defeat in the first place? Why does it take for him to be on the brink of defeat -- and nothing to lose -- before Djokovic finally relaxes and stars playing with nothing to lose? No doubt Djokovic's comebacks are very thrilling, but it covers up his inefficient play that took him to the brink in the first place.


    Though Djokovic leaves Shanghai with a 2,155 year-to-date point lead over Federer, it's effectively a 2,175-point lead since Federer's Davis Cup points (25 points) are non-countable. The year-end No.1 is out of Federer's hands: Djokovic can finish this year ranked No. 1 if he wins more than 825 points from the 2,500 available points in his final two events at Paris and  World Tour Finals even if Federer wins his next three indoor events (Basel, Paris, World Tour Finals). Federer, who had Murray in his half at the US Open and Shanghai, needs help from the draws at Paris and World Tour Finals (specifically Murray in Djokovic's Paris half and the WTF round robin, as well  as more dangerous players drawn into Djokovic's early rounds than he has recently faced).


    The battle for the year-end No. 1 is more difficult for Federer than for his rivals:

    - Both Murray and Djokovic were truants from Davis Cup throughout 2012. Without the burden of Davis Cup, Djokovic was able to play all nine Masters 1000 events as well as Beijing (Monte Carlo, Toronto and Beijing gave Djokovic an extra 2,100 points that Federer sacrificed). On the other hand, Federer played two Davis Cup ties (USA, Netherlands) and the Olympics final this year, which had consequences given his age: Roger had to sacrifice the Monte Carlo Masters, Toronto Masters and Beijing 500 events, costing him up to 2,500 ranking points.


    - After the US Open, the 31-year old “wounded, tired and exhausted” Federer chose to play Davis Cup (he played three best-of-five set matches on clay on three consecutive days in the Netherlands). Unlike Djokovic and Murray, Federer was unable to rest, recover, train and play a warm up event  (Beijing/Tokyo) to prepare for the Shanghai Masters. For example, Murray had the perfect preparation for Shanghai — he had four days of match practice at Tokyo, lost in the Tokyo semifinals and then had a walkover in his first Shanghai match. Without match practice, Murray was knocked out at the Tokyo semifinals by Raonic and had a three-setter against Wawrinka. Without a warm-up event, Federer also lost in the semifinals against his better prepared rival Murray. Roger did not seem as prepared for Shanghai as he was for Cincinnati or Wimbledon, not even his serve.


    - Federer seemed mentally preoccupied and drained by other recent events (particularly dealing with the serial death threats since September 25 as well as protracted negotiations with Grand Slams for massive prize money increases for his fellow players). Federer is not superman – these extra non-ATP issues impact his ATP tennis results. Djokovic and Murray do not have such distractions on their plate, and are able to focus 100% on their tennis.


    However, regardless of the circumstances, if Djokovic finishes the year No.1, he would deserve the year-end ranking as a reflection of his overall performance in the ATP World Tour throughout the year. And Novak should be the Player Of The Year according to precedents in both the ATP Player Of The Year award and the ITF World Champion award in those years where the four majors were shared by four different players.


    Regardless of the year-end ranking, Federer can be proud of what he's accomplished: an unprecedented 300 weeks at No. 1 in an era with both stronger and deep competition. As well, Federer's current 12,165 ATP ranking points over the past 52-weeks is almost as high as Nadal's 12,450 points in 2010 (Rafa's career best year).


    MarcoVanBasten 1 Like


    -fed and novak played the exact same number of matches at the olympics. so how could olympics tire him out more than novak?!?

    -fed CHOSE to play 5 non-mandatory events this year. 1 b/c it's his hometown tournament, 4 b/c of his quest to recapture the #1. for the record, novak chose to play 2. so you are telling me it's the 3 singles DC matches that exhausted fed, not the 3 extra non-mandatory TOURNAMENTS?

    -"Djokovic's tweeners don't have the same pace as Federer's". seriously...

    -"Those tweeners are easier to try when Djokovic had nothing to lose". right. it's always easier to play when down a set and a break than when you're up 2 sets and a break.

    -you try to prove that novak is not the "comback king" and does not win that many matches when down match points by pointing out win-loss record. irrelevant. if you wanted to disprove it, you should have come up with a different statistic: what % of matches (when down match points) get turned around. fwiw, in the last 2+ years, novak has come back after being down match points 3 times in majors alone. how many such (down MPs) major comebacks does fed have in his career?



