Novak Djokovic leads Serbia to glory against Spain in inaugural ATP Cup



  • Serb defeats Rafael Nadal in singles before doubles decider
    • ‘I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,’ says Djokovic

Kevin Mitchell at the Ken Rosewall Arena  –  The  Guardian

Novak Djokovic has now beaten Rafael Nadal 29 times in 55 matches in the greatest tennis rivalry of the modern era, but he agreed that none matched the intensity of the 6-2, 7-6 (4) win that propelled Serbia towards victory in the inaugural ATP Cup here in Sydney on Sunday.

“There were some incredible exchanges today,” Djokovic said before retiring to the locker room to prepare for the doubles, which he and Victor Troicki later won 6-3, 6-4 against Pablo Carreño Busta and Feliciano López in the small hours of the morning to complete a 2-1 victory.

“My serve got me out of trouble in the second set at love-40 [in the sixth game],” Djokovic said of his seesawing singles battle with Nadal. “At this level, one shot can decide the winner. I’m happy to hold my nerve in the end.”

Asked had he ever played against him in a better atmosphere, he motioned to the large Serbian contingent in the 10,000 capacity crowd at the Ken Rosewall Arena and replied emphatically, “No. It really is unbelievable.”

Nadal said he did not play in the deciding match because his energy levels after a hard campaign had dropped. He will need all his stamina for the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne next week.

Before the last match of this tournament, Nadal and Djokovic walked side by side through the corridors on their way to warm up, old friends and rivals prepared to park their friendship for a couple of hours, but it was the Spaniard who would be up against it. In all eight matches they had played on hard courts since the 2013 US Open final, the Serb prevailed. Indeed, Nadal did not win one of the 17 sets they contested in that stretch. Make that nine matches and 19 sets now, a quite remarkable statistic.

The pattern looked to be locked in when they resumed hostilities on a mild Sunday evening in a city that has sweated and burned in a crushing heatwave for weeks. Behind a piercing serve and cool command from the baseline, Djokovic made Nadal look clueless in the first set. The Spaniard, who had broken Djokovic just twice on this surface in seven years, blew a pivotal chance in the second, when 3-2 up with three break points. Twice Djokovic saved with aces, then held with a forehand winner to a short return.

Djokovic grabbed a couple of late break points, slipped on the baseline when wrong-footed and Nadal survived, holding through two deuce points to lead 6-5. The window had creaked open. The contest was revved up to boiling point, with the packed arena heaving noisily.

They had met only twice before in team tennis, and Nadal won both with something to spare: at the Beijing Olympics and a year later in the Davis Cup; this was on another level. When Nadal’s shot was called long at 40-15 on Djokovic’s serve, the umpire overruled, then corrected himself. “It’s my mistake,” he said – and they went to the tie-break.

Nadal failed to handle a forehand from a tight spot on the baseline and Djokovic’s hard-court hold on the Spaniard was confirmed. He beat him in three quick sets to win the Australian Open last year; nobody would bet against a repeat.

Against Russia in the semi-finals, it was Dusan Lajovic’s task to take the heat off Djokovic in the middle rubber by winning the opening match, and he delivered in style, outfoxing Karen Khachanov in straight sets, which set up his lauded compatriot for an exhausting clincher in three sets against Daniil Medvedev.

First up on Sunday night, Lajovic faced Roberto Bautista Agut, the most solid player in this tournament. Against the only player in the tournament with a clean sheet, Lajovic ran out of steam.

January has been the Spaniard’s month for years; the world No 10 is 34-6 in the first month of the season going back to 2016, in which time he has won four tournaments.

After an hour, Lajovic cracked, dumping a backhand to hand Spain the first set. His serve then fell to pieces and Bautista Agut dismantled him, faltering only in the fifth game. He repaired the damage and served out with an ace after an hour and 47 minutes to win 7-5, 6-1.

After the doubles, which Djokovic served out to love after an hour and 25 minutes, he was in tears celebrating on the court for several minutes, and said later, “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life as one of the nicest moments in my career. I’ve been blessed to have an amazing career the past 15 years but playing for my country with my best friends for a long, long time is too special. You can’t match that.”



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