Photographs: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images Bikash Mohapatra
With twin successes on the Asian swing of the ATP Tour, Novak Djokovic is back in the reckoning in a comparatively less successful year. And with no points to defend in the weeks ahead, the Serb, says Bikash Mohapatra, is the lone challenger to Roger Federer in the race for the year-end No.1 ranking.
There's more to Novak Djokovic's triumph at the Shanghai Masters than just another title.
The Serb, on Sunday, saved five match-points to defeat two-time defending champion Andy Murray 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 in the final.
In the process he made history, becoming the first player to win seven of the nine Masters Series events being played at this point.
Besides, the win shifted the focus back on the player who had dominated the year before but struggled to recreate the form.
It's not easy to replicate a spectacular season.
It becomes even tougher when success achieved in the said year is hailed by many as one of biggest sporting achievements ever, across disciplines.
Djokovic, therefore, had his task cut out.
The year 2011 had been phenomenal for him, one in which he had managed to break the Roger Federer -- Rafael Nadal duopoly.
The Serb had won three of four Grand Slams, five of the nine Masters Series events (a single season record) and 10 of the 15 tournaments he had entered to finish the year with an impressive 70-6 match record and the No.1 ranking to boot.
Besides, by winning more than 12 million dollars in the said period, he had set a new record for the most prize money won in a single season on the ATP Tour.
'He wasn't as dominant as he was the year before'
Photographs: Aly Song/Reuters
Thus, it was palpable that whatever Djokovic did this year there would be comparisons with the year before.
To his credit, the 25-year-old began impressively, defending his Australian Open title with aplomb. Having taken almost five hours to overturn a two-sets-to-one deficit and get the better of Andy Murray in the semi-finals, it took the Serb another hour to deny Nadal a win in the final.
For the record, at 5 hours and 53 minutes, the said match was the longest Grand Slam final in the Open Era.
However, the win in Melbourne, especially those last couple of matches, were an indication that things would not be easy this year.
Djokovic was playing well, but he wasn't as dominant as he was the year before. Nor was he as consistent.
An encore was impossible. And so it was.
As the year progressed, so did the focus on the player. The Serb, instead, witnessed Nadal regain his supremacy on clay – the Spaniard had been bested in two major finals (Madrid and Rome) on the red dirt the year before.Then there was Federer, creating history by wining a record-equaling seventh Wimbledon title. Following his triumph, the Swiss replaced Djokovic (whom he beat en route) as the top-ranked player.
The Serb has compiled a perfect 10-0 record
Photographs: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Finally, it was a breakthrough season for Murray, who not only reached his first final at the All England Club but also won the Olympics gold medal at the same venue.
The Scot then proceeded to win his first major title (in his fifth attempt) at the US Open. No points for guessing who he beat in the final.
Considering Djokovic did precious little following the US Open last year – in fact four of his six defeats in the year came in the period as a lengthy season took its toll – a comparative analysis doesn't make for an impressive read.
The Serb failed to defend seven of the 10 titles he won last year – Melbourne, Indian Wells and Toronto being the exceptions -- and to witness the focus shift to Nadal, Federer and Murray, strictly in that order.
He had to do something to regain some lost momentum. The Asian swing on the ATP Tour offered him that opportunity.
And Djokovic made the most of it, winning big ticket events in both Beijing and Shanghai, the latter being special considering it came after an exhausting 3 hrs and 21 mins and at the expense of an opponent who had beaten him the last two times they met. Moreover, Murray had never previously lost in the Chinese city.
The twin wins in the Asian swing also mean since losing to the Scot in the US Open final, the Serb has compiled a perfect 10-0 record, dropping just two sets en route.
Only player with a chance of replacing Federer at the top of the rankings
Photographs: Pichi Chuang/Reuters
Besides, it ensured the 25-year-old's title count for the year went up to five, second only to Federer's six.
In fact, when looked into in isolation, Djokovic's achievements this year are no less.
Five titles -- three of them in Masters Series events and a major to boot, final appearances in three major tournaments (including a first at Roland Garros) and six in Masters Series events and a tour leading 70-11 match record is no mean feat.
Besides, going into the year's final stretch – with one Masters Series event (in Paris) and the ATP World Tour finals (in London) left -- he is only player with a realistic chance of replacing Federer at the top of the rankings.
Considering he has no points to defend in the coming weeks, Djokovic is well aware how crucial these two back-to-back wins in the Asian swing are towards that end.
"I'm trying to focus now on the end of the season. I need to try to stay consistent with my results and eventually get a shot at No. 1 which is my biggest objective in this moment," he was quoted as saying after his win in Shanghai.
"Obviously, this (the twin wins in Asia) is going to be a huge confidence boost and is going to help me in the race for No. 1," added Djokovic.