Collecting my thoughts after watching Novak Djokovic capture a 19th Grand Slam singles title and thus move up to only one title behind both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all time race for supremacy, my appreciation for this man and his multitude of achievements and attributes has reached a new level. Here he is, half way to a 2021 Grand Slam, poised to make even more history, zeroing in on the majors with all consuming intensity. It is hard to imagine that he won’t make a spirited bid to establish himself as the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep all four majors in a single season.
But let’s pause briefly to consider what he just accomplished at Roland Garros. By winning the French Open for the second time, he has established himself commendably as the first man since Laver to take all four majors at least twice in the course of a career. Some would call it a second career Grand Slam, but the bottom line is that Djokovic has realized a feat that neither Federer nor Nadal has managed. Federer will surely never win a second French Open, and Nadal has been agonizingly close to garnering a second title at the Australian Open, falling in the finals four times “Down Under” against Djokovic (2012 and 2019), Stan Wawrinka (2014), and Federer (2017). Against both Djokovic in the former and Federer in the latter, Nadal was up a break in the fifth set but his wishes went unrewarded. Will he win in Melbourne again? Probably not.
Laver, of course, captured his first Grand Slam in 1962 and his second seven years later. The latter was a singular feat and worthy of immense admiration. The only other male player to put his name on the trophy at least twice at all of the “Big Four” events was Roy Emerson in the sixties—all in amateur tennis. No one else but Djokovic has done it strictly in the Open Era. It is another major feather in his cap made all the more remarkable when one considers how the redoubtable Nadal has monopolized Roland Garros for a good long while. He had won all but three of the previous 16 French Open editions, and had lost only two matches on his cherished surface while retiring once in 2016 with a wrist injury.
Djokovic had claimed his first Roland Garros crown five years ago with a hard fought final round victory over Andy Murray. But the Serbian was stifled by Nadal three times in the finals, losing to the Spaniard in 2012, 2014, and 2020. In turn, Djokovic lost to a soaring Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 title round contest. And altogether against Nadal, he had lost seven of the eight times they had collided in Paris prior to this year.
And yet, he not only became the first player to upend Nadal twice on the Parisian clay, but he also established himself as the first ever to do it after losing the first set. The Djokovic-Nadal semifinal this past week was a beauty, filled with magnificently contested and imaginative rallies from beginning to end, enhanced by the competitive mettle displayed on both sides of the net.
I don’t agree with some of the authorities who are calling this classic encounter an epic. It was, to be sure, an evocative performance from Djokovic and one of the finest triumphs of his illustrious career. But looking at the contest and comparing it to other Djokovic-Nadal duels, it does not measure up in its entirety. Their 2012 Australian Open final round skirmish was unquestionably superior, going down to the wire before Djokovic prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 as the Serbian somehow survived after Nadal served with a 4-2, 30-15 lead in the fifth. The 2013 Roland Garros semifinal won by Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set was another gem that was superior to this one in 2021, and so was the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal with Djokovic overcoming his old rival 10-8 in the fifth set on the fabled Centre Court.
But Djokovic’s 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 triumph in their latest showdown was still a dandy. It falls short of an epic in my mind because the first set was played with too much apprehension from both players. Djokovic had two break points in the first game and a 40-15 lead in the second, but did not exploit those openings. Before he knew it, Nadal led 5-0. The spectacle seemed eerily similar to the 2020 final when Nadal obliterated Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
But, this time around in the penultimate round, things played out differently. Djokovic took three games in a row, saved six set points and gradually found his game in that crucial span. I believe in many ways that is where he won the match; both players moved into the second set knowing the climate had been altered and recognizing that the battle was fully on. Nadal realized he could have closed out the first set sooner. His failure to do so surely weighed heavily in his mind.
Djokovic had clearly found his range and Nadal’s insecurity started to surface as the conditions changed. The evening air was cooler, making it harder for Nadal to get the high bound he wanted on his topspin forehand. And the Serbian was raising the temperature of his game considerably. They exchanged service breaks early, but then Djokovic regained control as he peppered away with his crosscourt forehand angles to pull Nadal off the court time and again on the Spaniard’s backhand side. That pattern propelled Djokovic through that second set and into the third. Yet finishing off that second set was no facile feat for Djokovic. At 4-2 he erased three break points against him and he had to save two more when he served the set out at 5-3. It was hard work but Djokovic was back deservedly to one set all.
Make no mistake about it: the third set was colossal in terms of the outcome, and it was the single best set that Nadal and Djokovic have ever played against each other on any surface. It was immensely inspiring to watch.
The two titans pushed each other to the hilt in pursuit of a two sets to one lead, displaying a dazzling brand of shotmaking, imposing their wills, hoping they could move out in front and carry the momentum into the fourth set.
Nadal was frequently under extraordinary stress. Djokovic broke for a 3-2 lead but Nadal retaliated for 3-3 with one of his signature forehand down the line winners. Nevertheless, Djokovic took control again to reach 5-3, and then served for the set at 5-4. He went to 30-0 but missed an easy forehand down the line. Nadal made Djokovic pay a substantial price for that mistake, breaking back for 5-5 with a stream of winners including a backhand pass up the line and a forehand winner down the line.
