From the get-go, this was jaw dropping stuff. This was 21st-century tennis played amidst the 21st-century city of Shanghai between two players who seem destined to continue a rivalry that will capture the imagination of the sporting world.
Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 on Sunday in the Shanghai Open final in a shortened version of their five-set marathon at the US Open, but it was not just the fact that the Serb had to save five match points to do it that had the packed stadium roaring its approval throughout the 3 hours and 21 minutes of high drama and breathtaking tennis.
“Both of us played some unbelievable tennis at times,” Murray said in a postmatch news conference. “Two centimeters between winning the match and losing it. You have to put things in perspective.”
Djokovic refused to gloat after beating an opponent he has considered a friend since childhood. “When I play Andy, I know it’s going to be a grueling fight with a lot of long rallies,” he said. “It could have gone either way. He was so close to winning, I cannot say I was the better player. I could have been the runner-up today, but I am proud of my fight.”
Murray, who had played so brilliantly to beat Roger Federer in straight sets in the semifinals, will rue those missed opportunities, especially as he also squandered two match points against Milos Raonic last week in Tokyo. But Djokovic, who is running into form again after a frustrating summer, came up with some inspired tennis at crucial moments.
Murray served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and was just two points from victory at 30-0. But the Serb flicked a winner through his legs, and then later hit a winner on the line to give himself break-back point. Murray led 6-4 in the tiebreak and had two more match points as the Chinese fans shrieked in excitement — most of them were supporting Djokovic — but the Scot couldn’t grab any of them as Djokovic chased everything down and came up with returns even Murray couldn’t handle.
So, once again, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event has seen two of the game’s ruling quartet contest the final. Even with Rafael Nadal sidelined with knee problems, no one else is allowed a look in when it comes to playing major finals. And the domination seems set to continue in Paris at the end of October and then in London, where the eight-man ATP World Tour Finals will be held next month.
Either Djokovic or Murray surely will be named player of the year one of them wins in London. But it will not be easy because Federer is the defending champion and, during this past week, ensured that he held on to the No. 1 world ranking for the 300th week of his career. That statistic adds a bit more numerical evidence to those who believe that Federer is the greatest player of all time. He has, of course, won 17 Grand Slam titles — more than any man in history — and created an amazing record when he reached 21 consecutive Slam semifinals. He has not lost before the quarterfinals in any of the past 32 Slams he has played.
To go against that, Federer only has a winning record over one of his rivals. He leads Djokovic 16-12 in head-to-head meetings but is 10-18 against Nadal (almost all his defeats coming on clay) and 8-10 against Murray.
But it is the style that sets Federer apart. To purists, he is the most beautiful and technically proficient player they have ever seen and, by fighting back to the top after so many critics were writing him off two years ago, he has proved just how much he loves the game and just how hard he is prepared to battle for his place in history.
The long, long year only has a few weeks to run, but Federer, Djokovic and Murray seem up for it — a sprint to the finish line in Paris and London with the winner, almost inevitably, being decided by inches.