Novak Djokovic has considered walking away from tennis more than once. His detractors lately maybe wish he would go now. But we ought to be grateful this extraordinary champion changed his mind as long ago as 2010 and again in 2018 because, at 33, he is peerless, as Milos Raonic discovered in the final of the Western & Southern Open.
The world No 1 stands alone and determined at the top of his sport after his second such title, albeit this one won in New York rather than Cincinnati. It was his 35th Masters crown, his 80th career title, and he was seemingly undisturbed by the growing storm around his plot to form a breakaway union that would spread confusion and discord in the sport he loves.
“The last three or four days I struggled a bit with my physical condition,” he said courtside. “It’s always hard playing Milos. It was very close all the way to the last shot. These are strange circumstances, but we have to get used to it, embrace it.”
It was his strength of mind and body that hauled him through the on-court turbulence to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in two tough hours when defeat looked probable more than once.
It had gone predictably well for him this week and this year. He came into the final on a 22-0 winning streak, against an opponent he had beaten 10 times in a row. He had not lost to a Canadian in 24 matches, and the best finisher in the business needed just this victory to complete a double of all the ATP’s nine Masters titles (nobody else owns even a single complete set).
All of which makes up the ideal preparation for a run at the US Open over the next fortnight, where he is a red-hot favourite to win his 18th major, one behind the absent champion, Rafael Nadal, and within two of the record 20 slam titles owned by Roger Federer, who is resting his 39-year-old knees in Switzerland.
But there were underlying problems. Djokovic tested positive for Covid-19 after his ill-advised Balkan exhibition tour this summer and, whether or not he bears residual scars, he was hollow-eyed and exhausted in beating Roberto Bautista Agut in a compelling semi-final. “I just didn’t feel good on the court at all in any aspect of my game, and the body,” Djokovic said after that three-hour ordeal. “But, somehow, I managed to pull through.”
Raonic has been a revelation this week. And once he had raced to a 4-1 lead, he must have sensed this could be his day. He took the first set after half an hour with his second ace, and Djokovic looked forlorn and lonely in the echoing stadium. Even when his combative instincts were restored and he navigated his way past Raonic’s huge serve to win the second set, there was little in it, a suspicion confirmed when the Serb lost his serve early in the decider.
But he is the Mike Tyson of his sport, dangerous just by being there. He broke back and held. Having had the knockout on the end of his big right arm, Raonic now had doubt as a companion. The battle swung 180 degrees when Djokovic broke again to lead for the first time in the contest after an hour and 38 minutes, then he emerged fully from his nervous torpor to drive to the line.
Only the best finish Djokovic off when he has lost the first set: Nadal most recently, in Rome last year, and Andy Murray 11 times, including a retirement in this event nine years ago and in two slam finals. Competing for space in Djokovic’s mind was the broadside that had opened up on him and his fellow plotters for the chaotic start to his player revolt. It mattered not to him at all, in the end.