The sole gap in Rafael Nadal’s handsomely stocked trophy cabinet remains empty.
Had the world number one capped off his incredible return to the top of tennis with victory at the O2, Nadal would have become only the second man after Andre Agassi to win the career ‘Golden Slam’ – all four Majors, the Olympics, and the end-of-season shoot-out, whether in one of its former incarnations or these World Tour Finals.
Rafa’s return to form and impressive displays in London had led me to make him marginal favourite over Novak Djokovic – despite making his discomfort on indoor hard courts known, the slower surface appeared to be suiting Nadal, and a relatively straightforward (and early) semi-final win over Roger Federer meant he was nicely rested for the final showdown.
But Djokovic – who doesn’t mind a slower hard-court, as we regularly see at the Australian Open – is renowned for his mental strength, although more for resilience and extreme capacity for focus than tactical acumen.
The Serb, who despite claims otherwise must be smarting at losing number one status, displayed incredible intelligence in an ultimately comfortable defeat of Nadal. His undoubted physical flexibility was accompanied by a willingness to mix up his game, while anticipating Rafa’s.
Djokovic served better, for sure, but his work on second serve was considerably better than Nadal’s; despite knowing he would be best aided by shortening the points, ‘Nole’ focused on accuracy and holding his position at the baseline. That way, anticipating the return, he could control the follow-up shot, giving time to ensure his defensive position while making a call on whether to bring it to the net or play percentages.
And Djokovic remains the best returner of serve in the game, ahead of Andy Murray due to greater consistency and superior movement on clay. Coupled with Nadal’s relatively weaker serve – particularly on second serve – Djokovic’s reading of returns and his superior accuracy while stretching the play across the baseline meant he rarely looked ruffled, and was in control of more points. Nadal, meanwhile, was always looking for the big winner, reluctant to move out of his comfort zone at the baseline, where he was constantly being pulled from side to side by Djokovic.
This was reflected in the statistics: Nadal won four of his six net points; Djokovic took 14 of 19. The Serb’s desire and ability to vary his game ultimately reaped dividends on a court which has a varied impact on the movement of the ball.
Djokovic also yielded more than twice as many winners as Nadal, which is unusual. Nadal’s weaker serving was also complemented by four double faults, two of which came as he was broken in the first set. He also made a lot more unforced errors than usual, pointing to a wider malaise that may – for all his physical attributes – could be a sign of fatigue.
Ferrer suffered more than most, and only Nadal will know if he was below par on Monday, but the decision to extend the calendar by one week to include a rest week between Paris and London will hopefully raise the overall level next season. The Paris Masters is a highly-favoured event for the top players, both in terms of the points on offer and its prestige. Last season, many of the big names exited relatively early, but this year three of the four Paris semi-finalists were at that stage a week later in London. It makes sense to extend the calendar into mid-November – there is plenty of time to rest before the Australian swing – and the correct decision has been made.
Djokovic is arguably the best player at retaining his composure and technique while suffering physically, so such a frantic calendar may well have suited him come the season end. The knowledge that he has denied Nadal another historic victory will also boost him ahead of Melbourne Park, which is probably his favourite venue.
The return of Andy Murray from injury adds another limiting factor, although it will be difficult to gauge if he will be ready to challenge in Melbourne. If the Briton is match-fit and finds his rhythm in time to make a sustained challenge, that will probably complicate matters for both men.
And with Juan Martin Del Potro approaching his peak and Roger Federer refusing to go away, Melbourne looks set to be incredibly competitive – but it is hard to look past Djokovic.
Reda Maher – on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport