LONDON • Novak Djokovic, for most of his career, has found a way to win. On Tuesday night he did it again, with tennis which he admitted was short of his best but palpably too good for the eighth time in a row against Milos Raonic.
On day three of the ATP World Tour Finals, the Serb served two timely aces - one to save a break point in the first set, another to grab match point in a tie-break for the second - and soaked up 14, proving too strong in the moments that mattered to defeat the Canadian 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5).
The victory put Djokovic straight into the weekend semi-finals of a tournament he has won four times in a row - and he may well make mincemeat of the out-of-sorts and injured Gael Monfils in his last round-robin match today.
Raonic goes into an uncomplicated shoot-out with Dominic Thiem for second place in the Ivan Lendl group.
"I should have done my job earlier, to be honest," Djokovic said, expressing frustration at dropping his serve twice in the second set.
"I managed to hang in there mentally and stay strong and believed that the opportunities would come and that I could take them.
"It could have gone either way this match. He's such a strong player and has got firepower.
"All in all, two tie-breaks against a big server is a great win and a great confidence boost."
It is odd to hear Djokovic, the world No. 1 since mid-2014 until unseated by Andy Murray in Paris this month, talking about a need to create confidence but these are strange times for him.
He has objected vociferously to the suggestion since he arrived in London but he has not looked himself on the court or in fencing with the media. Until Tuesday night.
The scary certainty of his demeanour remains slightly mellowed, and the sharp eye did not seem so finely focused in some key moments... but he found a way against Raonic.
The Canadian, hitting harder and with unalloyed confidence, earned break points in the Serb's first two service games, but Djokovic wriggled out of trouble on both occasions and the set went to a tie-break.
Despite serving eight aces and hitting more than three times as many winners as Djokovic, Raonic just could not finish him off and an ill-timed double fault on set point handed the first set to the Serb.
It had taken Djokovic 64 minutes to move ahead and the 12-time Grand Slam champion broke in the first game of the second set and recovered from dropping serve three games later to hit back with another break for a 3-2 lead.
Djokovic was broken again in the eighth game and he had to save a set point at 5-6 to force another tie-break.
He was pushed hard by the big-serving Canadian, but he had the answer on every big point and eventually wrapped up a gutsy victory in 2hr 14min.
"I could have won it, I gave myself the chances," Raonic, who won 83 points to Djokovic's 85, said.
"I believe all the break points, except for maybe the set point at the end, he put in a first serve every single time. (But) I believe when he had his break points, I didn't put in one. I did a lot of good things. A lot of things to be proud of."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE