As the tennis circus heads for its season-ending finale in London there can be no doubt as to the identity of its current ringmaster. Novak Djokovic will go to the O2 Arena, where the ATP World Tour Finals begin on Sunday, as the Paris Masters champion after continuing his remarkable recent run by beating Gaël Monfils 6-2, 5-7, 7-6 in the final here yesterday.
Whether the world No 3 will have enough left in the tank to mount a successful defence of the title he won in Shanghai last year is another matter. After needing two and three-quarter hours to win his 94th match of the year – he has played 19 more than anyone else on the main tour – Djokovic appeared barely capable of lifting the heavyweight trophy. It was his first victory in the five Masters Series finals he has played this year.
In six tournaments dating back to mid-August, Djokovic has reached four finals and lost only three out of 30 matches, to Roger Federer (twice) and Nikolay Davydenko. Since losing his first match of the year, the 22-year-old Serb has reached the quarter-finals or better in 19 of 20 tournaments.
Although Monfils pushed him all the way, there could be no doubt that Djokovic deserved his triumph. He served well all week – Rafael Nadal, his victim in the semi-finals, did not have a single break point – and returned superbly, breaking in 21 of his 55 return games. Above all he gave everything, in contrast, perhaps, to one or two players who did not seem too concerned at making an early exit from the tournament.
Monfils, aiming to give the crowd a second successive home triumph following Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's success 12 months ago, whipped the stadium into a frenzy after recovering from a slow start in his first Masters Series final. For a set and a half Djokovic was all but unstoppable and dropped just four points in his first six service games. Monfils, forced into an almost permanent rearguard action, was doing little wrong, but soon found himself a set and 3-0 down.
Everything changed in the fifth game of the second set. From 30-0 up on his own serve Djokovic, suddenly looking tired and vulnerable, made four successive errors to let Monfils back into the match. The Frenchman broke again in the 11th game and served out to level the contest.
The momentum appeared to be with Monfils, but both players dropped serve twice early in the decider and the match went to a tie-break. The crowd had been magnificent in support of their fellow Parisian, but on the first match point a spectator shouted out as Monfils hit his second serve. It sailed long and an exhausted Djokovic sank to his knees in relief. He said afterwards that he would rest until flying to London on Wednesday, when he plans to watch his fellow countrymen take on South Korea in a friendly football international at Craven Cottage.
For Andy Murray, meanwhile, there were words of consolation following his third-round defeat to Radek Stepanek. Jean-Francois Caujolle, one of the tournament directors, admitted that the Scot's chances of winning had been scuppered by the cruel scheduling that saw him finish his second-round match in the main arena at 1.45am and return to meet Stepanek on the much smaller second court just 16 hours later.
"I believe he wouldn't have lost that match if he had played on centre court," Caujolle said. "If the scheduling had been lighter on Wednesday he could have finished earlier and would have been in a better condition. That being said, he was extremely decent and said nothing about that."