The National Bank Open, formerly Rogers Cup

New heights, new promise

May 13, 2019

The final showdown of the Mutua Madrid Open pitted World No.1 Novak Djokovic, an old hand at Masters 1000 finals, against Stefanos Tsitsipas, an emerging tennis powerhouse whose raw talent overthrew the King of Clay in the semis.

The two commanding headliners fought it out for a major prize: a first Masters title for Tsitsipas or a 33rd one (and a tie with Rafa) for Djokovic.

Going into the final, there was no clear-cut winner. Tsitsipas was coming off two tough back-to-back three-set wins over Zverev and Nadal and a crown in Estoril the week before, so there was every reason to question his stamina. Still, because a string of wins tends to come with a dose of confidence (just ask Novak circa 2011), signs pointed to Stefanos holding strong. The Djoker wasn’t the obvious choice to win, either. His semifinal success over a neutralized Thiem consolidated his flawless run in Spain, but his recent mishaps in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo cast some doubts, especially considering that his opponent had won their only previous matchup.

As the duel got underway, a picture began to emerge. Djokovic played neat opening points, while Tsitsipas committed a few backhand errors and was immediately broken. But once they were past the opening points, there were more and more rallies as the playing field evened out. Sensing his opponent was beginning to falter, the No.1 ignited an exciting, if not always particularly accurate, dropshot war. Capitalizing on his quicker footwork, Djokovic took control and the first set 6-3.

The second set was tighter. Neither was broken (alert at 1-1 for Tsistipas) and both played to their strengths: weight in the balls and one-handed crosscourt backhands for Tsitsipas, who still managed to send a few darts into the net, and clinical returns, long balls and two-handed backhands down the line for the swift Serbian.

In the end, the backhand games tipped the scales in Nole’s favour. Even Tsitsipas was forced to admit it: “He has the best backhand on Tour I have ever seen in a human being. He controls it so well. He can play crosscourt, he can play down the line the same way. That’s very difficult to deal with. Usually, some players have a good stroke but it’s not that consistent. That’s why he’s been dominating for so many years.”

Be that as it may, Djokovic ended up sealing the deal with a forehand winner. After a mind-blowing defensive sequence that gave him two break points at 4-4 (he converted the second on an unforgivable righthand error by Tsitsipas), the champion had the chance to wrap things up on serve after two assertive forehands and zero breaks for his opponent. Victory finally came on Djokovic’s fourth try at 6-3, 6-4, in just over 90 minutes. When all was said and done, the World No.1 soberly shook Tsitsipas’ hand. Mission accomplished.

Still, the win was a momentous one. Djokovic claimed his 33rd Masters 1000 title, tying the record set by his old Spanish rival. He also sends a clear message to the field. As the competition heats up in Paris in two weeks’ time, he’ll be looming over the draw with his sights set on sweeping all four Grand Slams, as he did in 2015–2016.

“I felt I was always ahead in the game. I felt I was dictating the play and played my best tennis so far this week,” said Djokovic after the match. “It’s a very important time for me in the year, in the season, because this gives me a lot of confidence prior to Rome and, of course, Roland-Garros, where I definitely want to play my best,” he added.

If Novak Djokovic’s best tennis is yet to come, his competition in the City of Lights best come prepared. The boss is back.

*Feature Photo : Mutua Madrid Open