If you were to look at a match and say, “THAT, folks, is how you play tennis,” you could not pick a much better example than Novak Djokovic’s win over Kevin Anderson on Friday in Shanghai.
Djokovic served consistently and effectively. He made Anderson work in his early service games. Anderson, though, served well on big points and managed to continue to hold. Djokovic continued to get balls back on return and make Anderson work for his service points on a fast surface in Shanghai. He didn’t get any breaks in the first set but announced his presence.
Djokovic faced only one break point on his own serve in the first set — merely one break point in a whole set of tennis against a top-eight player is pretty darn good — and he calmly saved it. Djokovic got to 6-6 after responding well to pressure and then played an A-plus lockdown-level tiebreaker, after which he broke Anderson early in the second set and rolled to a 7-6, 6-3 win to send him into the Shanghai semifinals, where he will play Sascha Zverev, a winner over Kyle Edmund in Friday’s first quarterfinal.
The first set was highly reminiscent of the top-shelf Laver Cup match between Djokovic and Anderson… until the tiebreaker. Anderson, in Chicago a few weeks ago, was playing before a home crowd back then, having attended the University of Illinois and playing for a Team World side which was heartily supported by most of those in attendance that weekend. He won the first-set tiebreaker and eventually won in a deciding supertiebreaker to fuel Team World’s comeback.
In this first-set tiebreaker, Djokovic snuffed out any hopes that Anderson would be able to make a second hardcourt Masters semifinal this season (his first one coming in Toronto). Djokovic’s groundstrokes were perfectly calibrated. He possessed absolute clarity and married it with precise execution of a full range of shots. Anderson had to be perfect to keep up, and he wasn’t. Anderson played well, but after giving it his best shot in a full-length set, Anderson had nothing to show for it.
This is what Djokovic, in true Big 3 fashion, has done to so many of his peers so often over the years. What is worth noting here is that whereas some tiebreaker sets are close because neither player plays well enough to separate himself from the opponent, this was a set in which two players played very well… only for Djokovic to then make a supreme statement of superiority at the end of it. Djokovic carried that statement through the entirety of set two. He cooled down a hot player and turned the tables relative to the best singles match played at the Laver Cup.
Anderson can tell himself — and he wouldn’t be wrong or dishonest with himself if he does — that he can play close sets with Djokovic on a relatively consistent basis. The Wimbledon final, after a 6-hour, 36-minute match against John Isner, did not leave Anderson in the best possible position to show what he could do against Djokovic. These more recent meetings in the autumn of 2018 have provided a better representation of how well Anderson can compete. The South African improved his chances this week of making the ATP Finals for the first time. He can legitimately say that his season is still reaching new heights.
Yet, the difference between playing close sets and winning close sets — while in some ways small (Anderson was one point away from winning set one on Friday in China) — feels so large against Djokovic. This is true on any surface and in any set of conditions, but especially when Djokovic is so comfortable in his own skin.
Earlier in 2018, of course, Djokovic was still trying to find that comfortable place. It took him a necessary coaching change and other readjustments to find it, but it arrived at Wimbledon and grew in Cincinnati. It then remained in place on the final weekend (semifinals and championship match) at the U.S. Open, and is fully in evidence in China.
Djokovic now gets to face Zverev for the second time, the first since the 2017 Rome final. Tennis observers (this one included) have eagerly awaited another Djokovic-Zverev encounter. While Sascha — by making his first Shanghai semifinal — has improved his level of staying power throughout a full tennis season, he is not in the same league as Djokovic at the moment.
That is not a negative commentary on the German. It is simply a reflection of how locked in Djokovic is right now.
If you were to look at a tennis player and say, “This is how you play tennis,” Novak Djokovic is Example No. 1 on the ATP Tour in October of 2018. When he takes the court, he puts on a clinic.
One can’t make a much more positive comment about a Serbian tennis player in full flight, at the top of his game.