The drama was not over. Twice in the eleventh game the Spaniard found himself break point down, but he saved one with a bounce smash winner and the other with a forehand down the line winner. After moving to 6-5 and heading for the changeover, Nadal wore the expression of a man convinced he was going to win this tennis match.
When Djokovic served at 5-6, the Serbian was down set point and missed his first delivery. But he responded to this propitious moment with typical fortitude. His backhand down the line drop shot was immaculately measured, and even a determined Nadal could not get it back into play. Djokovic held on for 6-6, and appropriately the set was settled in a tie-break.
Nadal opened with a double fault but soon the sequence was locked at 3-3. Djokovic connected with a scintillating forehand angled crosscourt winner. Then Nadal took the net away from Djokovic and had the court wide open for a forehand volley—only to punch it long.
The 13-time French Open victor produced an excellent forehand drop shot winner to narrow Djokovic’s tie-break lead to 5-4 but the top seed followed with a clutch ace down the T and a beautifully directed forehand down the line response to a Nadal drop shot that was unmanageable for the Spaniard. Djokovic had at last sealed this astonishing set 7-4 in the tie-break. He trailed 2-0 in the fourth set but then collected no fewer than six games in a row, taking 24 of the last 30 points in the process. Djokovic raised his career record against Nadal to 30-28 with his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win.
In the final, he took on Stefanos Tsitsipas for the eighth time in their careers. Djokovic had been victorious in five of their previous seven meetings, including a five set Roland Garros semifinal in 2020. No one knew—not even Djokovic himself—how well he would recover from his four hour and eleven minute extravaganza with Nadal, but Djokovic looked fresh enough early on. Had he exploited two break point opportunities in the opening game of the match, Djokovic might well have been off and running.
But Tsitsipas held on with three consecutive aces for 1-0. Djokovic was breezing along on his own serve until the tenth game, when he saved a set point by out-dueling Tsitsipas in a 25 stroke exchange. He held on for 5-5 and broke in the following game. Seemingly, the set was over.
But at the changeover, Djokovic appeared to lose his focus. The umpire had given Tsitsipas a time violation warning not long before and Djokovic made his case that the players should be given some latitude since they had to fetch their own towels. He proceeded to play a terrible game on his serve and Tsitsipas made it back to 6-6. In the ensuing tie-break, Djokovic trailed 0-4 and 2-5 but then took four points in a row and reached set point with Tsitsipas serving at 5-6. Djokovic’s return was well struck off the forehand but Tsitsipas flicked it back brilliantly down the line for a winner.
The Greek stylist took the set 8-6 in that tie-break and then took apart Djokovic 6-2 in the second. Tsitsipas was on the verge of an uplifting triumph in his first Grand Slam tournament final. But Djokovic was soon revitalized, turning the skirmish back in his own direction permanently when he broke in a marathon six deuce game for 3-1 in the third set with a bruising forehand inside in return that coaxed Tsitsipas into an error. He secured that break and, suddenly, it was a different kind of match altogether.
Djokovic had left the court for a locker room break after the second set and that had left him revitalized. He rolled through the rest of the third set and never looked back. Tsitsipas had no Plan B. Once Djokovic started hitting out more freely and serving with greater authority, Tsitsipas was dazed and dispirited. Djokovic broke the No. 5 seed twice on his way to a 3-0 fourth set lead with the persistency of his returns and better court coverage.
The primary problem for Tsitsipas was his inability to make any dent whatsoever in Djokovic’s service games. The world No. 1 dropped only three points in four service games across the entire fourth set. Nothing much changed in the fifth set as Djokovic moved inexorably toward victory.
On his way to serving for the match at 5-4 in that final set, Djokovic won 16 of 19 points in his four service games. Meanwhile, he was pressuring Tsitsipas constantly. He nearly broke in the opening game before doing so in the third. Coasting along on his own delivery, he destroyed Tsitsipas by going to the heavy kicker in the ad court as a first serve, setting up piercing forehands time and again. Tsitsipas never had an answer to that tactic.
At 2-4, Tsitsipas fell behind 15-40, but drew Djokovic in with a drop shot and won that point with a high volley into the open court. He held on there but Djokovic went to 5-3 with a love game. Serving for the match at 5-4, Djokovic was clearly tense but he remained disciplined, dynamic and unshakable. Despite one botched volley at 15-0 and an errant crosscourt backhand at 30-15, he moved to 40-30 before Tsitsipas struck a golden backhand down the line for a winner. Djokovic refused to be rattled, defending skillfully out of his forehand corner twice and then driving a forehand down the line for a clean winner. On his second match point, he moved foreword behind a forehand swing volley and then emphatically put away a high forehand volley crosscourt.
And so Djokovic succeeded 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in four hours and eleven minutes— precisely the same time it took him to oust Nadal. Over the last four rounds, Djokovic had done some very impressive work, rallying from two sets to love down to defeat Lorenzo Mussetti in five sets, stopping Matteo Berrettini in four sets, removing Nadal in the penultimate round and capping it all off by staging his spectacular comeback against Tsitsipas.