    - Federer has explained that the consequence and cost of playing each Davis Cup round/tie is the sacrifice of an ATP Masters-level tournament from his schedule. Federer is the expert on his body and on scheduling, not you – so you should believe him. Unlike the other top players, Federer plays both doubles and two singles, all best-of-five set matches played over three consecutive days often on a different surface than the current season (e.g., 2012 September it was clay in Netherlands, 2011 September it was grass in Australia). This year Federer played 5 best-of-five-set Davis Cup matches  (3 singles, 2 doubles) in two ties. In the last 16 months since July 2011, Federer has played 10 best-of-five-set Davis Cup matches in four ties (including two away ties as far away as Australia, which is a 20,000 mile round trip). None of the other Big Four players have had so much Davis Cup burden during this period.


    - Let’s use your measure for Comeback King: “what % of matches (when down match points) gets turned around”. So far you’re able to cite partial stats only for Djokovic. You have no ‘comeback’ stats on any other player. So woohoo, Djokovic is the official comeback king in his little kingdom with only one player – himself. If you don’t have stats on all other players, then your one stat is useless and irrelevant. Second, this comeback stat is as meaningless as the fifth set record stat (Johan Kriek and Ross Case have the top two fifth set winning percentages, woohoo). What’s ultimately important is the percentage/number of actual wins, not the percentage/number of comeback wins (an inefficient way of winning) or fifth set wins an inefficient way of winning). Third, thus what I said is not irrelevant. Federer loses so rarely in majors and holds the ATP record for most major wins – he does not need comebacks to win because he tends to win efficiently. This sensationalizing of Djokovic’s rare comeback wins obscures and normalizes a problem he has  – he is not winning matches as efficiently as he should be.




    -  If you seriously believe: “fed and novak played the exact same number of matches at the Olympics”…. you must also believe that Isner-Mahut played the “exact same one match” as the other 126 first round players of 2010 Wimbledon, lol.  Federer played much more tennis than Djokovic both befpre and in the Olympics. Before Olympics, Federer had played three events more (2 ATP events and Davis Cup) than Djokovic did. In the Olympics, Federer much more tennis than Djokovic did. For example, in their last three matches (quarterfinals, semfinals, gold/bronze medal matches): 25-year old Djokovic played only 65 games (414 points) in 308 minutes (including Djokovic’s slow play). Djokovic lost his bronze medal match to Delpo even faster than his semifinal loss to Murray or Federer’s final loss to Murray.  On the other hand, in his last three matches, 31-year old Federer played 106 games (672 points) in 467 minutes. In particular, Federer-Del Potro played the longest three setter in the open era – their 58 games (366 points) is three games more than the Djokovic-Nadal Australian Open final (55 games, 369 points). At his age, of course Federer was more exhausted than Djokovic after Olympics and had to withdraw from the Canada Masters soon after the Delpo match.


    - So, you don’t believe Djokovic’s tweener is weaker in pace than Federer’s tweener. Seriously? Federer has hit several tweeners for outright winners against opponents at the baseline and at the net. Those tweeners were bullets and precise – see links for examples. At Shanghai, Novak aimed his tweener well away from the sideline (it landed about 7 feet from the baseline center) and cleared the net by several feet – had Murray snuck to the net behind his lob, he would have had an easy volley and triple match point. Later in the match, Djokovic bungled a second tweener under pressure when Murray rushed the net. Tennis experts understand that Federer’s tweeners are better than Djokovic’s. Likewise, football experts understand that Johann Cruyff is a greater footballer than van Basten. There’s an obvious difference in quality. Nuff said.


    - The stakes are higher hitting a tweener in a Grand Slam than in a Masters event.  Second, Federer wasn’t “up 2 sets and a break” – at the 2009 US Open semifinal, Djokovic and Federer were on serve in the third set; it was a tightly contested match at 6-7, 5-7, 4-5, 0-30; Djokovic was serving to stay in the match; Federer was trying to break Novak to end the match; and Federer was trying to reach his sixth consecutive US Open final and seventh consecutive grand slam final.  That was a helluva time for Federer to hit a bullet of a tweener for an outright winner.


