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Monday, November 17, 2008
Djokovic re-establishes himself as a force

Satisfying endings, like beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder, even though tennis produces them on a week-to-week basis rather than a season-to-season one. Ours is the convenience store of sports; it's open all the time, even though the ATP and WTA championships are notional year-end playoffs.

While the Tennis Masters Cup bubbled with subplots and surprises that threatened to make a mockery of its aim -- to crown a worthy year-end champ -- it ended with a semblance of order restored and produced an appropriate winner. Novak Djokovic, a Grand Slam title winner this year as well as the top contender who most needed the win, got it. And Nikolay Davydenko, who appeared to go into a witness protection program shortly after he won the Miami Masters this past April, re-emerged to make the case that he's still a factor, near, if not exactly, at the top of the game.

I think it's safe to say we'd be thinking differently, and even more critically, about TMC if, say, Gilles Simon had won it with a run reminiscent of David Nalbandian a few years back, or if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- perhaps the freshest player in the field, owing to all the time he missed this year with injury -- had run the table.

Heading into the last official event of the year, Djokovic was the closest thing tennis had to a forgotten man. He said as much in his post-championship presser, admitting: "It was special because I've played in the second part of the season in a couple of finals, and I didn't manage to win the title for a long time, since Rome. That's probably the reason why I couldn't close it out at 5-4. I was a bit nervous. It's not easy, you know. There is a lot of pressure involved. I'm happy that I managed to hold my nerves in the end."

Winning, as we know, is an acquired habit, and the bottom line is that at the start of Shanghai, both of these men appeared to have lost the knack for it. In Miami, Davydenko did exactly what most astute critics suspected he'd never do -- he strung together back-to-back wins over top players (Andy Roddick, who was playing as well as anyone in the world at the time, and Rafael Nadal, the clear-cut world No. 2) to take a premium title.

Unfortunately, Davydenko then faltered in the third round at Roland Garros, the first round at Wimbledon and the fourth round at the U.S. Open. He won just one match at the Beijing Olympics, activating a Chinese proverb about being unable to stand prosperity. Now, with a late-game Hail Mary, he's back in the mix.

Djokovic's situation wasn't quite as desperate, but because he's a more formidable player and potential force, his triumph in Shanghai was more resonant. At times this fall, it seemed Djokovic was becoming a speck in the rearview mirror of Nadal and that, coming out of the final turn of the season, Murray was hitting the gas and also pulling away.

But Djokovic caught up at the finish line and kept his position as a clear-cut No. 3 -- for 2008. He closed the season just like he opened it, with a big statement. And for a player of his caliber, that's the only satisfying kind.