The last player to win a major and twice rally from two sets to love down during the tournament was the American Ted Schroeder at Wimbledon in 1949. Djokovic is the first fellow in the Open Era to realize that considerable feat. In addition, Djokovic raised his record in career five set matches to a remarkable 35-10, and lifted his winning record in Grand Slam finals to 19-10. Moreover, he joined an elite cast of competitors who have triumphed in major finals from two sets to love down. Bjorn Borg—who greeted Djokovic at the presentation ceremony at Roland Garros—did it in the 1974 Paris final against Manolo Orantes. Ivan Lendl overcame John McEnroe ten years later in the same fashion at Roland Garros. Andre Agassi completed his career sweep at the majors with a 1999 final round comeback against Andrei Medvedev after going down two sets. Gaston Gaudio upended Guillermo Coria from two sets behind in 2004. And then last year at the US Open, Dominic Thiem was trailing Alexander Zverev by two sets to love but he came back to win. Those kinds of title round comebacks are very rare indeed.
Now Djokovic has taken the first two majors of the year, fueling a lot of talk in the tennis community about a Grand Slam. He also won the Australian and French Opens back to back in 2016 but then fell in the third round of Wimbledon against Sam Querrey, which was a shocking loss. And yet, he had at that time won four majors in a row dating back to the middle of the previous season. No one in men’s tennis had swept four in a row since Laver won his Grand Slam in 1969. His range of ambitions was diminished at that point.
Circumstances are different now. Djokovic will be more sharply focussed on his goals after claiming major title No. 19. He won the last two Wimbledon singles titles in 2018 and 2019, so he will be awfully eager for a third title in a row. Over the years, he has grown increasingly comfortable on the grass, a surface which rewards his unique kind of agility, his court awareness and his capacity to keep his shots consistently low and deep.
Will he win the Grand Slam, or perhaps even a “Golden Slam” if he can manage to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games? I would not rule it out. He has made it abundantly clear that the majors now are more important to him than ever. They are his first and, in many ways, only priority.
His triumphs in Melbourne and Paris have given Djokovic the conviction he needs to wrap up this season in style. Winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open may be a tall order on top of what he has already done, but I believe he will be very self assured on the lawns this year. He will not yet be thinking about a Grand Slam when he is in Great Britain. Winning Wimbledon would put him on level ground at last alongside Nadal and Federer with 20 major titles and that alone will be foremost on his mind.
I make him the clear favorite and believe he will collect the most prestigious crown in tennis for the sixth time. If that happens, he would head to New York knowing full well that he has had very hard luck at the U.S. Open. He has been in eight finals on the hard courts he loves so much, but has claimed the title only three times. If Djokovic is victorious at Wimbledon, his desire to win the Open will be insatiable. And if someone has upset him in London, Djokovic will want to make amends and demonstrate his big match superiority once more at the Open; either way, he will be very difficult to beat at Flushing Meadows.
Djokovic was typically forthright when asked about his thoughts on the Grand Slam following his win over Tsitsipas in the French Open final. He said, “Everything is possible. I mean, definitely in my case I can say that what I’ve been through in my career, in my life, this journey has been terrific so far. I’ve achieved some things that a lot of people thought it would not be possible for me to achieve. I did put myself in a good position to go for the Grand Slam. But you know, I was in this position in 2016 as well. It ended up in a third round loss at Wimbledon. This year we have only two weeks between the first round of Wimbledon and the finals here, which is not ideal because you go from really two completely different surfaces, trying to make that transition as smooth as possible. Obviously I will enjoy this win and then think about Wimbledon in a few days time. I don’t have an issue to say that I am going for the title at Wimbledon. Of course I am. Hopefully I can use this confidence that I have right now and take it into Wimbledon. Then let’s take it from there.”
Djokovic’s entire purpose in his professional life is where he ends up in the hierarchy of history. He has spoken with complete candor and clarity about what he wants to achieve. He has already surpassed Federer for most weeks at No. 1 in the world and is at 325 and counting. He is now well on his way to breaking Pete Sampras’s record for most year-end finishes at No. 1, pushing hard to reside at the top for the seventh time when the curtain closes on 2021. He will almost certainly finish ahead of Federer and Nadal in his career head to head appointments with them. At the moment he is 30-28 with the Spaniard and 27-23 over Federer. He is the only player to win every Masters 1000 event at least once.
And so it is all about Grand Slam tournaments from here on in. The feeling grows that Novak Djokovic will not be looking back on his career in a decade or so with any reservations whatsoever.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
Conventional wisdom vs data: the seventh game and the importance of serving first
Is it true that whoever wins the seventh game at 3-3 ends up winning the set? And that he who will serve first in a decider has an edge? Let’s take a look at the last ten years of Grand Slam matches’ data to see if there’s some validity to these truisms.
