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Djokovic’s finest performance in Miami comes when it matters most

MIAMI — Moments after top-seeded Novak Djokovic demolished Kei Nishikori6-3, 6-3 in the final of the Miami Open on Sunday, the new record-holder for Masters Series 1000 titles (28) trotted back out onto the court. He genuflected and gently patted the purple asphalt surface, the way you might pat the head of a cute puppy.

Presumably, he’d decided that actually kissing that court again, the way he had after his semifinal win over David Goffin, would have seemed too rehearsed. Or maybe he felt that the ease with which he picked apart No. 6 Nishikori ruled out an overly dramatic gesture.

Djokovic feels genuine affection for that court, and no wonder. It was on that court, still surrounded by palm trees, strafed by pelicans, perpetually buffeted by swirling, hot breezes, that he won his first Masters tournament way back in 2007.

“I was 19 years old in 2007, just making my way to the top,” Djokovic said in an on-court interview. “I’m still very proud of what I achieved that day.”

Djokovic has never been famous for having a sentimental streak at other events, so his gesture as well has his comments about the Miami court are striking.

“Every year that I come back I go through these memories,” Djokovic continued. “That [first] win opened a lot of doors for me, and it gave me self-belief. This is a particular place for me to come back to, now winning it six times. [Today] was my best performance of the tournament at the best time against a quality player.”

Nishikori rambled into the final off a very impressive performance against rising star Nick Kyrgios. But everything he did so well against Kyrgios he did poorly against Djokovic. Not all the credit for that goes to Djokovic’s superior game.

Nishikori committed 29 unforced errors in the final, which lasted just an hour, 26 minutes. He hit only 10 winners — four fewer than Djokovic. Nishikori put in only 52 percent of his first serves and won just 45 percent of his second-serve points (compared to Djokovic’s 60 percent).

Djokovic pointed out that Nishikori likes to “protect” the baseline and dictate. Djokovic put the kibosh on that strategy, helped by the fact that Nishikori played one of his poorest matches of the tournament in the final, while Djokovic stepped up his game.

“The best matches I played at Miami and at Indian Wells were the finals at both events,” Djokovic said.

That’s Novak Djokovic — and the difference between him and almost everyone else most days.

On a day of personal milestones, Djokovic also surpassed absentee coach Boris Becker — who called the Serb immediately afterward — with his 714th match-win.

With the victory, Djokovic has now raked in $98,199,548, surpassing Roger Federer in the race to become tennis’ first $100 million man.

This is the third consecutive year that Djokovic has won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back, and he’s reached the final in his past 11 ATP Masters events, a streak that goes back to the fall of 2014. His record over that period is 55-2. He’s been remarkably prolific — and perhaps getting even better.

“This year, the start of the season has been probably even better than 2015 in terms of results, and in terms of how I feel,” Djokovic said.

All this means that Djokovic is building a great case as a potential challenger to Federer as the all-time Grand Slam champion. With 17 majors, the 34-year-old Federer remains six up on Djokovic, who won’t turn 29 until mid-May.

The only other player with more than two major titles to his credit is Rafael Nadal (14), who’s been mired in a deep, multi-year slump. Djokovic’s path is clear, his health has been outstanding and his confidence is soaring.

“As I go along, and as I have achieved so much success in the last two years, I give myself more opportunities to make records,” Djokovic said. “So [the singles title record] is in the back of my mind somewhere. But I don’t give myself that as main motivation. Because then things can go a little out of control. It can create a distraction that I don’t need.”

That would be a greater distraction than the formation of pelicans that flew low over the Crandon Park stadium on Sunday, when Djokovic on the cusp of victory, was serving at 4-3, 40-love.

Djokovic, as surprised as anyone, threw his arms out and looked up to watch them pass. Someone counted 28 of them, which made it a unique flyover, commemorating a big day for a player who’s consistently best when it matters most.

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