In Miami in 2007 a 19-year-old Novak Djokovic hammered Guillermo Canas 6-3 6-2 6-4 to lift the Miami Open title. Six years later he ended Nadal’s 46-match winning streak in Monte Carlo in the final to win his first title in the Principality. It was also the eighth of the nine Masters 1000 trophies he had won with the Serb having reigned from Indian Wells to Shanghai, Toronto and Montreal to Paris and in Madrid and Rome. But Cincinnati still defied him.
He had come close. In 2008, he roared into the final only for Murray to edge him out 7-6 7-6. He returned a year later, having dismissed Nadal in the semifinals, only to get a thrashing of his own at the hands of Federer in the final. In 2011, a year in which he swept all before him, he again made the final only for a shoulder injury to end his challenge before Murray could. Federer then bagelled him en route to a 6-0 7-6 win in 2012 before dispatching him 7-6 6-3 in 2015.
Djokovic was absent from Cincinnati in 2016, withdrawing as his elbow injury began to take hold and again missed the tournament last year with that same injury forcing him out of the second half of the season. But in 2018, he arrived with the injury nightmare firmly behind him and a fourth Wimbledon title in tow. And though he was still ranked a lowly 10th in the world, his formidable powers were no doubt fast returning to him.
How did he win it?
Djokovic, who began his Cincinnati campaign without a first-round bye for the first time since 2006, set about winning ugly in Ohio. He had been sluggish and uninspired in limping to a third-round exit in Toronto and wasn’t much better in the early rounds in Cincinnati. It took him nine match points to oust Steve Johnson 6-4 7-6 in the first round before Adrian Mannarino’s slow balling nearly knocked him out, though he finished strongly to win 4-6 6-2 6-1.
A rain delay saved him against a rampant Grigor Dimitrov, the defending champion, with Djokovic able to dig in and outlast the Bulgarian 2-6 6-3 6-4. He then withstood the heavy artillery of Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic over three-sets to reach his sixth final. Awaiting him there was seven-time champion and world #2 Roger Federer. The Swiss had never lost a final in Cincinnati, was assured the vocal support of the fans and had held serve 97 times in a row in Cincinnati going into the final.
A daunting proposition then. But Djokovic was equal to it. He was particularly sharp when stepping to the line. Though he only hit four aces, he made 69% of his first serves and won 71% of those points. But more impressive still was his 88% of second serve points won. He consistently denied Federer chances to attack his second delivery by staying aggressive with it, evidenced by an average speed nearly 10 mph faster in the final than the rest of the tournament.
From the back of the court, the Serb played with conviction, but in truth he was not forced to play his best tennis. For Federer never really raised his level to a position he could compete from. He was especially disappointing on serve. He landed 63% of his first serves, a respectable number but not an ideal one against the best returner in the game. Particularly as he struggled so badly behind his second deal, winning just 15 out of 32 points when he was forced to resort to it.
The disparity of points won behind their second serves is a reflection of where the match was lost for Federer, and how dominant Djokovic was from the baseline. He was repeatedly able to suffocate Federer with excellent depth and the Swiss rewarded him with 39 unforced errors. Late in the match, Federer had some success by charging the net, but in truth he had already allowed Djokovic to develop too much rhythm and the match was gone.
Where does the ‘Career Golden Masters’ rank?
Though a wordy accolade, much more so than Ben Rothenberg’s catchier Djokémon, there can be no doubt that Djokovic’s achievement in claiming all nine Masters titles is a magnificent one. Though not quite as unprecedented as it has been presented as, with Ivan Lendl winning all the Super 9 series titles during his career, it is remarkable all the same. It serves as a testament to his adaptability and ability to compete and win on any surface.
It also lends further credence to Nick Bollettieri’s argument that Djokovic is the most complete player of all time. Whilst he has never been as dominant as Nadal or Federer on one surface, he has been better at managing the shift across the three surfaces than either. In the era of Nadal and Federer, being the second best clay courter and the second best grass courter is no mean feat. But what is most impressive, is that Djokovic has now won every big title the game has to offer.
All four Grand Slams, the Davis Cup, the World Tour finals and now the nine Masters have all fallen to him. No other player in the history of the game has a resumé as complete as that. Indeed, in many ways it is there that the true significance of Djokovic’s achievement is to be found. Nothing will ever match his triumph in Paris in 2016, which saw him complete the astonishingly rarely discussed ‘Nole Slam’, but this perhaps comes a distant second.
It also shares with the ‘Nole Slam’ the extra-burnish of setting him apart from Nadal and Federer who have thus far been unable to complete the set. It may even reopen the Greatest of All Time debate, though it remains a pointless one. Regardless, Djokovic can look across the entire tennis world and see his name and his victories written in stone. And with the US Open now fast approaching, Djokovic can look forward to triumphs yet to come with his legacy secure behind him.