It is a commonly held opinion that tennis is one of the sports in which the psychological component weighs the most during matches. Proof of that is, for example, that Timothy Gallwey, one of the fathers of Business and Life Coaching, was inspired by his experience as a tennis coach in writing his best seller “The inner game of tennis”, published in 1974 and in some ways still very relevant today. In more recent times, even Agassi and Panatta have insisted a lot on this aspect in their autobiographies, with the italian using this concept in the title of his book, stating boldly that “tennis was invented by the devil”.
This close connection between what happens on the court and what happens in the mind of the players often leads to proverbial statements that, it can be said, are viewed as conventional wisdom. For example, it is believed that, precisely for psychological reasons, the seventh game, in a set tied at 3-3, is particularly important because it breaks the balance just when the set enters its bottom half. Or, again, it is commonly believed that, particularly in a match that goes to the fifth set, the first player serving has an advantage in the decisive set, thus causing in the opponent the unpleasant feeling of chasing at a time when the match is about to end.
The growing availability of structured data related to ATP matches allows us to put these claims to the test, and to verify their veracity. For this purpose, we will consider all of the men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments of the last decade, from 2011 to 2021. Considering this huge database, let’s start by asking ourselves the first question: does the one player who wins the seventh game on a 3-3 tied set win the set in the end?
THE 7TH GAME
At a first glance, it would be tempting to answer in the affirmative. In fact, in 54.3% of cases whoever goes 4-3 by winning the seventh game ends up winning the set. But to attest to the validity of this first superficial observation it might seems appropriate to ask ourselves, more specifically, whether gaining the advantage at that particular moment is more significant or helpful than doing it slightly earlier, or slightly later. In other words: does winning the seventh game at 3-3 carry more weight than winning the ninth game at 4-4, or the fifth game at 2-2?
The set is won by whoever wins the ninth game after a 4-all in 53.6% of cases. Comparable, but slightly lower than the 54.3% recorded for the seventh-game-case in a tied set. Considering that the ninth game is closer to the ending of the set, winning a game in that situation should have a bigger impact. Therefore it would be tempting to identify a correlation, albeit not particularly strong, between the vin in the seventh game at 3-3 and winning the set. Before getting to any conclusion, however, let’s repeat the analysis, this time examining the fifth game at 2-2.
Perhaps a little surprisingly, we find that, at 2-2, the set is won in 56.7% of cases by whoever wins the fifth game. Although this game takes place further away from the end of the set, it seems to have a greater effect on the final outcome of the set. Although this fact alone is not proof in debunking the myth of the seventh game, this simple analysis has perhaps the merit of generating some doubts and some more curiosity, bringing to the forefront a hypothesis that comes from experience in more direct touch with the data. Let’s try to apply this logic to another statement as well: it’s better to serve first in the final set.
SERVING FIRST IN THE DECIDER
Let’s focus on the 728 Grand Slam matches that have reached the fifth set over the last ten years. Indeed, the percentage of cases in which whoever served first in these 728 occasions won the set (and, consequently, the match) is greater than 50%: to be precise, the count is 380 cases (52.2% of the total). Looking back, we can consider that, if such an advantage really exists, it is reasonable to expect it to be greater in the case of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, which, for a large part of the period considered, did not provide have final set tie-breaks or super tie-breaks, with (possible) prolongation of the psychological pressure on whoever is serving second.
Indeed, 310 of the 576 matches of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon of the last 10 years in the fifth set were won by the player who served first: 53.8% of the total. A higher percentage, therefore, than the one observed also considering the US Open’ s data. We can therefore say that, in this case, at least for this analysis’ sake, there seems to be a correspondence between conventional wisdom and actual data.
Let’s now move on to the critical analysis of a third consideration, common indeed, but not necessarily supported by the data: in a hard-fought match, whoever wins the most games who go to deuce will win the match in the end.
To analyse this statement, and to measure its coherence with the trend of men’s singles matches in Grand Slam tournaments over the last ten years, let’s first focus on the matches with at least ten games that went to 40-40. This will allow us to focus on the statistically more significant data. Winning ten deuce games out of ten (100% of them), for example, has a different weight than winning the only one who went the distance.
Preparing the dataset for analysis, we can see that in the last ten years 2,050 men’s singles matches have been characterized by at least ten hard-fought games. To evaluate whether, starting from this subset of games, the victory of the games with advantage points is significantly linked to match wins, let’s try to use a different graphic representation: the box-plot.
The box plot represents the statistical distribution of a variable, in this case the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of the match for the 2,050 matches considered. A commonly used concept, in the analysis of statistical distributions, is that of the percentile. Let’s imagine we order the hard-fought-game percentages won by the winners of the 2,050 matches considered in ascending order. Match number 205 of this ordered list would be classified as the to the 10th percentile of the distribution (given that 205/2050 = 0.1 = 10%). In the box plot, we see a thin yellow bar to identify the fiftieth percentile, also called the median of the distribution. If the percentage of deuce games won was particularly significant, we would expect a median value, for the winners of the matches, greater than 50% – but this is not the case.
