There were times here yesterday when Novak Djokovic’s love affair with China appeared to be turning sour, but at the end of the Shanghai Rolex Masters the romance was back on.
Although Djokovic did not appear impressed when the crowd at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre briefly transferred their affections to his opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 triumph earned the 26-year-old Serb his seventh title in China, more than in any other country.
Djokovic won his 20th successive match in China – for the second year in a row he has completed the Beijing-Shanghai double – only after Del Potro had made a spirited comeback, the world No 5 having been comprehensively outplayed in the first set.
For a while it had seemed that Del Potro was struggling to recover from his semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal the previous evening, but the 25-year-old Argentine brought the crowd to life with his response. He levelled the match by taking the second set, and repeatedly dug himself out of trouble in the decider.
Djokovic, who kicked an advertising hoarding in anger at missing one opportunity, appeared to be frustrated by the crowd’s support for Del Potro, but the world No 2’s relentless pressure told in the end. Del Potro saved two match points with some bold serving at 4-5 and forced a tie-break, which Djokovic won 7-3, having turned the contest decisively by going 4-2 up after a superbly constructed 24-stroke rally.
After the match Djokovic signed two words in Chinese script, “love” and “smile”, on the camera lens. “I love you guys. Thank you for all your support,” he told a delighted crowd in Mandarin at the presentation.
The 39th title of Djokovic’s career and his 15th in the Masters Series shows that the Serb will go all out to reclaim the world No 1 ranking he lost to Nadal the previous weekend. It also extended the remarkable domination of the “Big Four”: Djokovic, Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer have won 31 of the last 33 Masters Series titles.
“I think the tournament had a fantastic final,” said Djokovic later. “I’m just very glad to win after such a close match. I think either one of us could really have taken the title. I just managed to hold my emotions and I managed to believe in the victory enough to play the right shots at the right time.”
This was Del Potro’s third defeat in three Masters Series finals, but the 2009 US Open champion is happy with his form. He won the Japan Open title eight days ago and his run to the final here secured his place in next month’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London.
“I think I’m playing even better than 2009 or 2008 or last year,” Del Potro said. “I’ve done good things this year. I couldn’t win a Grand Slam like I did in 2009, but I’ve reached two Masters 1000 finals and I’ve won three tournaments. I’ve beaten the top guys, which is fantastic for me.”