Perfection is no easy feat, and Novak Djokovic’s undefeated record this season was certainly put to the test late Friday afternoon.
The World No. 1 fended off apparent neck discomfort and an unrelenting opponent to beat eighth seed Roberto Bautista Agut 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(0) in three hours, one minute en route to the Western & Southern Open final. Djokovic is now 22-0 on the season.
“[It was a] very strange match, I must say. I don’t know how I won it, to be honest. He was the better player,” Djokovic said on court after his triumph. “I just didn’t feel good on the court at all, in any aspect of my game and of the body. But somehow, I managed to pull this one through.”
Djokovic only served three times in the final-set tie-break and each of them was an ace. Regardless of how solidly Bautista Agut played throughout the marathon, Djokovic went into “lockdown mode” when it mattered most to seize his victory. He has won 19 of his past 20 tie-breaks dating back to winning three of them against Roger Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final, including all 10 this season.
For a large portion of the memorable match, Bautista Agut was doing to Djokovic what the Serbian does to the rest of the ATP Tour. The Spaniard dug into baseline rallies and forced the top seed to do something special to beat him. Djokovic carved many drop shots to try to get Bautista Agut off his game, and in many instances that didn’t work.
“It’s a balance between patience and [playing with] controlled aggession,” Djokovic said. “When you have a chance you have to go through it. You have to not only move him around left and right, but forward and backwards, mix it up with pace, spin and depth. You just have to put a lot of variation in the game. He’s a very consistent player.”
Even still, Djokovic took control and appeared on the verge of victory when leading 5-2 in the third set. But Bautista Agut never went away, rallying to serve for the match at 6-5. Djokovic did not panic, getting back on serve to force the deciding tie-break.
Djokovic snapped a three-match hard-court losing streak against the 32-year-old. Bautista Agut was trying to become one of only three players to win four consecutive hard-court matches against Djokovic, joining Andy Roddick and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
“I was very close to winning. I served for the match and
I was two points away [from winning],” Bautista Agut. “[I can be disappointed or] I can take the other
way and think that I made a good comeback to the tour-level. I played really good matches this week, and I was
serving for the match against the No. 1.”
The top seed is pursuing his second Career Golden Masters. Djokovic has won all nine Masters 1000 events at least twice, with the exception of the Western & Southern Open. He is also trying to match Rafael Nadal’s record of 35 Masters 1000 trophies.
The 33-year-old will play former World No. 3 Milos Raonic in the championship match, in which the Canadian will chase his first Masters 1000 title. The World No. 1 leads the pair’s ATP Head2Head series 10-0.
“[He has a] huge serve,” Djokovic said. “He’s playing well, he’s confident and let’s hope for a good final.”
A key moment came at 1-2 in the second set, when Djokovic received a neck adjustment from an ATP physio. That seemed to give the Serbian a burst of energy. Instead of bailing out of rallies against the Spaniard, he increased his aggression and with his high level of play took the match from Bautista Agut, who was trying to reach his second Masters 1000 final.
The eighth seed was gritty, rallying from a break down in the second set to get back on serve. But at 4-5, the Louis Armstrong Stadium roof was closed, with predicted rain closing in. Djokovic broke in the next game to force the decider.