The tacky-looking flower pot from your grandmother’s Cincy parlor, known officially as the Rookwood Cup, features tennis balls nested in acanthus leaves.
It is arguably one of the least attractive trophies in tennis.
And yet, for Novak Djokovic on Sunday afternoon in Cincy, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Finally, in his sixth attempt in the final, the 31-year-old Serb won the Western & Southern Open.
It had long been the only one of the nine Masters 1000 titles to elude him, making his Hall-of-Fame set of hardware short that final piece.
But after a 6-4, 6-4 win over seven-time champion Roger Federer, it was his.
Djokovic’s 31st overall Masters 1000 series title means that he is the only player to own all nine of the current Masters 1000 titles.
(Federer is short Monte Carlo and Rome. And since he has now habitually skipped the clay-court season, it likely will be ever thus. Rafael Nadal has yet to win Miami and the Paris Indoor (as well as Shanghai; but he won the fall indoor event in Madrid that preceded Shanghai in that Masters 1000 slot).
The Serb had waited five long years, since he won the Monte Carlo Masters for the first time in 2013, to take No. 9.
Even through the most dominant stretch tennis the game has ever seen, when Djokovic won just about everything there was to win and was, at one time, the holder of all four Grand Slam titles concurrently, that flower pot had cruelly eluded him.
Nine is nice
If you’ve been watching Djokovic play through the last couple of months, the increasing levels of his form, fire and confidence have been evident from week to week.
That he won Wimbledon wasn’t just up to him, of course. But the way he won it was very much up to him, as close to vintage Djokovic as he has been in a couple of years.
And perhaps that big, unexpected title allowed him to fly.
He’s had his tetchy moments. And while he probably shouldn’t be crushing his trusty rackets with impressionable young children watching from just a few feet away, that tetchiness comes with the complete top-shelf Djokovic package.
And this week, he seemed on a mission as he returned to Cincinnati for the first time since 2015.
He knows, from his experiences the last two years, that you can never assume you’ll have four or five more kicks at the can. His goal was clear.
“I was saying previously that during this week this trophy has been … a big motivation for me. But at the same time I tried not to think about the pressure of really making history too much, because I have had already some failed attempts,” Djokovic said during his press conference.
“Coming into today’s match, it wasn’t easy psychologically because I knew I lost to him every time I played him on this court. But at the same time, I liked my chances because I felt better and better as the tournament was progressing. It was by far the best performance of the week.”
Tough draw – and an extra match
Djokovic caught a break as he was in the same half as No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal. But Nadal pulled out of the tournament after winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
And it was the first time since 2006 that he didn’t benefit from a first-round bye in the 64-player draw because of his ranking. So if it was going to win it, he was going to have to win six matches.
Djokovic had his ups and downs through victories over Steve Johnson, Adrian Mannarino (coming back after losing the first set), No. 5 seed Grigor Dimitrov (rain-delayed overnight), Milos Raonic (another comeback three-setter) and No. 7 Marin Cilic (another three-setter) before he even got to Federer.
Federer had beaten Djokovic in three of those five previous Cincy finals, all in straight sets.
(Andy Murray beat Djokovic in the other two, one on an injury retirement. In five finals, Djokovic had lost 10 sets and won none).
Very good Djokovic, sub-par Federer
It was the 46th meeting of their careers, but the first between Djokovic and Federer since the 2016 Australian Open.
They had been like two superstar ships passing in the night.
As Federer returned from a knee issue and started piling up more history, Djokovic was dealing with his elbow injury and, perhaps, a little bit of lassitude after that ridiculous stretch of brilliance between 2014 and 2016.
Right now, it is Djokovic who is rounding into form beautifully for the US Open. Federer, who skipped the clay-court season and had a good – not great – grass-court season before skipping Toronto last week, doesn’t appear to be in particularly good nick. It was still good enough to make the final. But the US Open is another level.
And the Swiss star definitely won the cranky contest on court Sunday.
Federer even received a code violation for an audible obscenity after a double fault and a forehand shank led to Djokovic breaking him, in the seventh game of the first set.
The break came after Federer had held serve precisely 100 consecutive times in Cincinnati, where the stadium court he is always scheduled on plays much quicker than the other courts, and where the conditions are optimal for him to hold serve.
Federer looked slow to get to some balls. He didn’t seem to react to some as quickly as you would expect. He missed too many returns.
And it was clear that he hadn’t found confidence in a forehand that had been erratic much of the week. In the end, he posted 39 unforced errors.
Late in the second set, with an open court in which to hit a winning forehand, Federer tried a crosscourt forehand drop shot. It was a shot he hit precisely because he didn’t have enough trust in his forehand at that moment. And he missed it wide. A game Federer had led 40-love ended up as the deciding break.
He was pretty mad at himself a lot of the time, as well as at some of the Djokovic fans sitting up in the bleachers who were, well, enthusiastically supporting their man.
(Fair’s fair. Usually Federer’s fans are the ones dispensing that treatment to his opponents nearly everywhere he goes. But even if the Federer fans far outnumbered the Djokovic supporters on this day, it was at least a fair fight).
For his part, Djokovic played solidly. It was enough. He didn’t play his best tennis all week either, but he fought at an all-star level.
When the two arrived at the net, Federer was gracious, as he was during his runner-up speech and in press later.
Making history in Cincy
“Congratulations, Novak, on writing history today. Amazing effort, not just this week, not just today, but your whole career to get to this point. It’s an amazing achievement,” he said.
“All these records that a player creates, at the end you’re going to all judge it all together, bundle it up and say, ‘Okay, what was the coolest thing you ever did?’ “This might be it for Novak besides winning all the Slams and all the other things he’s done already,” Federer said during his press conference.
“I think it’s extremely difficult to win a Masters 1000. These tournaments don’t come easy. You saw my performance today. It’s just a long week. It’s tough, gruelling. The best players are playing. You play against tough guys early on in the draw, so you don’t have much time to find your rhythm and actually almost work on your game throughout the week,” he added. “He’s done that maybe better than anybody. So it’s a great credit to him. I think it’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Djokovic acknowledged that Federer “probably didn’t feel his best.” But after losing to him three times on that very court, he was happy to take it.
“It’s obviously a very special moment, it’s the first time that I get to stand here wth the winning trophy in Cincinnati. I played five finals before, and most of those finals I lost to this great man,” he said. And then he joked. “Roger, thanks for your kind words, and thank you for letting me win once here in Cincinnati.”
Djokovic’s ranking stood at No. 22 at the French Open, just a little over two months ago. He was No. 25 in the race to the year-end finals in London.
On Monday, he’ll be No. 6 in the regular rankings and No. 3 in the race.