Short of riding a bull off the Pampas straight into the heart of the Serbian defense, Juan Martin del Potro tried all he knew to overcome world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s first semifinal match at London’s 02 Arena.
It did no good. Despite leading by a set and a break, the Argentine was thrown out of his rhythm by the man many consider to be the best defensive hard-court player of all time. Djokovic then swept into Monday night’s final at these ATP World Tour Finals by 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
It was clear from the moment del Potro started blasting his huge forehand to the far corners of the court that it would take something special to stop this 6-foot-6 power machine from reaching the final here for the second time in four years. The problem for del Potro is that Djokovic is special — as special as it takes to finish as world No. 1 for the second successive year.
When del Potro broke to lead 2-1 in the second set, it really did seem that the Serb might be knocked out of his stride. But, not for the first time, it was his opponent who suffered most.
“He improved his game,” del Potro said. “It was nothing physical that happened to me. It was Nole who made the difference. That is why he is No. 1. I was close to winning the match. I play great first set, but if you don’t play at your best level the whole match, it is really difficult to beat him.”
In a high-quality duel like this, it is always difficult to gauge what tips the balance — one player’s form dipping through fatigue or loss of concentration or the rise of his opponent making that form dip. In this case, one should give credit to Djokovic. It was his ability to get to grips with the Argentine’s massive serve and put pressure on him with deep returns that made the difference and enabled him to break back for 2-2 in the second set.
For the first time, Djokovic was able to gain some measure of control as the ball continued to flash across the net at speeds that made spectators blink. Both men had their supporters among the large crowd and, no surprise, there were a few spectators wearing Argentina’s blue-and-white soccer jerseys. But even their vociferous support couldn’t keep their man in the match as errors started to spill off del Potro’s backhand.
Inevitably, del Potro tried too hard to deal with Djokovic’s counterattack and lost his timing. It affected his serve, too. A first-serve percentage of 70 percent in the first set fell to around 60, and Djokovic feasted off that with his magnificent returns.
Even though he, obviously, was dejected at having lost after playing so well, del Potro still was able to enjoy the experience of ending the year among the four best players in the world.
“These type of matches give me ‘illusions’ for the next season,” he said. “I beat Roger (Federer) yesterday. I was close to beat Nole today. But, in the end, they are too good for me. But I’m getting closer every day. And playing here is so nice. The stadium was full every match, singles and doubles. The players love that, you know. I have big fans from Argentina who come and watch me here. It is amazing. The crowd is fantastic with all the players.”
After apologizing for being late to his press conference "because of extra preparation for tomorrow’s final," Djokovic was his usual relaxed, confident self.
"I believed I could come back," he said. "I believed I could turn this match around, and I’ve done so. When I got the break back, I played very flawless tennis."
Asked how he coped with the power of the del Potro forehand, Djokovic replied: "You can avoid that part of his game by trying to hit more to the backhand. In the first set, I played too much to the forehand and got crushed."
If you are world No. 1, you can make that sort of tactical switch sound easy, which it isn’t. But, as he usually does, Djokovic made it work.
Then, unusually, he told the reporters he had a surprise for them and handed out chocolates to signal the end of a very long year.