ABU DHABI // As far as Novak Djokovic is concerned, the faster the playing surface, the better. If they offered to play the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on the Formula 1 track on Yas Island, the Serbian hard-court wizard doubtlessly would be all for it.
Indeed, the world No 1 almost did a mixed-doubles mash-up of those two sports yesterday, before electing not to risk his rather pricey neck on the Yas Marina Circuit before his evening finals appearance at Zayed Sports City. After arriving in town three days ago, Djokovic had spied the track and signed up to take a few laps in a car, but cancelled.
"I forgot my driver's licence," he said in jest. A prudent move, since he needed every drop of energy to get past the stubborn Nicolas Almagro in the final.
Winning the pre-season Mubadala title for the second year in a row and positioning himself nicely for another commanding season, Djokovic fought to a 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 victory at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex, getting a strong run for his money from Almagro, the 11th-hour addition to the tournament.
It marked only the second time in the five iterations of the tournament that the final went into the third set, and the first since the inaugural event, when Andy Murray held off Rafael Nadal.
"The Murray win was pretty epic," Greg Sproule, a tournament official, said as Djokovic stood a few feet away. "This was better, longer and more entertaining."
Despite getting added to the field two days before the event when his fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal was forced to withdraw because of illness, Almagro nearly stole the show. The world No 11, did anything but go quietly, forcing Djokovic to work two hours, 34 minutes, until the latter finally recorded the first service break in the decisive third set to end the match, as well as the feisty counterpunching.
"It's amazing, him coming here just a few days ago, and playing this well, yesterday and today," Djokovic said. "It was a fantastic experience."
It looked like a textbook mismatch, but with Almagro whistling 12 service aces past the five-time slam champion, it turned into a tense duel sprinkled with some comical, vaudevillian moments.
Almagro pushed Djokovic almost to the limit. After Djokovic cruised through his semi-final in 70 minutes, whipping the world No 5 David Ferrer, he worked for every dirham of his US$250,000 (Dh918,300) winner's cheque.
Few expected it would be so close - in three sanctioned meetings, Almagro had never won a set from Djokovic. He took care of that quickly enough, winning the first set in a tiebreaker, and giving Djokovic a figurative bloody nose as the latter prepares to make his title defence on January 14 at the Australian Open.
"I told you yesterday that if I played a great match, I think I would have a chance to beat him," said Almagro, who had played in 18 career finals, all on clay. "Well, I did it. But he is very hard to beat."
Djokovic was flat in the opening set and said he expected as much, since he has been grinding hard in the pre-season in preparation for the season's first slam. "Two different matches and I felt different today," he said. "But in all I am very satisfied with how I played as I head to Australia."
The third set was a battle of wills. Deadlocked, Djokovic held off three break points to take a 3-2 lead. In the very next game, Djokovic wasted six break-point opportunities as Almagro stoically pulled even. By then, the clowning that had kept the crowd duly entertained earlier had ended.
It made for brilliant theatre. Djokovic was not at the top of the form he flashed in the semi-finals, but he had the fans laughing at his antics, rather than applauding his shot arsenal. At one point, after the umpteenth challenge of a line call, the Serbian dropped to his knees, put his nose to the court, surveyed the line and pronounced that an Almagro return had been out by an inch, flashing his thumb and forefinger to his foe. The computer confirmed that he was spot on, to the millimetre, drawing a huge cheer.
When a line judge was a bit too slow in ruling that a ball was long, the guy nicknamed "Djoker" sauntered over and told the man, "You have to say OUT," smiling but shouting at the top of his lungs. Fans ate it up.
During an early changeover, Djokovic danced to the pop song that boomed over the arena speakers, using his racket like a guitar and pretending to sing lyrics into the racket handle. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand, though not necessarily Almagro, who was added to the tournament when the world No 4 Nadal withdrew on Christmas Day.
"Still, I played well when I needed to," Djokovic said.
Almagro was more than happy that he hopped on a red-eye flight to Abu Dhabi and served as a substitute - and a very high-level stand-in at that. "I think I play two very good matches," he said. "I was close to the No 1. Maybe next time will be different."
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