The first semifinal of the Swiss Indoors looked to be clear-cut from the very beginning, as Novak Djokovic, the reigning world No. 1 and seemingly an invincible juggernaut, went up against the rising Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori.
They have only met once prior to the semifinal encounter, where the Serb crushed Nishikori in straight sets on the red clay of Roland Garros.
During the first set, it looked as if it would be the third straight year that Djokovic would be heading to the final, putting him on track to win his 11th title of year. The Serb raced through the opening set towards a 5-1 lead.
However, a break of serve and troubling shoulder pains got the better of the world No.1 as he went on to lose 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0.
In defeat, Djokovic has added another loss to his almost perfect year. Nishikori will be facing the Swiss maestro Roger Federer, who dispatched his compatriot and Davis Cup doubles partner, Stanislas Wawrinka, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in their semifinal.
Here are five things we learned from the match.
2011 has been a stellar year for the 24-year-old, winning 10 titles so far—three of which were Grand Slam titles. He has reached 11 finals and experienced defeat only four times.
Novak Djokovic has embodied invincibility this year, conquering his inner demons and fine-tuning his fitness and diet to ultimately dominate the field. However, a critical aspect that has often been overlooked is the strain his body has to endure due to his super-human achievements.
Out of the four matches he lost, three of them have, in some way, been affiliated with injury and fatigue.
His only loss in a final of a tournament came in the form of retirement due to shoulder injury, in the Cincinnati Masters final in August against Andy Murray.
The string of retirements didn't end there, as Novak Djokovic had to withdraw from the decisive Davis Cup semifinal between Serbia and Argentina due to a back injury hampering his game.
Now we can add the Basel semifinal, where an identical shoulder pain to the one during the Cincinatti Masters final contributed to an unforeseen defeat at the hands of Kei Nishikori—who has never beaten a Top 5 player before.
Djokovic has never been injury-free. In fact, he was notorious for retiring in matches due to multiple factors earlier in his career. However, those injuries were rather random than perennial.
It seems Djokovic is developing a more persistent obstacle, an Achilles Heel to say the least. Much like Rafael Nadal who has had numerous problems with his knees, it could become a permanent nuisance in his blossoming career.
If Djokovic does not address this issue with proper emphasis, he will be witnessing the birth of his own foil: himself.
Well-rested and a long layoff may sound like a correct equation for athletes these days, especially considering the heavy demands of the ATP tour schedule. However, tennis is a different affair altogether.
A game that incorporates power and feel, tennis players need to keep in touch with their form as it can be very inconsistent at times. One day you're crushing down-the-line winners and the next you're missing easy volleys.
All the top players have benefited by enforcing a strict routine to maintain their form, Djokovic included. Djokovic recently withdrew from the Shanghai masters citing back injury and a need to recuperate.
The Basel Swiss Indoors was supposed to be the stage on which Djokovic would return to his former glory after almost two months of exclusion from play.
However, these past couple of days, Djokovic seems to have woken up on the wrong side of bed as his sluggish and rusty form suggest. The forehand was a bit off, the backhand lacks the usual accuracy and the serve was not clicking as his matches continued to go to three sets.
This coming from the man who served bagels and fries in straight sets at the beginning of the year. His below par performance got the better of him in the form of a pumped up Kei Nishikori.
There is no denying that Djokovic's current form is nowhere near his state when he won the US Open. One may wonder if this side-effect from the long layoff might affect his performances in crucial parts of the tour.
The future is not looking good for an out of form Novak Djokovic
Of course, credit should be given to the spirited man from the Land of The Rising Sun. Kei Nishikori, 21, recently fulfilled the Project 45 vision that was thrust upon him, as he reached his highest ever ranking, surpassing former Japanese player Shuzo Matsuoka's career high of 46.
Granted, Nishikori did defeat an ailing Novak Djokovic en route to the final, but that does not deny the fact that he is the first Japanese player to defeat a world No. 1. He also accomplished it in the proper fashion, handing the world No.1 his first bagel of the year.
Injuries aside, Djokovic was not playing a bad match per se, but his injury did allow Nishikori to get into the groove and claw his way back into the match. With a playing style reminiscent of David Ferrer and Lleyton Hewitt, Nishikori was able to force Djokovic to work for every shot.
"He was getting impossible balls back and really making me play every shot," said Djokovic, who was coming off a six-week break to treat a back injury. "He was better and I didn't use the opportunities I had. I don't think I should speak about that third set."
The way Nishikori hustled for every point, despite the shaky start, was awe-inspiring, it showed top 10 potential in the making. The match showed Nishikori's promise and could probably signify an excellent 2012.
Roger Federer has pretty much been lurking in the shadows these past couple of months after his US Open loss to Novak Djokovic. Going Slam-less for the first time since 2002 and dropping to No. 4 in the world, Federer has avoided the media's attention even with his recent Davis Cup exploits.
However, with the top guys out of the field for the remainder of the tour, it looks like Roger Federer might pull a "Roger Federer" and win it all during the final stages of the year. Consecutive titles might be in store for Federer, with Djokovic out of Basel and Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from the Paris Masters.
In his return to the tour after a six week hiatus, Federer has cruised through the draw considerably well, dropping only one set to Jarkko Nieminen. Odds are heavily on his side in the matchup against Kei Nishikori. A straight sets win and a fifth Basel title seems firmly in hand.
Being Mr. Consistent during his reign as No. 1 in the world, Federer is shaping up to be the favourite in the World Tour Finals, as he seems well-rested and in form. With Djokovic ailing with injuries, Andy Murray's questionable state of health and the fact that Nadal has never won against Federer on indoor courts, Federer has the prime opportunity to prove that the King of Slams still has a lot left in him.
Being a World No 1. isn't easy. Just reaching the spot is a monumental task in itself.
It isn't always about winning tournaments. It is how one carries oneself once reaching the pinnacle of success. Roger Federer was adept at it and so was Pete Sampras. In that regard, Novak Djokovic has certainly accomplished it.
Novak Djokovic has matured alongside his ranking. He is much more calm and composed, with great commitment towards the game. When he walks onto the court, his presence as the best tennis player in the world is definitely felt. No more childish antics, just sheer professionalism. He has gone from class clown to people's champion.
Not too long ago, when faced with pain and anguish, Novak Djokovic would falter and retire from the match in a heartbeat. Not today. He's no longer the sideshow or the beating boy, but he's the person who is idolized and becomes an example. Novak has reached that level of realization.
In the match against Kei Nishikori, Djokovic had the option of succumbing to the pain and forfeit, but he did not. He persevered and took his beatings like a man, solidifying his status as world No. 1.