Originally Published: October 7, 2013

Novak Djokovic title sets up exciting fall

By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

There are three important ATP World Tour tournaments yet to play, beginning with the first-round matches at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. So is the Player of the Year award still in play?

Uh, no.

Despite Novak Djokovic's forceful 6-3, 6-4 victory over Rafael Nadal on Sunday in the China Open final, thats already been conceded to Nadal. This is the man, believe it or not, who began the year in the midst of a seven-month injury-forced sabbatical. Rafa's still so far ahead of the field, it was over even before they threw up the first balls in Shanghai, at the end of the month in Paris and at the year-end championships in London.

Not only did Rafa capture two of the four Grand Slams (after missing the Australian Open), but he has already:

• Won 10 titles, six more than Djokovic and Andy Murray, who are tied for second.

• Posted the three longest win streaks of the season, 22, 21 and 18 consecutive matches to fashion a sparkling 65-4 overall mark; Djokovic began the year with 17 straight wins.

• Run out to a spectacular lead in the Race to London, leading Djokovic by 2,700 points and second-place Murray by 5,505.

• Nadal is the first ATP player on record to win 20 matches or more on both clay and hard courts in the same season.

By reaching the final in Beijing, Nadal passed Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking, reclaiming it for the first time since July 2011. It was a rare fall pass for the top spot; it hadnt happened since Jim Courier vaulted over Stefan Edberg on Oct. 5, 1992.

Nonetheless, it was an important victory for Djokovic, who had lost three straight matches to Nadal after beating him for the title in Monte Carlo. Nadal won a terrific five-set match in the French Open semifinal, a three-set semifinal in Montreal and the US Open final in four sets.

"I needed this win today," Djokovic said. "Its very important for my confidence. It's very important mentally and emotionally for me.

"I managed to stay tough and not drop my concentration, which I think [happened] in both Montreal and at the US Open in the important moments. I learned my lesson."

Djokovic, who looked lean and exceedingly hungry, lost six points on his serve in a match that required only 87 minutes.

There are still four spots available in the eight-man field at the year-end Barclays ATP World Tour finals, but if Murray, still recovering from back surgery, decides this week not to play there will be five. Roger Federer, who has played in the past 11 year-end tournaments (winning seven), likely will have to win a few matches in Shanghai and Paris to guarantee himself a spot in London. Hes currently sitting at No. 7 in the race and is pursued closely by Stanislas Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It's been a strange season, with Djokovic dominating the bottom-line Grand Slam win totals (he was 24-3), but coming away with only one major title. David Ferrer was 19-4, followed by Murray (who missed Roland Garros) with a 17-2 mark. Nadal, at 14-1, was fourth, with Federer and Gasquet at 13-4.

Another sign of change: There have been seven first-time ATP winners this year -- Bernard Tomic, Horacio Zeballos, Lukas Rosol, Nicolas Mahut, Carlos Berlocq, Fabio Fognini and Joao Sousa. Last year there was only one, Martin Klizan.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

5 Questions with Joao Sousa

By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Contrary to some beliefs, the professional tennis season does not end with the US Open. Careers are being made (and broken) as the fall Asian tour plays out.

Take the 24-year-old from Portugal, for instance. Joao Sousa (pronounced Jhh-wow Susa) had just put together the best two weeks of his career and vaulted to No. 51 (now No. 49) among ATP World Tour players -- from No. 90.

After splitting two five-set matches in Davis Cup singles at Moldovia, Sousa surfaced in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he won three of four matches and scored a semifinal berth and $22,280. That performance got him a special exemption into last weeks Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur, which he won, good for $158,000. (His career earnings in eight previous years were $247,511.)

Sousa beat three established pros in their 30s -- No. 4-ranked David Ferrer, No. 26 Jurgen Melzer and No. 32 Julien Benneteau in the final, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4. Sousa fought off a match point in the second set.

It was his first career ATP-level title and, more significantly, the first for a Portuguese-born player. Sousa, who lives and trains in Barcelona, Spain, was only the second player to win a title with a special exemption in the past decade; Juan Martin del Potro did it two years ago in Delray Beach.

ESPN.com caught up with Sousa last week after he returned home to Spain.

ESPN.com: People might not know it, but you also erased a break point serving for the match at 5-4. What were you thinking?

Joao Sousa: Better hit it in. I could see [Benneteau] was a little tired and I got some confidence. I hit an unbelievable passing shot. That ball could have been out and I would be the runner-up.

ESPN.com: You got congratulations from all around the world. What was that like?

Joao Sousa: Yes, many famous people gave congratulations, even the Portuguese President, Anibal Cavaco Silva, who posted a note on my Facebook page. Many athletes, too. There were a lot of Facebook requests. The thing I want to say is that the most important thing is my family, my coaches and my girlfriend -- they were always there for me. It is an honor for me to hear some words from the most important people in Portugal.

ESPN.com: Not only was it the first ATP title for a Portuguese player, you are now the highest-ranked player in that countrys history. What does this mean for your nation?

Joao Sousa: I think it will have a big impact. It is a big moment of Portugal, which becomes maybe a little bit more famous. People believe more in all our sports now, not just tennis. It dignifies our name in the world and, hopefully, it will help all sports in Portugal in the future.

ESPN.com: You played a lot of matches in three weeks, spent a lot of time on the court. How did you find the energy to win those last few matches in Kuala Lumpur?

Joao Sousa: Ive been working a lot on the fitness, you know, to be strong in the physical moments. I had a good preparation and came in playing with a lot of confidence. When you get to the end of these important matches, it is more of a mental thing than physical.

ESPN.com: What are your goals going forward?

Joao Sousa: To keep working a lot. I know theres much to do. This is just two weeks of my career. If I want to be a bigger player and give more happiness for my country, I have to work even harder. I know this. My forehand is my favorite shot and I move well on the court. I have made a big progression, but my serve I could make much better and I need to work on my backhand.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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