Novak Djokovic Underlines His Supremacy in Paris
It was clear that the world No.1 had done his homework and learned from what happened in New York
Novak Djokovic came to France for the Rolex Paris Masters having been gone from the game for seven weeks. He had needed that time to recover from the rigors of a 2021 season that had stretched him to the edge of his physical, mental and emotional limits. He had been forced to endure one of the toughest setbacks of his career when he was beaten by Daniil Medvedev in the final of the U.S. Open, falling one match short of establishing himself as the first man to win the calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.
That was surely a soul searching time for the Serbian because he knows full well that he missed out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Djokovic would have been entirely worthy of that lofty honor, but Medvedev had taken the top seed apart 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in New York with a career defining performance, claiming his first major title in the process, exploiting a subpar Djokovic to the hilt.
But the 34-year-old icon clearly came to terms with what happened at the last Grand Slam tournament of 2021, figured out how to leave that devastating disappointment behind him, and then reached back with his all of his considerable resources and vowed to seal a record seventh year-end No. 1 ranking with the strongest possible showing in Paris. In the end, Djokovic might have even exceeded his own expectations by realizing his largest dream, winning his sixth Rolex Masters title and taking a record 37th Masters 1000 crown, eclipsing Medvedev in a stirring final 4-6, 6–3, 6-3.
Djokovic had already made certain he would conclude 2021 at the top of the rankings by overcoming Hubert Hurkacz in an exhilarating semifinal, and critics from all over the globe wondered if he could summon the energy or the inspiration to come back on court one day after such a towering achievement against a man who is fast emerging as his foremost rival. Djokovic had, after all, surpassed Pete Sampras for the most years finished at No. 1, although the estimable American secured his six in succession from 1993-98 while Djokovic has now done it seven times across the last eleven years.
Be that as it may, Djokovic was tested significantly from the beginning of his quest for another Paris triumph. After a first round bye, he collided with the capable Hungarian Marton Fucsovics, the same fellow the Serbian toppled in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Djokovic glided through the first set but dropped the second and had to fight hard in the third before prevailing 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. Due to meet Gael Monfils in the round of 16, Djokovic advanced with a default from the French player he has defeated seventeen times without a loss over the course of their careers.
That was not what he needed. The Serbian would have been much better off hitting a ton of balls and finding his groove rather than having a day off from the office; hard work was required. In the quarterfinals, he took on the surging American Taylor Fritz, a player who had knocked out Andrey Rublev and Cam Norrie earlier in the week after upsetting Matteo Berrettini and Sascha Zverev at Indian Wells. Fritz had followed up on that fine effort by reaching the final in St. Petersburg, Russia before losing a hard fought clash with Marin Cilic.
So it was no wonder that the Californian was in such stellar form on his way to an appointment with Djokovic in Paris. But Djokovic halted Fritz comfortably 6-4, 6-3 despite losing his serve three times, breaking the American no fewer than five times to keep himself out of jeopardy. And so he had made it to the penultimate round for the showdown with Hurkacz. The Polish competitor had sealed his place in the eight player field at the ATP Championships for the first time by virtue of a hard fought triumph over James Duckworth in the previous round at Paris, and that meant Hurkacz was confronting Djokovic with absolutely nothing to lose.
Relaxed and confident with Djokovic almost palpably uptight, Hurkacz took the first set on one service break, attacking judiciously and fending off Djokovic from the backcourt with his long wingspan and impressive ball control. But then the 6’5” Hurkacz began misfiring frequently off the forehand and Djokovic found his range convincingly to win ten of the next eleven games. Djokovic took the second set by winning 25 of 36 points and then built a 4-1 final set lead.
But—perhaps preoccupied with the knowledge that the No. 1 ranking for the year was his for the taking—Djokovic played an abysmal game at 4-2 on his serve with two glaring errors off the ground and one double fault. Hurkacz broke back and made his way to 4-4. Although Djokovic reached match point with Hurkacz serving in the tenth game, the poise and perspicacity of the Polish star was evident once again as he came forward unhesitatingly and forced Djokovic to miss a backhand passing shot. Hurkacz held on for 5-5 with sheer persistence.
Fittingly it was all settled in a tie-break, with Hurkacz drawing first blood and opening up a mini-break lead at 3-2. But Djokovic then coaxed his adversary into a forehand mistake on the following point. The tie-break proceeded to 5-5 with both players standing two points away from victory. On the next two points, however, only one player blinked. First, Hurkacz tried to get in off a short low forehand from Djokovic, but his crosscourt approach found the net. Then, at match point down, Hurkacz came forward again, but punched a backhand volley down the line with sidespin inches wide. Djokovic escaped 3-6, 6-0, 7–6 (5), coming through largely with willpower against an opponent who was giving him no pace and serving prodigiously in the final set.
Medvedev had struggled to some degree in all of his matches prior to the penultimate round, but then he accounted for Zverev with surprising ease 6-2, 6-2. To be sure, this was his fourth win in a row over the 6’6” German but it was by far his most one-sided victory ever against Zverev. In the early stages, Zverev had a few chances, wasting two break points with the Russian serving at 1-2, squandering another opportunity two games later. But this was his worst performance in a long while. Zverev had won 28 of his previous 30 matches starting with his gold medal run at the Olympics in Tokyo, and he had been convincing while taking the title in Vienna the week before Paris.