Not just that: the green colored area of the box-plot defines the range within which the “central” 50% of the distribution is found. That is, the lower end of the green colored area coincides with the twenty-fifth percentile of the distribution, the upper end with the seventy-fifth. We observe that the central band of the distribution has the same excursion towards the lower extreme (50% -36.4% = 13.6%) than the upper one (63.6% -50% = 13.6%).
As a further check, let’s ask the data the same question once again, using a different survey tool: the ROC curve.
We will ask ourselves, this time, if there are thresholds (not necessarily 50%) of 40-40 games that can become decisive for the match win. Once again, for the reasons already mentioned, we will focus on matches with at least ten hard-fought games. To conduct this type of analysis, we can use the ROC curve.
To trace it, we will proceed as follows:
- every possible threshold value is considered in terms of percentage of deuce games won, starting from 0% up to 100%
- for each of these values (let’s take 10% for example) we ask ourselves: how accurate would it be to say that whoever wins more than 10% of the game at the advantages wins the match?
- the answer to this question is analysed using two components: sensitivity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified victories) and specificity (i.e. the percentage of correctly identified losses)
- each threshold can therefore be represented as a point, drawn in a chart in which the vertical axis is represented by the wording “Sensitivity” and the horizontal axis represented by “Specificity”
- by connecting these points, a curve can be drawn, called ROC curve (Receiver Operating Curve)
- it can be shown that the area included under this curve, called AUC (Area Under the Curve) equals to the probability that, given a pair of matches (match 1 and match 2), the percentage of deuce games won by the winner of match 1 is greater than the percentage of deuce games won by the loser of match 2.
The more the AUC approaches to the value of 1, the more the element considered (in this case the percentage of deuce games won) is relevant compared to the target (the match win). We observe that, in this case, the AUC is equal to 0.504, just above 50%. The lack of relevance of deuce games supremacy therefore seems to be confirmed.
Let’s now try to ask ourselves if, indeed, as is often supposed, the victory of the first set is often decisive, especially for the underdog player.
THE FIRST SET IS KEY, ESPECIALLY FOR THE WEAKER PLAYER
The matches in which the winner of the first set has a better ATP ranking at the end of the season is represented by the green bars of the histogram, the other matches are represented by the red bars. So let’s ask ourselves if, especially in a Grand Slam tournament, considering the men’s singles matches only and therefore a three out of five set match, the victory in the first set is relevant and, more specifically, let’s try to understand if this consideration is more valid for players who face an opponent of greater clout, or with a better ATP ranking.
First of all, we observe that 2,271 of the 2,902 matches considered ended with the victory of the player who won the first set: in other words, in 78.2% of cases whoever won the first set also won the match. This is by far the strongest pattern explored in this article. For example, if we consider the effect of ranking on the outcome of the match, we observe that in 2,238 cases out of 2,902 (i.e. in 77.1% of cases) the match is won by that player who, at the end of the season, will occupy a better position in the ATP ranking. In other words, the victory of the first set seems to “weigh” even more (albeit slightly) than the ranking in the outcome of the match.
And, as conventional wisdom teaches, the combination of the two factors is even more predictive of the name of the match winner. In fact, if the first set is won by the lower ranked player, the opponent will manage to get away with it in 30% of cases (196 matches out of 664). If, on the other hand, the better-ranked player takes the first set, then his opponent seems to have less than a 20% chance of reversing the situation (435 cases out of 2238).
This is what the data tell us, which, as always, we try to approach with a critical eye. That is, always keeping in mind Henri Poincarè, according to whom “science is made of data as a house is made of stones. But a mass of data is no more science than a pile of stones is a real house.”
Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa
Flink: “Djokovic Was Lucky at the Beginning of the Final Because Berrettini Was Even More Nervous than Him”
A Wimbledon recap. Zverev struggled once more with nerves, while Barty cemented her status. How many losses like the one to Hurkacz will Federer be able to cope with?
Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta and Hall-of-Famer tennis writer Steve Flink met virtually to discuss the events that transpired at the 2021 Championships, which were won by world number ones Novak Djokovic and Ashleigh Barty. Here’s their chat:
00:00 – The rise of Berrettini: “He was a little lucky to avoid both Federer and Zverev, but his level was outstanding.”
01:45 – How well did the Italian fare against Djokovic in the final?
06:35 – Zverev has never beaten a Top 10 opponent at a Major – a sign of frailty?
08:25 – Sebastian Korda was one of the most pleasant surprises of the tournament – will he become the American number one?
10:45 – The Canadians are on the rise. Who will have a better career between Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime?
15:15 – Hurkacz beat Federer but then couldn’t reach the same level against Berrettini – what went wrong for him?
16:50 – Is Berrettini a better player than he was in 2019 when he reached the US Open final?
27:05 – Will Djokovic go to the Olympics?
35:35 – Federer lost very badly to Hurkacz – was he lucky to reach the quarter finals?
41:40 – Should people in Federer’s camp start to talk to him about retirement?
45:30 – The women’s tournament: “Pliskova’s terrible start to the final was actually a good thing because it got the crowd on her side…”
52:30 – Coco Gauff lost against Kerber – will she learn from this defeat?
