Croatia’s Borna Coric, still just 21 even if it seems he’s been at this awhile, could look across the net Sunday in Shanghai and see the player he wants to be.
He will rarely have a better view of near-perfect execution, as Novak Djokovic defeated him 6-3, 6-4 to win his fourth Shanghai Masters title.
And Coric will rarely have the reality about how far he still must travel stand out in such sharp relief.
It was Djokovic’s first title in Shanghai since that 2015 season for the ages.
And on some levels, especially in terms of the evolution of his all-court game, you could posit he’s on his way to being even a better player than he was then.
The road runs through Djokovic
Djokovic’s dominance through the last two days, though Coric in the final and fellow 21-year-old Alexander Zverev in the semis, just underscores how far the future generation has to travel to get to the very top.
And with Rafael Nadal still on the shelf with a knee injury, and Roger Federer looking rather mortal again this week even if he did fight his way to the semifinals, the road looks to run through Djokovic for the foreseeable future.
How daunting a prospect that must seem.
“He was the much better player on the court. I was playing good, really. But I was really happy how I played. I couldn’t play much better today, to be honest. I could serve maybe a little bit better, but still, I felt even if I was serving little bit better, he’d still return my serves. So there is nothing I can do,” Coric told the media in Shanghai after the match.
“It was really tough, I need to say. I just didn’t know what to do exactly. He was the much better player on the court today. There is no doubt about that.”
First Masters 1000 final
After letting it fly during an aggressive victory over Federer Saturday, his second of the season against the Swiss, the challenge for Coric Sunday was a different one.
No longer could he play with “nothing to lose,” as he said after the Federer win. He was in his first career Masters 1000 final, against the player who has been his biggest stylistic role model.
If the heavy wrap on his right quad slowed Coric down a little, it didn’t show that much even if he had the wrapping cut off and replaced, and added to, during the match.
But if Coric wasn’t as aggressive as he was the previous day, Djokovic gave him no openings to even try. The relentless depth of the Serb’s groundstrokes, coupled with a scant few errors, kept the young Croat on the back foot and scrambling much of the time.
That’s the beauty of Djokovic’s game in full flight. Even from defensive positions, that depth is relentless when he’s playing his best. It’s just such a big task to get on top of him in a rally, it’s the opponent who ends up missing by going for too much – out of exhaustion, frustration or desperation.
Unforced errors actually forced
Most often than not with the young players, as was the case with Zverev in a one-hour shellacking the previous day (in Djokovic’s 1000th career match), they feel as though they made too many errors.
It takes the wisdom of experience, the ability to understand what’s going on both sides of the net, not just theirs, to see the truth.
Even if it’s the unforced error tally that mounts by default on the stats sheet, the majority of those errors are forced by the necessity to do more – in every point.
Coric seemed to realize this. And it’s that wisdom, that acceptance of the quality of the opposition, that has helped him jump from outside the top 50 – and a first-round loser to Henri Laaksonen in the first round of the Shanghai qualifying – a year ago to the final this year.
He’ll boast a new career high singles ranking of No. 13 on Monday.
Speedy court, effective serving
This was the fastest court the players, quite unanimously, said they have ever seen in Shanghai. And by opting not to play Beijing the week before, Djokovic was able to get there early, and have three or four days to practice and adjust.
That court speed put a premium on the importance of his own serve. And he responded.
In 47 service games, Djokovic faced just four break points, and saved them all. His success rate on first serve was 85 per cent overall through five matches. And he served 26 aces, with just four double faults.
“Serve was never my No. 1 weapon in the game – never as big as Zverev or Anderson or Isner or these guys. For me the serve was, so to say, a hidden weapon, the shot in the game that is important – the most important. But I always try to use it with accuracy and efficiency, rather than speed and power,” Djokovic told the media in Shanghai.
“I’ve never played on a faster court here in Shanghai. So this year more than ever I needed a lot of success with the first serve. High percentage of first serves in every match,” he added. “Obviously that brings me a lot of joy.”
No. 1 in plain sight
Djokovic didn’t play after Wimbledon a year ago, while Federer was the defending champion in Shanghai. The win means the Serb vaults over Federer into the No. 2 spot in the rankings, by over 1,000 points.
Nadal was defending a final in Shanghai, and he’s been out since the U.S. Open.
All of that leaves Djokovic just 215 points behind Nadal for the top spot, with every result he posts the rest of the season a net positive.
He hasn’t ruled out playing in a week, the week before the Paris Masters.
After, of course, a celebration of son Stefan’s fourth birthday next weekend that involves some dinosaurs.
Djokovic hasn’t played Basel since 2011. And he hasn’t played Vienna since he won it back in 2007. The Vienna tournament director has made no secret of his interest in wooing him to Austria.
“We are very close, I think it’s around 50 points difference (with Nadal). Obviously I don’t feel as much, I would say, pressure to play before Paris as much as I would if the situation were different, points-wise,” Djokovic said. “But I still will consider playing the week before Paris. I’ll decide with the team probably in a couple days.”
(All screenshots from TennisTV)