The game starts with the serve, literally, figuratively, and every which way. From the structure of the rallies to the confidence of the person hitting the serve, it all flows from there. "Flow," however, was not a word that used to come to mind when you thought of Novak Djokovic's serve; at this time last year he was, as many people have pointed out, hitting it overhand like a cricket bowler. You wouldn't know it today. Asked about his serving performance in the Dubai final on Saturday, Djokovic needed just two words to sum it up: "It's incredible." He kept talking about how hard he's been working on it, how much it has improved, how important it is, but he didn't really need to elaborate.
Djokovic missed just three first serves in the first set, and in the second he used it to get him out of jail a few times. More than the stats, though, what's incredible to me is how much better-smoother, with all parts finally integrated-his serve looks. Against Roger Federer, Djokovic's game really did flow from it. Serving or returning, he tilted the rallies the way he wanted them, toward Federer's backhand side. More important, every one of his shots had more pace and energy than it had just a day before. The night-time atmosphere, the opponent, the fact that it was a final all came together to produce a different Djokovic from the one we had seen in Dubai up until then. In Melbourne, Djokovic said that the glow of the Davis Cup hadn't worn off; in Dubai, it was the glow of his long-delayed return to the major-title winner's circle that hadn't worn off. Suddenly, he has that champion's aura, and champion's ability to rise to the occasion.
I thought I had seen the best of Djokovic in his last three matches at the Australian, but he was even better in the first set against Federer in Dubai. It began with his serve and return-he was reading Federer's deliveries exceptionally well. But his core confidence soon flooded every part of his game. He hit passing shots on the run and dictated with his inside-in forehand. At the height of his confidence, Djokovic pulled Federer out wide with a forehand, and on his next shot cut an even sharper forehand angle that Federer had no chance of tracking down. It was the kind of flashy, elegant, excessive shot that we associate with Federer at his best. There was something Federer-esque about the way Djokovic reached "full flight" once he had established a lead late in the first set.
What about Federer himself? I thought a backhand that he missed very early in the match was telling. He was down break point at 1-1, but had moved Djokovic off the ad court with his serve. Federer got a good look at a mid-court backhand, and the down the line was wide open. It appeared that he was going to go that way, but changed his mind to go back crosscourt. The result was a terrible shank, the first of many on the evening.
Credit that, again, to the New Djokovic. Slice, variety, patience: They aren't working against him these days. Nothing is. Everything about his game, from his serve to his mental approach, is in the ascent; he played this match as if he expected to win, which has often not been the case against Federer in the past. Now that he seems to have cleared away a few mental demons, we'll see how high Djokovic's version of "full flight" takes him. Whatever happens, it's great to see this most natural and mobile and athletic of players flowing around the court the way he should.
Many, including myself, have wondered whether Caroline Wozniacki is a real number one. Many, including myself, have wondered at the same time whether Vera Zvonareva is a real number two (or three, for that matter). However those questioned are ultimately answered, they put on a marquee-worthy show in the Doha final on Saturday. It was high-energy skirmish in which both players fought for every shot and scrap of territory without a choke or second thought between them.
It appears that Zvonareva has reached her level, and that her fate at this point in her career is simple. If she can outhit you, she'll probably beat you: if she can't, she won't. In the last three majors, she beat everyone except Serena and Clijsters, and when she played those two, the results were pretty much foregone conclusions. She wasn't in any of those matches.
It was a great two-week run for Wozniacki, but she had to come down to earth. She had won the week before with some of the best tennis of her career, and then gotten sick to start this tournament. It might have been a blessing in disguise: She kept the points short out of necessity. But from the start, this wasn't Wozniacki's day. She sent balls wide that she never misses, and when she did play well, her opponent had all the answers. Wozniacki slammed her racquet-impressively-to the court and showed more frustration than she had this year so far.
Was it a match that pointed out the limits of Wozniacki's game once again? That's possible; she's been more assertive, but she couldn't out-hit Zvonareva. Still, I thought her demeanor and her effort more than made up for that. Whatever happened, by the start of the next point, she was composed again. Like Zvonareva, Wozniacki expected to win, and even on a bad day she gave herself a chance to do it. That, as much as anything else, is what No. 1 players do.