With clear mind, Djokovic surging
LONDON -- Players at the ATP World Tour Finals are being transported to their posh hotel in central London via boat. The journey across the River Thames is a short one.
Novak Djokovic's form entering the year-end championships was, like the Thames, somewhat murky. When he lost to American Sam Querrey at the Paris Masters last week, it marked the only time the world No. 1 lost an tournament opener in 2012.
But given adequate preparation and competing with a clear mind -- his ill father is getting "better" -- Djokovic finished atop Group A with an unblemished 3-0 record. Tomas Berdych was his latest victim, as Djokovic prevailed 6-2, 7-6 (6) on Friday to end the Czech's stay in the English capital.
"For the first time, I won all three in my group," said Djokovic, who first appeared at the World Tour Finals in 2007. "This is very encouraging for me."
Three takeaways from Djokovic's week:
1. His first set was important
Djokovic's confidence could only be categorized as "shaky" in the first set of his 2012 debut against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Tsonga wasn't favored to topple Djokovic and, as such, he was able to compete with freedom -- even more so than usual. Tsonga was the better player for most of the set, consistently applying pressure on a fragile-looking Djokovic serve. Had he converted on any of his three break points in three different games, Tsonga jogs to his chair as the first-set winner.
Djokovic, however, resisted, benefiting from his opponent's careless errors on two break points. When he advanced to a tiebreaker, the world No. 1 prevailed.
A deflated Tsonga capitulated in the second set. Djokovic surged. Paris was forgotten.
The ideal way to ready for Andy Murray in his next match.
2. Another big forehand
Following their five hours of combat over five sets at the Australian Open in January, Murray and Djokovic played consecutive straight-set matches in their three ensuing head-to-heads. Breathers. But starting with the U.S. Open final, the mini-marathons have returned.
Djokovic and Murray scraped for 3 hours, 21 minutes in the Shanghai Masters, and Wednesday's contest in London went the distance again, lasting 2:34.
By now we have become accustomed to seeing forehands aid Djokovic in desperate moments: Two forehands erased two match points against Roger Federer at the 2010 U.S. Open; an audacious forehand return wiped out a match point against Federer at the 2011 U.S. Open, and Djokovic struck two gutsy forehand winners when facing match points against Murray in China.
And this week, Djokovic's forehand turned around his fortunes versus Murray. Trailing by a set and staring at two break points, Djokovic planted a heavy inside-out forehand into the corner. Murray challenged; replays showed the ball to be on the line.
Djokovic held, won the second, then the third.
3. The return versus Berdych
Djokovic rose to 11-1 against Berdych, whose season still isn't over: Next week's Davis Cup final against Spain is of more importance -- for now, at least.
Some would say Berdych was unlucky not to beat Murray on Monday after he narrowly missed a forehand on break point when in control. But even though Berdych has improved the mental part of his game and is competing better in matches than in the past, more work is required. Proof: When he squandered his lone break point opportunity at 1-2 in the first set Friday, the rest of the set sped by.
There was, though, little he did wrong when nursing a 6-3 advantage in the second-set tiebreaker. Djokovic swept aside the first two set points on serve. Berdych then hit a first serve with good pace down the middle.
Against most opponents, it would have been unreturnable. Not against Djokovic. He put the ball in play with his forehand -- and deep. Berdych hit a forced error. Djokovic won the next two points to avoid a third set.
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