SHANGHAI — Novak Djokovic withstood a flurry of power and gave as good as he got Sunday to defeat Juan Martin del Potro 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (3) and win his 15th ATP Masters 1000 title at the Shanghai Masters. The win extends Djokovic’s win streak in China to 20 matches after winning the China Open and Shanghai Masters last year and successfully defending both titles this year. Djokovic and China just get along. The Serb has now won seven titles in China, the most of any country in which he’s competed.
Since losing the No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal last week in Beijing, Djokovic has found his best tennis in a year that has seen him win the Australian Open and make two more Slam finals. That’s the definition of a fantastic year for almost any other player, but Djokovic’s season has been marred by his inability to get past Nadal and his tendency to falter during tight moments. He overcame both those demons over the last two weeks by defeating Nadal for the first time on hard courts this year in Beijing and then playing near-flawless tennis late in the third set to withstand a barrage of forehands and backhands from del Potro, who was coming off a textbook performance in defeating Nadal 6-2, 6-4 in Saturday’s semifinal.
Djokovic was sharp from the start of the match, securing the first set easily in 34 minutes. The crisp hitting that left Nadal shaking his head 20 hours earlier was nowhere to be found from del Potro, who started slow and couldn’t get himself into points. But an early wobble by Djokovic in the second set gave del Potro life. In his first service game of the second set, Djokovic struggled with his footing and balance in dropping an oddly comical service game:
Del Potro held onto the lead and, slowly but surely, found his rhythm, improved his footwork around the ball, and began unleashing the forehand strikes that make him the most lethal hitter in the game.
The third set was easily the best set of tennis we’ve seen this year in a Masters final. With both men firing on all cylinders, the final act pitted del Potro’s relentless hitting against Djokovic’s unbreakable defense. Heading into the final tiebreak, it was Djokovic who seemed to have the edge. While del Potro fought to hold serve — he saved four break points in the set, of which two were match points — Djokovic was much more clinical in his service games. He hit eight of his 10 aces in the final set and faced just four break points in the match compared to 12 for del Potro.
With the raucous crowd of 13,000 at the Qi Zhong Stadium backing the underdog, Djokovic appeared to get visibly irritated, sarcastically waving to the crowd to get even louder after a del Potro winner late in the third set. Since losing the top ranking to Nadal last week, Djokovic has seemed a bit on edge this week in Shanghai. He dismissed any suggestions earlier in the week that things are different now that he’s the hunter and not the hunted, but there’s an intensity in his eyes and a focus in his play that we haven’t seen as consistently this year.
That showed in the decisive tiebreak, which Djokovic played with tactical perfection. Aside from a bad forehand error early, he executed his brand of transition tennis — playing shoe-screeching defense and pouncing on his first opportunity to be aggressive — with total clarity. Serving at 4-3 in the tiebreak, he came into the net for the 19th time, this time behind a risky backhand slice approach shot, and hit a lunging backhand drop shot on del Potro’s passing attempt that effectively sealed him the match. Two points later, he finally put an end to things with a backhand down-the-line winner after an emotional two-hour-and-32-minute affair.
Here’s video of the third-set tiebreak:
“I think either one of us could really take the title,” Djokovic said. “I just managed to hold my emotions and I managed to believe in the victory enough in the end to play the right shots at the right time.”
Del Potro was disappointed with the result but not his effort. “I think when you do everything to win and you keep trying every single moment of the match, you try [to find] a way to play aggressive, to make winners with forehands, backhands, [and] the opponent play better, you don’t have too much to say or to do. I mean, the match was really close all the time. But in the end he played better points than me [in the] tiebreak. He took the match.”
By winning his seventh title of the season, Djokovic keeps his chances alive — slim as they are — of finishing the year No. 1. The win also extends the ATP Big Four’s domination at the Masters. They have now won 31 of the last 33 Masters titles dating back to 2010.
Despite the loss, it has been a successful swing through Asia for del Potro, who had not played on the continent since 2010. Coupled with his title at the Japan Open last week, del Potro is now in position to make a charge to finish the season inside the top 4. His win over Nadal, his first since the 2009 U.S. Open, qualified him for the World Tour Finals.
“I think I’m playing even better than 2009 [when he won the U.S. Open] or 2008 or last year,” Del Potro said. “That’s important. That’s a good thing for the future. I’m still having the same goal which is getting closer to the top guys. If I still working like this, I hope I can be there one day.”