Djokovic Denied Nadal in the World Tour Finals

Rafael Nadal may well have performed a minor miracle to come back from a career-threatening injury and reclaim the world No1 ranking from Novak Djokovic this year but it was the Serb who put the full point on the closing sentence of 2013 with a decisive if less than full-throttle victory on Monday night in the 39th match between the pair.

No two players in the modern era have met more often on a tennis court and, with Andy Murray recuperating from injury and Roger Federer closer to the slopes than the summit of his distinguished reign, this rivalry is the one that matters most for now and the immediate future.

Djokovic took an hour and 36 minutes of edgy tennis that hit few peaks to win 6-3, 6-4 in front of the 16th consecutive full house of the week at the Greenwich venue. Nadal’s earlier call for the ATP World Tour Finals, the game’s championship of the champions, to be moved to his favoured clay when the London contract expires at the end of 2015 after five successful years will find no favour with either the patrons or the sponsors – and the whisper is it will stay on the banks of the Thames for a little while yet.

As long as it does Nadal will struggle to win it. His only trophy on hard court indoors was in Madrid eight years ago and he is visibly frustrated when unable to take longer building a point, as he does so impressively on the red dirt of Europe. But he got to the London final for the second time – his 14th of the year and fifth on this surface – so he was not exactly a sitting duck.

Djokovic had extra incentive, though. He was riled when Nadal broke his 101-week streak at No1 a month ago in China and, although the 1,500 ranking points he earned here were not enough to dethrone the Spaniard, the $1.9m (£1.19m) he earned for a solid week’s work surely eased the pain.

The loser put it simply and well: “He served well, I didn’t. On this kind of court, the first shot is very important and he did that much better than me. For the rest of the match I was not far off his level.”

Djokovic was similarly gracious. “We push each other to the limit. We make each other better players.” And, as if they had not seen enough of each other, as soon as Djokovic finishes in Serbia’s Davis Cup final against the Czech Republic this week, he will team up on an exhibition tour with Nadal in Chile and Argentina. “I see more of him than my mum,” he said.

While Djokovic has played better than this and lost in 2013, it was his 22nd win on the spin – a little more than half of his 43-match streak in 2011 but still some feat. He is also the first player to win the semi-final and final here in straight sets since Roger Federer in 2007, so he has timed his run in a debilitating schedule pretty well.

Arsenal’s Mathieu Flamini, Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, watching from the front row, will have appreciated his relief at scrambling a victory that owed as much to graft as art.

He was relaxed and sharp from the start, holding with his 28th ace of the week and immediately breaking his plainly nervous opponent with a mix of flat power, killing angles and deft touch. Within 12 minutes he was 3-0 up and pulling away. It looked as if the Spaniard was going to capitulate spectacularly when he double-faulted twice to hand Djokovic the chance of a second break but the Serb let him off with three sloppy ground strokes.

As the rallies lengthened, they settled into the attritional rhythm familiar to them over the years. Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines played each other 172 times in two summers in the Thirties but that was at the start of the professional era when the mood and the method were more relaxed; this rivalry is altogether more intense – although, it has to be said, this final would not make any highlights reel.

Djokovic, a year younger and trailing his illustrious opponent by six titles to 10 this season, kept his discipline to take the first set, grateful perhaps that the questions being asked were more GCSE than A-Level. He had command of the baseline and was quicker and more purposeful at the net. He knew too that he had only to hold his nerve and he would be holding on to the title he won last year against Federer.

On Djokovic’s third championship point in the second set Nadal helped him over the line with a forehand that inched wide. With that the house drained quickly as fans raced for the train and the boat, happy but probably not ecstatic with the evening’s entertainment.

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