Novak Djokovic closed the gap toward recapturing the No. 1 ranking with yet another remarkable comeback victory, rallying from a set and a break down to save five match points and defeat Andy Murray 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3 in the Shanghai Masters final on Sunday. Clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes, this was the longest ATP final of the season and ranks right up there as one of the best three-set matches of the year.
Three thoughts on a match that, at least for two-thirds of the way, was shaping up to be an outright classic.
Novak Djokovic, the Comeback King: Djokovic has a flair for the dramatic and once again he hit a shot to remember that turned around the match. Murray served for the match at 7-5, 5-4 and built a 30-0 lead when Djokovic summoned some of that same magic that helped him stun Roger Federer at the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011. Chasing down a perfectly placed lob from Murray, Djokovic went for the between-the-legs "tweener" that Federer made famous against him, nailing it deep into Murray's forehand corner. The shot got Djokovic back into the point, which he eventually ended with a perfect drop-shot winner. The crowd roared, Djokovic pumped his fist and smiled, and the match was turned on its head. Djokovic would break to even the set, and though Murray showed great resiliency to force a tiebreaker, the Serb wasn't done with his theatrics.
Murray would have four match points in the tiebreaker, and Djokovic saved them all, three of them with gutsy outright winners. But as the tiebreaker wore on, Murray blinked first. At 11-all, he overcooked a forehand long to give Djokovic the minibreak, which he converted. Having been outplayed for most of the match, Djokovic drew it even and then ran away with the third set as Murray's fatigue crept in.
What is it about Djokovic's makeup that allows him to play with such audacious courage when he's on the brink of defeat? He's not the only guy who can manufacture these comebacks. We've seen Rafael Nadal claw his way back into matches and Murray is no stranger to reeling off six straight games when his opponent is serving for it. But those comebacks don't have the stunning effect that Djokovic's does. He doesn't just mount a comeback. He blindsides his opponents with a two-by-four across the cheek with a shot that no one in professional tennis has any business trying, let alone making. A tweener? Federer made that shot famous when he posterized Djokovic in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinal, executing it perfectly when he was two points from victory. Djokovic went for it on Sunday when he was two points from the loss. In Federer's case, the scoreline permits the shot selection. "Eh, why not?" In Djokovic's case, it was more along the lines of "Are you &$^%*#$ crazy???"
Yet given his track record, it's hard to be surprised anymore. Because as we've seen time and time again, this is what Novak Djokovic does. And he does it better than anyone in the game.
For Murray, a tough loss but a statement week: I'm hesitant to label this a choke-job from Murray. Yes, he was up 7-5, 5-4, 30-0, and yes, he had five championship points. But the way Djokovic saved those points, four with outright winners, would leave anyone clapping his racket with respect. The Brit was the aggressor through those first two sets and the continued evolution of his game in that vein is great to see. He'll still walk away from Shanghai with his second straight win over Federer, a 6-4, 6-4 triumph in the semifinals.
One cause for concern is Murray's heavy schedule to finish the year. He looked absolutely wiped in the third set against Djokovic and he still has Basel, Paris and the World Tour Finals on his calendar. Something to keep an eye on as London approaches. His body forced him out of the WTFs last year and given his spectacular second half of the season, you know he'll want to do well in front of his home crowd.
Your move, Roger: Djokovic came into Shanghai with a 1,585-point lead on Federer in the 2012 rankings and he'll leave with an even bigger lead of 2,195 points as they battle for the year-end No. 1. His back-to-back titles in Beijing and Shanghai now shifts the pressure onto Federer, who may have to replicate his 2011 title runs in Basel, Paris and the World Tour Finals to hold on to the top ranking. Bonus bit: Check out The Novak Smash, a racket smash to end all racket smashes.