    - I’m glad you agree that, for some players, it's sometimes “easier to play when down” – we’ve seen players become looser and play better to save breakpoints and tiebreaks yet struggle to close gamepoints and setpoints.  Djokovic was two points from defeat at 5-7, 4-5, 0-30 : Novak was broken in a sloppy 3-3 service game, Murray easily won (no deuce) his first four service games in the second set, and Murray was serving to close out the match. Before that service game, Djokovic had failed to push  any of Murray’s four service games in the second set to even deuce. Djokovic had nothing to lose, two points from defeat. Why would it be hard for top, experienced player to play a relatively safe tweener at that point?  


    - For top players, there seems to be a negative correlation between playing Davis Cup and their ATP Tour results. In 2010 Nadal skipped Davis Cup entirely – that was his best career year on the ATP Tour. In 2010, Djokovic played four DC rounds/ties to win the Davis Cup – that year was his worst results on the ATP Tour since 2006. In 2011, Djokovic cut his Davis Cup involvement to only 1.5 matches (the least in his career before this year’s zero matches) – and had his best career year on the ATP Tour. In 2012, had Djokovic played Davis Cup in the February tie and early April tie (which Serbia lost 1-4 to Czech Rep), would Djokovic have been able to play Monte Carlo in mid-April and Olympics in late July? In 2011 Djokovic sacrificed Monte Carlo, even without the Olympics in the calendar. If Djokovic played Davis Cup after US Open, would he have been able to play Beijing as warm up for Shanghai?


    - You’re confused by what events are ‘mandatory’ in the rankings. For top players, there are effectively 19 ‘mandatory’ events (4 grand slams, WTF, 8 masters, 4 ATP500, 2 other countable events) -- they are 'mandatory' in that the ranking points will be forfeited even if the player skips or does not enter that event.. What you refer to as ‘non-mandatory events’ are actually the 4 ATP500 and two other countables – but, in the rankings system,  since skipping these events is treated the same as skipping a masters for ranking points (player gets zero points for not using them), thus effectively the 4 ATP500 events and '2 best of countables' are also ‘mandatory events’. For Djokovic, his 4 ATP500 events are Monte Carlo, Dubai, Olympics, Beijing. For Federer, his 4 ATP500 are Rotterdam, Dubai, Olympics and Basel. Federer played Doha and Halle because they are both necessary warm ups for Australian Open and Wimbledon respectively and they are his best 2 countable). 


    - Federer’s rankings breakdown is in this link: if not for Olympics (which yielded only 450 points despite so much effort), Federer could have played Canada Masters 1000 (and added points to his rankings, instead of the zero pointer for Canada). If not for Federer’s Davis Cup in February 2012, September 2011 and July 2011, Federer could have played 2012 Monte Carlo, which would have added points to his rankings and counted as one of the 4 ATP500 events. If not for Federer’s Davis Cup after US Open in September 2012, Federer could have played Beijing for warm up before Shanghai and added the Beijing points to his rankings as part of ‘Best 2 of Other Countable Tournaments’ (if Federer played Monte Carlo, then one of the other ATP 500 events such as Basel would be counted here). Of course, that would bump off Halle and Doha, these have higher actual points. Doha and Halle are necessary because they are used as warm up events before majors (since 2006, Federer has rarely won a Masters or Grand Slam without a warm up event after a several-week layoff and/or surface change).


     @Michael9 " Despite being the "Comeback King," in reality Djokovic has made few comebacks -- he still loses the vast majority of matches where he's faced match points."

    LOL! I guess this is the same situation for all the tennis players in the world (including you and me :)) , isn't it?


     @dami1bourd1     I don't know about you, but I try not to make comebacks -- I lose well, lol.


    Djokovic's rare comebacks are entertaining, dramatic and makes for a better story, no doubt.


    But my point is two-fold:

    - First, these rare comebacks are flukes -- it's not like he can summon these comebacks at will. For example, immediately after the 2011 US Open, Djokovic admitted he gambled, took the risk, and he got lucky that day.


    - Second, Since Djokovic's famous comeback against Federer at the 2010 US Open, Djokovic-in-his prime's win-loss has been 157-23 – including his few comeback wins – compared to aging Federer's 149-23. There’s not much difference. Yet we should expect Djokovic in his prime to have won more matches (and have a better winning percentage) than Federer, even without his comeback wins. In other words, Djokovic probably would have won those comeback matches (and more matches) had he managed his matches better long before he got to the brink.



    Andy's been suffering from a virus this week, so that might account for him looking wiped.

    dami1bourd1 1 Like

    I like your "no one fights his way out of a corner like Djokovic", what a thrill it was!