Transcript a cura di Giuseppe Di Paola
Djokovic Meets the Moment Forthrightly Once More
Despite losing the opening set, Djokovic clinched his sixth Wimbledon title and tied Nadal and Federer’s Major tally while inching closer to the Grand Slam
We are running out of superlatives for the one and only Novak Djokovic. All year long, he has set the bar as high as possible in his quest to collect major championships. He has been entirely transparent about his lofty goals and his largest dreams, refusing to shy away from what is at stake, and willing to put himself fully on the line at all of the Majors in a spirited bid to move beyond both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the historical race for supremacy. In his sterling career, Djokovic has never been as maniacally single-minded in pursuit of the game’s greatest and most enduring prizes as he is at this very moment.
That sharp focus on what now matters most to him has put the Serbian in an enviable position as he heads into the heart of summer. After upending a spirited Matteo Berrettini 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3—the first Italian ever to appear in a Wimbledon singles final—in a hard fought and well played contest, Djokovic has established himself as the first man since Rod Laver took the Grand Slam 52 years ago to secure the first three majors in a season. That is no mean feat because Djokovic recorded those triumphs on the hard courts of Melbourne, the red clay at Roland Garros and on the lawns of the All England Club. They call that supremacy on all surfaces.
With this magnificent first half of his 2021 campaign, Djokovic has put himself in very good stead. At long last, he stands on the same turf as Federer and Nadal with 20 Grand Slam singles crowns. For far too long, he has lived at least somewhat in the shadows of those two luminous figures, but Djokovic has altered his status immeasurably and is earning the acclaim and recognition that he so richly deserves from not only his fellow players but also the worldwide public. Starting with his victory at Wimbledon three years ago, the Serbian superstar has captured eight of the last twelve majors. He has been victorious in 12 of his last 14 Grand Slam finals dating back to Wimbledon in 2015, raising his record to 20-10 in those critical, career defining clashes.
To be sure, he has raised his historical stock enormously and demonstrated that life after 30 in this sport is not necessarily a time of diminishing returns for a top-of-the-line athlete. Since Djokovic turned 30 on May 15, 1987, he has amassed the largest number of major titles ever taken by a man in the history of the sport at that age and beyond, lifting his total to eight “Big Four” crowns by virtue of his sixth Wimbledon triumph. Clearly, Djokovic doesn’t look 34 or play like it either; he is competing like a sprightly man in his late twenties who has seldom tasted the champagne in the places of prestige. His thirst for success sometimes seems unquenchable.
He explained after his win over Berrettini, “Obviously it’s all coming together for me now. I feel like in the last couple of years for me, age is just a number. I don’t feel like I’m old or anything like that. Obviously you have to adjust and adapt to phases you go through in your career, but I feel like I’m probably the most complete that I’ve been as a player now in my entire career.”
Discerning critics of the game could not justifiably disagree. Djokovic is s better server than he has ever been before and his capacity to fend off challenges from his opponents and keep holding on is at a new level. He lost his serve only seven times across 23 sets in his fortnight at Wimbledon, saving 26 of 33 break points in the process. He won 84% of the points when he got the first serve in and 56% on second serve points. Looking at his six triumphant years at Wimbledon, his numbers this year on serve all told are arguably the best he has ever posted. Only once was he broken less in a winning year and that was in 2015 when he lost his serve only six times, but his first serve winning points success rate was only 77% that year. Moreover, his instincts, anticipation and execution at the net are significantly better than ever before.
In the last two rounds this year against his toughest opposition (Denis Shapovalov and Berrettini), Djokovic was very disciplined in making certain to hold serve. He saved 15 of 18 break points against the Canadian and Italian combined, losing his serve only three times in seven sets. That was critical in his quest to take the title and keep his Grand Slam aspirations alive.
Shapovalov played perhaps his most inspired match ever at a major against Djokovic. Granted, he had taken apart two-time former champion Andy Murray and the ever tenacious Roberto Bautista Agut, routing both in straight sets. The gifted southpaw server who is so dangerous off both flanks from the backcourt came into the penultimate round with considerable confidence after halting Karen Khachanov in five sets.
He commenced his duel with Djokovic in fine fiddle. Shapovalov served for the first set at 5-4 and went to 30-30. Djokovic displayed his incomparable brand of defense at that crucial moment. Totally outstretched wide on his forehand side and well off the court, he somehow got a forehand back into play. Shapovalov probably thought he had the point won. With Djokovic stranded, he sent a forehand long. Djokovic broke back and took that set in a tie-break 7-3.
All through the second set, Djokovic was in danger. Down 0-40 at 1-2, he held on. At 2-3, he rallied from 15-40. Meanwhile Shapovalov was serving stupendously, holding seven times over the first two sets at love. But Djokovic was resolute and unshakable, composed and confident when it counted. He held at love for 5-5, broke the Canadian at 30 for 6-5 on a double fault, and held on at 15 to close out the set by claiming 12 of the last 15 points. Having survived two awfully tense sets, Djokovic dealt with some more difficulty honorably early in the third, holding from 15-40 and saving three break points to avoid a 2-0 deficit. He eventually broke at 5-5 and served out the match at love to win 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5 in precariously close straight set showdown.
