x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Djokovic wins a war of attrition

Novak Djokovic set himself an objective a week ago - to retain a title for the first time in his short but productive career.

Novak Djokovic, the world no 2, returns a backhand on his way to winning the Dubai Championship against Mikhail Youzhny.
Novak Djokovic, the world no 2, returns a backhand on his way to winning the Dubai Championship against Mikhail Youzhny.

DUBAI // Novak Djokovic set himself an objective a week ago - to retain a title for the first time in his short but productive career. He was made to work overtime yesterday to fulfil that desire and could not be certain of doing so until the very last point of the Dubai Championships.

The Serbian had looked assured of his 17th tournament success late on Saturday evening as he stood a set and a break up against Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, but his imperious march to glory was cruelly interrupted by the most unexpected of deluges. Returning after a nervous night's sleep to complete the job, Djokovic found himself in a totally different contest. Youzhny was a reinvigorated opponent and, even by Djokovic's commendable admission, was the better player in the second part of what was, to coin a phrase, a game of two halves.

It was only the remarkable fighting qualities of Djokovic, who had called upon his last reserves of courage and stamina even to reach the final - he had been taken to a deciding set in three of the four previous rounds - that prevented Youzhny from taking belated reward for his nine years of support for this tournament. Taking either of two break points in the seventh game of a tense final set, would surely have propelled the 15th-ranked Russian to his sixth title and the US$383,000 (Dh1.4million) winner's cheque.

Djokovic, still only 22 but impressively mature on and off the court, stubbornly averted that crisis and, as so often happens in such a finely balanced battle, he broke Youzhny in the next game to earn the right to serve for the championship. He quickly swept to 40-0 to hold three match points but it was inevitable after what had gone before that he would make a meal out of closing out the contest.

A 12th double fault suggested, briefly, that Youzhny might be reprieved for the umpteenth time but the world No 2 duly converted the second of them to celebrate a gutsy 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 victory. It took him 3hr 12min to claim the title - nearly two hours of that time spent in yesterday's totally contrasting conditions to what they experienced during the prelude to Saturday's storm. The length of the three-set match suggested a highly competitive war of attrition. Indeed it was, but a considerable slice of that time was spent watching Djokovic go through his tedious serving preparations which need to be addressed quickly either by himself or officialdom.

Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard Djokovic has replaced as world No 2, used to be the king of delays with his various fidgeting habits. Djokovic has now taken that title from him as well. Frequently his incessant bouncing of the ball on the baseline - he once did it 26 times before aiming a serve into the net and then repeating the laborious process - tested the patience of the umpire and the enthusiastic crowd who gave the delayed finale a fitting atmosphere.

The thousand or so spectators who returned after a full house 5,000-plus had departed frustrated the previous evening were hoping the match, which resumed with Djokovic a set and a break up, would not come to a rapid conclusion. Djokovic granted their wishes by throwing away his advantage in that second set and then squandering another glorious chance to regain it by missing the easiest of forehands which would have re-established his service break advantage at 5-3.

Youzhny, who had defeated Djokovic in two tie-breaks in the semi-finals of the Rotterdam tournament two weeks ago to bring their head-to-head record to 3-3, needed no second invitation to accept the Serb's generosity and held on to that important game before, three breaks later, claiming the most fluctuating of sets. It was anybody's guess who would win from there. Djokovic, as in the previous set, swept to a 3-0 lead but that never looked decisive and after Youzhny had responded by taking three games of his own, it was the seventh seed who looked the stronger.

Looks can be deceptive with Djokovic, though, and, as in previous rounds against Viktor Troicki, Ivan Ljubicic and Marcos Baghdatis, the Serbian found that extra ingredient that separates champions from journeymen to achieve finally that elusive title retention. wjohnson@thenational.ae