The score, however, was much closer than expected, considering the world No. 1 player was taking on No. 11. But Almagro won the first set in a tiebreaker and seemed like a candidate to force the final set to a tiebreak, too, before Djokovic recovered to win 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.
The two of them seemed to have quite a bit of fun during the match, which is allowed, I suppose, because the tournament is not part of the ATP Tour. It is an exhibition, even if it has gained a reputation for being the unofficial start of the new season. No rankings points given.
As the players, and especially Djokovic, played to the crowd, one thought kept going through my head:
What about the $250,000?
That is the amount of money the tournament pays to the winner of the elite, six-player field. The winner gets $250,000. The other five guys (this year, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Janko Tipsarevic, Almagro) have to live on whatever their generous appearance fee was. Nothing extra for finishing second or third.
Perhaps Djokovic has reached a point where another $250,000 is not something he really needs. Actually, I imagine he has reached that point — his career earnings playing tennis have crossed $45 million, and he must make a quite a bit more in commercial endorsements. Another $250,000? He probably has that much rattling around in his gym bag.
For Almagro, however, $250,000 is real money. His career earnings are just over $6 million. That should keep him in the highest tax bracket back in Spain, but he probably could think of something specific he would do had he won that $250,000.
It wasn’t like the two of them were hitting trick shots. But there was a bit of mugging, and the moment when Djokovic got on the ground to stare at the line while waiting a ruling on a challenged “out” call, and when he held his racket like a guitar he pretended to play.
I wondered what was going through Almagro’s mind, at the time. Didn’t it have to be something like: “Hey, if you don’t mind, Novak, I’m going to play as hard as I can because $250,000 means something to me.”
And he did. He one or two times made faces that the crowd could have construed as “having fun” but he also went off on the referee more than once, with the biggest complaint leading to him chucking his racket — just short of the “racket abuse” level, I would think.
Djokovic is at a different place in his career. He apparently feels as if “exhibition” means he has to look like he is having fun. Having banked $45 million might well make him feel as if he has to put on a show.
Almagro, though … I have to think it went through his mind, after he won the first set, what he might do with this $250,000 that suddenly appeared in his pocket.
I suppose we all live out situations like this. We spend money on pet food or a bad restaurant or another pair of shoes that people elsewhere in the world would use to survive another day.
Nicolas Almagro didn’t go hungry this weekend, but his economic model certainly is not the same as Novak Djokovic’s, and the way they approached the final seemed to reflect it.
And this: Even when screwing around, Djokovic is good enough to beat just about anyone in the world.