Call it opportunistic. Classify it as the superior match player overcoming the better shotmaker. Look at it any way you want. But the bottom line is that when the chips were on the line Djokovic was not found wanting. He knew how to get the most out of himself when the stakes were highest.
Talking after the final, Djokovic put into perspective what he had done down the stretch at this Wimbledon and how he came through so deservedly in the end. Asked what he has improved the most over time, he answered, “All areas to be honest. I feel like from 15 years ago to today the journey that I have been through has been very rewarding for every segment of my game. And it is also my mental strength, the experience, understanding how to cope with the pressure in the big moments and how to be a clutch player when it matters the most. That’s probably the highlight of my improvement in the last 15 years— just the ability to cope with pressure.”
Elaborating on that theme, he added, “The more you play the big matches, the more experience you have. The more experience you have, the more you believe in yourself. The more you win, the more confident you are. It’s all connected.”
When Djokovic defeated the 25-year-old Berrettini for his third consecutive major title, he practiced what he was preaching in the press conference. Once again, he brought out his best when he needed it and pushed past his obvious apprehension at the outset. The 34-year-old was clearly too aware initially about the immensity of the occasion. He served two double faults on his way to a 30-40 deficit in the opening game of the match but rescued himself for the hold. He served another double fault to trail 0-30 in the third game but managed to take the next four points to reach 2-1.
After that uncertain start, Djokovic seemed to relax as Berrettini plainly was overwhelmed by the size of the occasion. Djokovic rolled to 5-2 and then pushed his adversary to no less than eight deuces in the following game. Djokovic had one set point but somehow Berrettini held on. Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic’s nerves resurfaced. He led 30-15 when Berrettini—swinging much more freely now—clipped the sideline with an inside out forehand winner. The ball was called out but the Hawkeye challenge went the Italian’s way. Djokovic got to deuce but the Italian took advantage of an errant forehand approach from the Serbian and then sent a forehand winner down the line off a sharp angled shot from Djokovic.
Improbably, Berrettini, so uptight at the outset, was moving much more swiftly and hitting the ball off both sides with much firmer conviction. That set was settled in a tie-break, and Berrettini collected four of the last five points from 3-3 to prevail 7-4 in that sequence. Berrettini finished off that set impressively by reading a Djokovic backhand drop shot early and scampering forward for an unanswerable forehand down the line before serving a 138 MPH ace down the T.
That was a spectacular turnaround as Berrettini thoroughly found his range and Djokovic again seemed too aware of the historical implications of this confrontation. When Berrettini surged to 40-15 in the first game of the second set, he seemed to be riding the waves of momentum. But Djokovic made his move propitiously, realizing how important it was to bring the match back into his own grasp and create more doubts in Berrettini.
Djokovic did just that. At 40-15 for his opponent, Djokovic used a deep return to set up an angled backhand drop shot winner, then drove a forehand remarkably deep crosscourt to coax an error. Now out of his comfort zone, Berrettini netted a backhand down the line. Break point down, Berrettini attempted a crosscourt backhand drop shot that Djokovic easily anticipated. He moved forward with alacrity, chipped his backhand down the line, and ready the Berrettini pass, punching a forehand volley down the line for a winner.
That was just the reprieve Djokovic needed. He soared to leads of 4-0 and 5-1 before the Italian secured three games in a row, somehow rescuing himself from 0-40 and triple set point down in the ninth game. But, serving for the set a second time, Djokovic was totally concentrated and in utter command. He served wide to open up the court for a crosscourt backhand winner, released an ace down the T, served wide again in the deuce court to elicit an errant return, and sent a terrific second serve down the T at 106 MPH to draw another mistake on the return from Berrettini. With that love hold, Djokovic was back to one set all.
He kept rolling. Berrettini opened the third game of the third set with an ace. At 30-40, Djokovic benefitted from a sliced backhand error from the Italian to get the one break he would need to prevail in that set. The pivotal game was when Djokovic served at 3-2 and fell behind 15-40. He came forward for a backhand half volley down the line and Berrettini missed a down the line forehand pass under duress. At 30-40, Djokovic approached behind a forehand down the line and Berrettini missed another pass, this one a backhand down the line into the net. Djokovic held on from there with a wicked slice serve wide and an ace down the T, moving on safely to 4-2.
Serving for that third set at 5-4, Djokovic was disciplined and determined. He made a nifty angled forehand half volley with exquisite touch that was as good as a winner to reach 40-15, and held on at 30 when Berrettini overbooked an inside out forehand and drove it wide. Djokovic had moved into a two sets to one lead, and he wasn’t looking back.
But there was one more critical moment when he had to assert his authority and prevent Berrettini from regaining encouragement and finding inspiration. Djokovic served at 2-3, 0-30 in the fourth set. That was surely a precarious moment but he was absolutely composed. He released a deep first serve to the forehand and the return was long: 15-30. Then the world No. 1 demonstrated precisely wby he is the preeminent player in the world. Berrettini produced a biting sliced backhand down the line that Djokovic somehow scooped up off the forehand. Berrettini then leaned into a forehand and ripped it inside out, and Djokovic lunged at full stretch to get it back off the backhand. Berrettini went to a drop shot off the forehand but Djokovic raced in elegantly and steered a forehand pass sharp crosscourt for an astounding winner.
