SHANGHAI ― Defending champion Novak Djokovic proved his prowess once again in his return to the Shanghai Rolex Masters final stage for the second year in a row Sunday, defeating sixth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(3), in a two-hour, 32-minute face-off.
The top seed and world No. 2 earned his 20th consecutive win, his 15th career Masters title and fifth tournament victory of the season.
In their 13th head-to-head, the battle escalated from power-shot rallies and 16 break point contentions into a war of nerves that came down to a third-set tiebreaker that brought the packed Qi Zhong Stadium to a roaring ovation.
Novak Djokovic (right) celebrates with his trophy after defeating Juan Martin del Potro (left) in their final match of the Shanghai Masters tournament on Sunday. (AP-Yonhap News)
“All the way up to the last point, I don’t know if I’m going to win the match,” said Djokovic, who racked up 10 aces and no double faults, and saved three of the four break points he faced. “I think either one of us could really (have taken) the title. 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.”
With head hung low and body slouched in the first set, del Potro was slow to reach returns and committed multiple baseline errors, as Djokovic smashed two aces to close out a 6-1 set in 35 minutes.
But after a break and a ball change, the Argentine came out swinging, firing his first ace and taking game one of the second set after two break points. He maintained dominance throughout 20-shot rallies and Djokovic’s smashes, knocking the Serb off balance more than once as he delivered powerful returns from all over the court.
“Up to that point, I felt I was in control of the match. I was playing an incredible first set. Suddenly I just started making these unforced errors that got him back into the match,” Djokovic recalled.
Djokovic sent errors into the net and past the baseline while del Potro shot winners into center court and the baseline to gain a 3-0 lead. While Djokovic caught up late in the set with three break points in the seventh game, his momentum was short-lived as del Potro finished out set two.
With no room for error in the final set, del Potro matched Djokovic game for game all the way to the tiebreaker. A rally in the sixth game had Djokovic missing a return by a hair, del Potro firing an ace and Djokovic overshooting the baseline for del Potro to tie up the set, 3-3, after two break points.
Shortly after Djokovic was seen taking out his break-point frustrations on the Rolex time clock, del Potro’s nerves were also apparent by the seventh game as he buried his head in hands upon losing the first point. Djokovic almost clinched the win in the 10th game with two match points, but del Potro scrambled back to tie it up once again, 5-5.
The neck-and-neck carried through the whole of the third-set and into the tiebreaker, when Djokovic broke ahead in a rally in the fifth point, followed by a solid forehand winner to widen his lead to 4-2, his first lead by more than a point since the first set.
Del Potro’s final point was a shot into the far corner that Djokovic scrambled for but ended up on the ground. After that, Djokovic placed a clean drop shot winner, followed by a del Potro error and Djokovic put the final nail in the coffin with a backhand down the line, closing out the Shanghai Rolex Masters in a 7-3 tiebreaker.
Djokovic’s 10th victory over del Potro was their first meeting in a final and fourth of the season. Del Potro last defeated him in the Indian Wells 1000 semifinals in March, though the Serb beat him in the Wimbledon semifinals in July. The Serb struck 47 winners to just 26 errors, compared to del Potro’s 34 and 29, respectively.
Del Potro admitted that he wasn’t serving well in the first set and committed double faults and forehand blunders while Djokovic was simply playing too fast for him. But after breaking early and getting the crowd on his side in the second set, he said, he gained the momentum necessary to test the top seed.
Del Potro’s loss broke his eight-match winning streak, which included clinching the Rakuten Japan Open in Tokyo last Sunday and defeating world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the Shanghai semifinal.
“It’s a really bad loss for me now. ... I was really close to beat him after beating Nadal,” said del Potro. “The crowd helped me because they want to watch a longer match, for sure. I (was) ready for fight and play my game as I did yesterday against Nadal. I think I played another really good match.
“The match was really close all the time. ... But in the tiebreak he played unbelievable points,” he added. “Today, Nole deserved to win. That’s it.”
Nonetheless, both players piled up successes on their Asian swing and are on their way to the ATP World Tour Finals in London, after del Potro qualified by reaching the semifinal. Del Potro said he is playing even better than in 2009, the year he won the U.S. Open, and doing well in the tournament enforced his goal of standing among the tour’s top players to close out a “fantastic” season.
“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,” said del Potro.
“I believe in myself. I’m very confident. I’m very pleased with my level. … I think if I’m healthy and if I play like today or yesterday, I will have the chance to play good battles like we did today.”
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent