Novak Djokovic’s love affair with the purple center court at the Crandon Park Tennis Center began on April Fool’s Day 2007, when he won his first major title there as a 19-year-old bursting with promise and personality.
On Friday afternoon, exactly nine years later after beating Belgian David Goffin 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 in the Miami Open semifinals, Djokovic, now a 28-year-old husband and father, crouched down, kissed his fingertips and brushed them on the court.
“I just wanted to make sure that the court feels my love,” the top-ranked Djokovic explained, smiling. “A little kiss for goodbye, and see you in two days.
“I love that court because I have had so many wonderful memories in the past. I won this tournament many, many times. It’s one of my favorite courts. I think sometimes we take it for granted. It’s nice to give a little kiss to the court.”
When Djokovic steps on that court Sunday for the final against Kei Nishikori, he will be vying for his fifth title in six years and sixth Key Biscayne title overall, which would tie Andre Agassi’s all-time record. He has won 15 matches in a row here and is 27-1 this season.
Common sense says the top-ranked Serb won’t be able to match his remarkable 2015 season, during which he won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments (the French Open eluded him), racked up an 82-6 record and made the final of 15 of the 16 tournaments he entered.
But so far, 2016 is looking a lot like last year. He has won titles in three of the four events he played — Australian Open, Doha and Indian Wells. And he has not dropped a set here.
Fifteenth-ranked Goffin was ripe to make Friday difficult for Djokovic. The first Belgian man to reach the semifinals in this tournament’s 32-year history, Goffin was coming off a semifinal run at Indian Wells. He held serve in 37 of 39 games in this Miami Open entering Friday’s match. And he had wins this season over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka.
But Raonic and Wawrinka are not Djokovic. And nobody plays better in Key Biscayne in recent years than Djokovic.
Everything Goffin did, Djokovic did just a little better. At 4-all in the first-set tiebreaker, Goffin ran up and smashed what should have been a winning overhead shot. Djokovic was waiting in the perfect spot, as if he had telepathy, and he sent a deep lob over Goffin’s head. Goffin chased it back, was able to get it across the net, and Djokovic answered with a textbook drop volley winner.
“Against Djokovic, he doesn’t give you anything, so you have to win every point,” Goffin said. “If you’re not there for a few seconds, you lose the game.”
Djokovic followed up his performance on the court with an equally impressive job in the interview room. He handled every topic as deftly as he did Goffin’s crafty shots.
On Goffin’s style of play, Djokovic replied: “He plays very clean, a tennis that is beautiful for the eye to watch, the way he moves. His first serve, I had difficulty reading it. It’s not as powerful and strong as some other guys’, but it’s very precise and efficient.”
On how he learned to master angles: “My first coach, Jelena Gencic, insisted I work on angles a lot, especially forehand, backhand short cross. She worked with Monica Seles, and I remember she was always in my ear, saying Monica did this, she went to sleep at that time, she played this shot. So, Monica was definitely one of my idols growing up because I had the privilege to work with a coach who had worked with her.”
And on first-time Miami Open finalist Nishikori, who beat Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios 6-3, 7-5 in Friday’s evening semifinal: “He looks very mature on the court, very experienced. He’s been around and played so many matches on the big stage. I don’t see him being too overwhelmed or nervous about the occasion.”
Nishikori, 26, used his clinical style to neutralize Kyrgios’ big serve and entertaining, high-risk shots. He had only eight errors, and Kyrgios had 31.
“It’s going to be tough for sure,” Nishikori said of playing Djokovic. “He’s playing well this year, and I hope I can have another good match.”