That clutch winner gave Djokovic an incalculable lift. He took the next two points for 3-3. In the seventh game, Djokovic had some more magic in his arsenal. He reached 15-30 with a gorgeous forehand inside in approach leading to an impeccably executed backhand drop volley winner. After Berrettini made it to 30-30, Djokovic moved his adversary side to side with surgical precision and then unleashed an acutely angled crosscourt forehand winner which landed inside the service line. Perhaps shaken, Berrettini double faulted on break point, and Djokovic sensed the end was near.
Serving at 30-30 in the eight game, Djokovic sent a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner and then challenged Berrettini forehand to forehand; the Italian blinked. 5-3 for Djokovic. Now the No. 7 seed served to stay in the match, but Djokovic was making every return count and outplaying Berrettini from the baseline. Although Berrettini bravely saved two match points with a forehand drop volley winner and an explosive forehand down the line winner from the baseline, he could not escape the inevitable. Berrettini erred on a forehand to fall behind match point for the third time and then sliced one last backhand into the net.
Djokovic’s 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 triumph was hard earned and well crafted. Remarkably, he broke one of the best servers in the game six times over the course of four sets. In his six matches on the way to the final, the Italian was broken a total of five times. Djokovic won 34 of 48 points when he approached the net while Berrettini took 24 of 39, so the Serbian’s percentage was decidedly better. Although Berrettini connected for 57 winners and Djokovic had only 31, this was more than balanced by the top seed making only 21 unforced errors. That was 27 fewer than the more adventuresome Berrettini. Djokovic—who became the first man since Pete Sampras in 1993 to lose his first set of the tournament and go on to take the title— said after the final that he felt he had been a bit defensive and conceded that he felt tight in the early stages of the contest, but the fact remains that he got the job done with precision and professionalism. He knew what was at stake and played accordingly. Most impressive of all, he did not turn the loss of the first set into a negative, deciding it was time to let go of his tension and start playing more on his terms.
And so Djokovic is now right where he wants to be, closing in on the Grand Slam, pushing himself to the hilt to realize his greatest goals, using all of his experience along with his remarkably durable physique to meet the demands of today’s tennis. Only four men previously in the history of the game have taken the first three majors of the season. The Australian Jack Crawford was the first in 1933, but he lost a five set final at the U.S. Championships to Fred Perry. Five years later, Don Budge garnered the first three majors and finished off the Grand Slam in New York. In 1956, the dynamic Australian Lew Hoad swept three in a row and was one match away from a Grand Slam before his countryman Ken Rosewall stopped him at Forest Hills in the final.
In 1962 and 1969 Rod Laver won them all and captured two Grand Slams. From 1978-80 Bjorn Borg won the first two majors of the season and came to the U.S. Open hoping to keep his Grand Slam hopes alive with a third in a row. But he lost in the 1978 and 1980 finals to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe respectively, and was beaten in the 1979 quarterfinals by Roscoe Tanner. In those days, the Australian Open was the last rather than the first major of the season so Borg undoubtedly would have gone to Melbourne had he not lost in the two U.S. Open finals.
Now Djokovic has established himself as the first man since Laver in 1969 to come to New York seeking a Grand Slam and is expected by many authorities to achieve it. Six years ago, Serena Williams was in a similarly commanding position as she approached the Open with three majors in hand, but she lost in the semifinals to Roberta Vinci.
Djokovic in my view should and will succeed on the hard courts at the U.S. Open. It is a major where he has had some very bad luck. The Serbian has been defeated in five of his eight finals, twice going out to Nadal (2010 and 2013), once falling to Federer (2007), once bowing out in five sets against Andy Murray (2012) and losing to Stan Wawrinka in 2016.
Considering that Djokovic has swept nine titles at the Australian Open and has never lost a final “Down Under”, the feeling grows that he should have a New York title run in him this year. He has, after all, probably been the best hard court player of the Open Era. But he deserves some time to savor his sixth Wimbledon singles title and his 85th career title overall.
The view here is that Djokovic should not play the Olympics in Tokyo because he needs some time to recover from the rigors of Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He wants to equal Steffi Graf’s astounding 1988 feat of a “Golden Slam” but the view here is that a trip to Tokyo (win or lose), could possibly cost him the U.S. Open title. He said after beating Berrettini in London that it was 50-50 whether or not he would go to Tokyo. He would be much better off not traveling to Japan so soon after Wimbledon.
But Djokovic will always drive himself to the heights because that is simply who he is, what he wants and how he operates. He is a champion through and through, a supreme competitor who thrives under intense pressure like no other individual, and a man who takes nothing for granted. As he said following his triumph over Berrettini, “It’s really fortunate for me and incredible that it’s all coming together in the same year. That is something I didn’t expect but I always dream of achieving the biggest things in sport.”
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