Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest tennis stars of the modern era, and the featured participant at the Tel Aviv Watergen Open men’s ATP tournament won the title on Sunday in front of a packed house of some 3,000 spectators.
In a high-quality encounter between the Serb, ranked seventh in the world, and his tall, powerful Croatian opponent Marin Cilic, ranked 16th, Djokovic kept control of proceedings to secure a 6-3, 6-4 victory in an hour and 34 minutes of play that had the crowd enthralled and gasping at the power and deft touches both players displayed.
Djokovic, 35, won the hearts of the crowd in the presentation when he opened his greeting – as he had in all his previous matches – with “Shalom, ma nishma.”
“Shalom, ma nishma.”Novak Djokovic
He has picked up a few words of Hebrew over the years after working behind the scenes with several Israelis.
Djokovic congratulated his opponent, who celebrated his 34th birthday at the tournament last week, for the great match and added: “I hope we will still be able to play against the [up-and-coming] players for a few more years.”
The customary thank-yous at the trophy presentation concluded with his appreciation of the enthusiastic crowd: “I would like to thank you guys for making this such a special week for me in a while, I felt so welcome, so much at home,” he said to wild applause.
“Israel has shown so much respect and passion for tennis, for our sport,” he added, and promised to return to the tournament next year.
The final battle between Serbia's Djokovic and Croatia's Cilic in Tel Aviv
The first set was a battle of nerves with both players trying to out-do each other from the base line with powerful ground strokes, but it was Djokovic’s greater consistency and fewer errors that saw him hold on to secure it quite comfortably.
Cilic did manage to settle his nerves a little better in the second set. At 1.98 meters tall, he used his height and long arms to pound the ball from height and off the court at his opponent. The tactic worked some of the time, but Djokovic was able to keep on top and was able to raise his game when it counted most and when he needed decisive points to see him edge into the lead.
Cilic was in need of a high success margin with his huge serve but it wasn’t consistent enough and Djokovic took the sting out of his opponent’s main weapon, managing to return almost 74 percent of them, compared to only 60 percent good returns for the Croatian.
The two players have met 21 times with Djokovic winning 19 times, 13 of which were straight-set victories.
The victory earned Djokovic $144,250 from the tournament prize pot of about $1.2 million and 250 ranking points, while Cilic earned half the money and half the points.
The win was the Serb’s 89th career title and his second of the year after the Wimbledon crown he won in July but this win will not see him advance above his current seventh place in the world rankings, although it does ease him closer to a career prize-money pot of some $160 million.
The doubles title was won by veteran duo Rohan Bopanna of India and Dutchman Matwe Middelkoop who thrilled the early-bird spectators taking their seats for the singles final. They beat third-seeded Santiago Gonzalez and of Mexico and Andres Molteni of Argentina 6-2, 6-4 in only an hour and 12 minutes in a match they dominated throughout in short points punctuated by decisive volleying and killer finishes.
The match was the easiest for the duo all week after they had needed a deciding match tie-break in each of their three victories on their way to the final.
“Sometimes those close matches are what build our confidence and they helped us play really well in the final,” Bopanna said.
The Indian veteran, aged 42 and ranked 22 in the world in doubles thanked his good friend and former rival Yoni Erlich, who announced his retirement at the tournament and with the win, declared that he had equaled Erlich’s title haul of 22 tournament wins and that he hoped to be able to break that mark before he himself hangs up his racket.
Middelkoop, at 39, another tour veteran and ranked 25 in doubles, recalled that Israel has been a happy hunting ground for him and that he won his very first ATP point in Ashkelon in 2002.
The duo has a full schedule lined up until the end of the season and fly from Tel Aviv, along with many other players, to their next tournament in Kazakhstan.