None of his three titles this season have been at first-tier events, but his China Open win came against some keen competition. This win comes at a critical time for Djokovic, who struck out at the majors this year and tends not to play his best tennis in the fall.
The (still) young Serb desperately needed momentum, and hopefully back-to-back wins over a pair of huge hitters like Robin Soderling and Marin Cilic will give him the pick-me-up he required.
But watch for his first round match in Shanghai this week. His opponent may well be the streaky Latvian Ernests Gulbis, and Djokovic has a history of following up his wins with early defeats (see Cincinnati 2007 and Miami 2008). Just getting to round two may be a sign of improvement from the still-maturing Djoker.
His Davis Cup disappointment does not seem to have thrown the young Croat off his game too badly. Cilic defeated the Russians Igor Andreev and fourth seed Nikolay Davydenko, both in straight sets, before administering a beating to the embattled top seed Rafael Nadal.
In the final, however, he missed out on repeated early chances to break Djokovic before a rain delay swept away his momentum and put the Serb in front.
Given his huge shots and the fluid movement that belies his towering size, Cilic appears separated from the top 10 by nothing more than mental consistency.
Fans of the Spaniard need not panic, because we’ve seen this before: In the fall of 2007 and spring of 2008 Nadal consistently reached the latter rounds of events but was beaten soundly at the end of nearly every one.
His triumphant opponents in those matches included David Nalbandian, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Novak Djokovic, and Mikhail Youzhny; very different players all, but each capable of hitting through the spin Nadal generates and keeping him on the defensive.
When Nadal lacks momentum and/or confidence, he is vulnerable to these types of players, especially on hard courts. However, when the clay of 2008 arrived, everything changed, and the Raging Bull played the best tennis of his career. That, in turn, carried over to less muddy surfaces.
The bad news is that clay is a looooooong way away, and beatdowns like the one Nadal received from Cilic are not fun to watch. His first match in Shanghai will be with James Blake, who has given him fits in every match they’ve played.
Le Sod has got the game to do very well on fast surfaces, and his semi appearance in Beijing seems further evidence.
However, Djokovic and Roger Federer have more in common than just a natural all-court game: Both have thoroughly dominated the big Swede, as Djokovic has now lost only one set in four meetings. Now that he’s fit and focused, Soderling’s next step will be to solve the dilemmas these players pose for him.
Hard as it was to watch, at least Nadal’s defeat in Beijing came at the hands of a player we’d heard of.
With his straight sets defeat against Lukasz Kubot, Roddick has now lost two matches in a row, and the novelty of Larry Stefanki appears to have worn off.