ATP Finals: How Novak Djokovic kept young challengers at bay

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It was a case of another day, another record for World No. 1 Novak Djokovic as he triumphed at the ATP World Tour Finals in Italy



During the 2022 Wimbledon quarterfinal, Novak Djokovic was two sets down against Jannik Sinner when he took into a bathroom break, gave himself “a little pep-talk in the mirror”, and returned to win three sets on the trot. On Tuesday, after losing 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2) to the same opponent in a three-hour thriller, in the group stage of the ATP World Tour Finals, Djokovic again took some time out to reflect.

“It’s not easy to deal with him when he’s losing the match,” coach Goran Ivanisevic said at the conclusion of the tournament on Sunday. “On Tuesday night, he finished late. On Wednesday we didn’t see him at all. Until Thursday we didn’t know what’s happening. We didn’t know if we are going home. We were sitting, sitting. We finally find out that he’s going to play.”

Unlike the Tour and Grand Slam events, the Tour Finals, which pits the eight best players of the year against each other, isn’t played in the knockout format. Players are allowed a stumble. When he did play again, Djokovic still needed the full three sets to beat Hubert Hurkacz, who had stepped in as a replacement for an injured Stefanos Tsitsipas. The World No. 1 even required a little help from Sinner to finish second in their group, and secure a place in the semi-final.

Once there, Djokovic was back in beast mode. The tournament that had begun scratchily for him, ended with the Serb disposing of two of the best players in the world—World No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz and World No. 4 Sinner—with ridiculous ease. With his audacious range of shots, Alcaraz has been a constant thorn in Djokovic’s side this year. But on an indoor hard-court that accentuated Djokovic’s clinical play, he downed the Spaniard 6-3, 6-2 in the semi-final. 

In the final, with Sinner attempting to become the first Italian player to win the prestigious event in front of his home crowd in Turin, Djokovic emerged a 6-3, 6-3 winner. The World No. 1 did not drop his serve even once in the final two matches, and lost only two points in his first seven service games against Sinner in the final.

A record seventh Tour Final crown was a fitting end to a year where Djokovic won three Grand Slam titles—Australian Open, French Open and US Open—and extended his tally of majors to a new Open Era mark of 24. He is 36 years old, and ended the year at No. 1, with a win-loss record of 55-6. 

“It’s one of the best seasons I’ve had in my life, no doubt,” he said. “I’m very proud of the performances these past two days against Alcaraz and Sinner, probably the best two players in the world next to me and Medvedev at the moment—and the way they have been playing, I had to step it up. I had to win the matches and not wait for them to hand me the victory.”

With Roger Federer retired and Rafael Nadal on the verge, the dynamics of men’s tennis have shifted. It is Djokovic versus the rest of the field. And though the Serb is operating at a much higher level, the future brigade has struck some vital blows—Sinner in Turin, Holger Rune in Rome and Lorenzo Musetti in Monte Carlos.

None more so than Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final. Djokovic’s tactics and experience on the tricky surface could not overshadow the abandon with which Alcaraz played that July evening. The smiling Spaniard unpacked an impressive array of shots, including his signature drop shots and thundering forehands, to take the challenge to the seven-time Wimbledon champ. In a match where he combined Federer’s joyous play and Nadal’s grit, ‘Carlitos’ won 1-6, 7-6 (6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4.

Another memorable showdown ensued, when the two met a month later at the Cincinnati Masters. Djokovic rallied from a set and match point down, to win 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4). At three hours and 49 minutes, it was the longest best-of-three sets ATP Final.

But when the season wound down in Turin, Djokovic, rather than the 20-year-old Alcaraz, went into their clash hungrier and more alert. Once he had overcome the opening game jitters, and saved two break points, Djokovic took charge. The Serb struck deep and struck hard, to stay one step ahead of his opponent. In a masterclass of returning, Djokovic won 38 per cent of the points on Alcaraz’s first serve, and six out of nine on the Spaniard’s second.

“I will forget all the matches that I played against him, the Wimbledon final, the Cincinnati, Roland Garros,” Alcaraz said after the loss. “I’m going to focus on this match because I felt like I have to improve a lot of things if I want to stay at his level.”

Sinner, 22, was the man to beat last week in Turin. Armed with a more potent serve that is built on a smoother service action, the Italian seemed to have stepped up a level. Not enough to disturb a dialled in Djokovic though. Even as Sinner surged and ebbed through the match, Djokovic played with the same relentless precision to canter to victory. Like Casper Ruud said after losing to the Serb in the French Open finals, it was “another day, another record” for the Serb. He went past Federer’s six ATP Finals titles to etch his name in history.

When asked about how he could improve on 2023, Djokovic replied, “Well, you can win four Slams and Olympic gold.” The World No. 1 has thrown down the gauntlet. Will the competition rise to the challenge?

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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