Leading 40-0 in the penultimate game of his Miami Open triumph, Novak Djokovic looked up into the sky and pointed to a flock of pelicans who had a bird’s-eye view of the match on Stadium Court.
It was one of those Miami moments that affirmed all that is wonderful about the tournament and why it should remain at its home-sweet-island home.
It was a momentary distraction for the man who is dominating his sport.
The most devilish conundrum in tennis is how to beat Djokovic. He’s both brain teaser and muscle squeezer.
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In a one-sided final, Kei Nishikori became the latest opponent to be stumped by Djokovic, who has been ranked No. 1 every week since July 7, 2014.
Like so many others, Nishikori thought he had an answer Sunday but Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-3 rebuttal was delivered in less than 90 minutes.
While top seeds Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Serena Williams either withdrew, retired or lost, Djokovic avoided the upset virus that swept through the tournament to win his third in a row and sixth Miami title, tying Andre Agassi’s men’s record.
Djokovic lauded the Miami Open as the springboard for his career and gave an affectionate endorsement to the event that “opened a lot of doors for me and gave me a lot of self-belief” when he first won it at age 19 in 2007. But the future of the tournament is in doubt. Plans to upgrade and enlarge the facility were defeated in court by parkland preservationist Bruce Matheson, who feels a deep responsibility to protect his family’s legacy.
“From some reliable sources I know the tournament will stay here for many years to come,” Djokovic said. “People enjoy being in Key Biscayne. It’s an island, wonderful weather — a little bit windy for tennis, but we still do our best. I’ve heard there were talks about moving to other cities in Florida, somewhere around the United States, but it’s still going to stay here.”
Orlando has been a site of speculation. The USTA is building a major facility there. But the players don’t want to go to Disney World. They want to eat at Miami’s restaurants and see Miami’s vistas. They are an international crowd and they like Miami’s worldly ambiance. The Latin American players appreciate Miami’s proximity and demonstrative, bilingual fans.
Tournament director Adam Barrett fears the Miami Open will be gone within seven years if he cannot invest in improvements that would make it more competitive with other elite events such as the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, where owner Larry Ellison has spent millions to plush-up the place.
It’s not like players are whining about the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, although they wouldn’t mind more practice courts, a permanent grandstand court and spiffier locker rooms. The point that Djokovic and Williams made, convincingly, is that they want to stay in Miami.
We haven’t heard the end of the 32-year-old Miami Open, nor of the 54-year-old golf tournament at Doral, which is also in danger of departing now that its sponsorship deal has ended. More negotiations to come. Losing these tournaments would be a huge blow to South Florida, a capital of tennis and golf.
Djokovic showed his love in his victory celebration by leaping onto the purple court he has come to own and punching the air with an uppercut. Then he kissed his fingertips and bent over to administer caresses.
Nishikori became his 28th victim of 2016. In the only match Djokovic lost, he retired in the Dubai quarterfinals. He also continued the Big Four’s control of men’s tennis: In 50 of the past 54 ATP Masters 1000 events since 2010, Djokovic has won 23 titles, Nadal 12, Federer eight and Murray seven.
But as Federer ages, Nadal deals with injuries and Murray struggles to get over the hump, Djokovic has emerged as the Big One. He is dominating the way Federer did a decade ago. He played in his 19th final in his past 21 tournaments and became the only player to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back four times — a grueling hard-court double in draining conditions.
On an overcast, somewhat cooler afternoon, Djokovic played without his customary cap as fans chanted his nickname, “Nole! Nole! Nole!”
The Serb’s game is a combination of sizzle and smooth. After Nishikori broke his serve in the first game, he broke right back. He gained pace and depth on his shots, forced Nishikori to chase balls to the lines and pounced on Nishikori’s inconsistent serve. At 4-3 in the second set, Nishikori took a medical timeout to have a trainer work on the left knee he had been favoring. Djokovic broke Nishikori on the third match point when Nishikori’s mishit forehand flew long.
“The best two matches I played in Indian Wells and Miami were in the finals,” he said. “I’m very pleased with that.”
The sinewy Djokovic seems to gain energy while his opponents consume energy searching and poking and prodding — then scratching and at last shaking their heads.
“It’s tough to find his weakness,” said Nishikori, who added that he made too many errors on his forehand and serve. “He plays great defense. It’s difficult to open up the space. I had a couple strategies. I don’t think I did them well.”
Djokovic, 28, has got the Australian Open in the bag and now prepares for the clay-court season and his greatest challenge: the French Open. He has won 11 Grand Slams but never at Roland Garros. He passed Federer’s career prize money record of $97,855,881 by earning a $1,028,300 check Sunday. He’ll need a few more amazing years to pass Federer’s record of 17 Grand Slams.
“Of course it is in the back of my mind somewhere, but I don’t have that as a main motivation,” Djokovic said. “Maybe that can present some kind of distraction that I don’t need.”
In his current state, records — and pelicans — are more of a distraction for Djokovic than his opponents.