Perhaps the wear and tear of two debilitating weeks in a row caught up with the German at the worst possible time in an important duel with Medvedev. Medvedev was almost letter perfect off the ground and his serve was remarkably potent and precise, but the fact remains that Zverev was not the same demonstrably competitive performer we have witnessed so regularly since the summer. To be sure, the court in Paris is classified as “medium” speed but it was much slower than a year ago. Zverev was unable to win many free points on serve and his game plan was haphazard. He did not know whether to come in or stay back, to go for the lines or play the percentages, to try for outright winners or attempt to outlast Medvedev in long exchanges. Making matters worse, Medvedev made a mere eight unforced errors across sixteen games, galloping to a 6-2, 6-2 win.
Having been so polished in that performance—not to mention his straight sets dissection of Djokovic at the U.S. Open—Medvedev was the slight favorite in the final according to many experts. He was the defending champion in Paris and some authorities believed Djokovic might have a letdown after his demanding skirmish with Hurkacz the day before, which had consequences transcending the match itself.
But Djokovic had his family assembled in court-side seats, with his children joining his wife Jelena to cheer him on unabashedly. The presence of his kids seemed to inspire Djokovic and to put him in the right frame of mind to play hard but, above all, enjoy himself out on the court despite the seriousness of the occasion and the significance of the eventual outcome.
It was a fascinating final in so many ways. At the outset, Djokovic made aggressive errors and Medvedev refused to miss. That combination lifted the Russian into a 2-0 lead. Medvedev collected eight of eleven points in creating that cushion for himself. Djokovic made six unforced errors in those two games, but the difference this time was his physical freshness and a vastly more positive outlook.
Djokovic—signaling a strategy he would employ to great gains throughout the fierce battle—went to the serve-and-volley twice in the third game and won both points. He held at love, then broke Medvedev in the fourth game with crackling forehands and a double fault from the Russian. Djokovic followed with another confident hold for 3-2. He had not only won three games in a row but had taken 12 of 14 points in that span.
Had Djokovic managed to break Medvedev in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead, he might well have won the opening set. A sizzling forehand crosscourt return that Medvedev could not answer gave Djokovic a break point, but the Russian erased it emphatically with his favorite first serve out wide in the ad court, setting up a swing volley winner. No one in the world can create angles with that first serve better than Medvedev. He held on for 3-3 with an ace and a well placed first serve down the T.
Medvedev had wrestled the momentum away from Djokovic at a critical moment, preventing the Serbian from winning four games in a row and perhaps moving inexorably toward a first set triumph. Instead, Djokovic played tenuously in the seventh game. He pulled a forehand wide to conclude a bruising 20 stroke rally, double faulted for 0-30 and then sent a two-hander up the line that landed long for an unprovoked mistake. Although he made it back from 0-40 to 30-40, Djokovic was broken when Medvedev answered a backhand crosscourt drop shot with one of his own that was better. 4-3 for Medvedev.
Nonetheless, Djokovic was not unduly dismayed. Striving to break back for 4-4, he had 15-30 on the Medvedev serve but was met with misfortune as a wobbly backhand down the line from the Russian landed on the sideline and caused an error from the surprised Serbian. Medvedev eventually held on from deuce. Two games later, serving for the set at 5-4, Medvedev missed only one first serve and held at 15. He was up a set but Djokovic was not downcast, realizing the set could have gone his way.
Djokovic opened the second set unequivocally, holding at love with four first serves in a row, sending a forehand into the corner that was unanswerable, serving-and-volleying successfully, rifling a forehand into the clear and closing that game with a service winner down the T. He reached 0-30 in the following game and did not break, but it was strikingly apparent that the world No. 1 wanted to validate his label once more.
After another excellent service game featuring three winners and supreme execution, Djokovic went to work unswervingly. With Medvedev serving at 1-2, the 25-year-old Russian started with a double fault but after releasing three consecutive aces for 40-15 he seemed certain to hold. But Djokovic kept plugging away, got back to deuce, and then played his most masterful defensive point of the match, making one impossible save after another off the forehand until Medvedev finally erred. It was a rally that only Djokovic could have salvaged. That took him to break point. He then went backhand to backhand and became the beneficiary of an unforced error from a tentative adversary.
It was 3-1 for Djokovic. He proceeded to hold for 4-1 at 15 with an ace down the T and then secured another solid hold for 5-2. Serving to stay in the set, Medvedev fell behind 0-30 but swept four points in a row. The Russian was making a substantial push to deny Djokovic at this crucial juncture and somehow turn the set back in his favor.
When Djokovic served for the second set at 5-3, it was the high water moment of the contest, and almost a match within a match. It brought both players out in the brightest light as they battled so ferociously for a game both men wanted wholeheartedly. It gave Djokovic and Medvedev a chance to sparkle simultaneously, to keep countering each other with their intuition, creativity and athletic brilliance, to provide the fans with a smorgasbord of spectacular shotmaking. It was a treat to watch and proved to be the pivotal moment of the afternoon. There were five deuces in that game. Medvedev had three break points. Djokovic needed three set points. And every bit of it was enthralling. Djokovic kept traveling to the net while Medvedev refused to waver. In the end, Djokovic, who had commenced that game with an ace, sealed it with another untouchable delivery down the T to make it one set all.
That was surely a crushing blow to Medvedev, who realized that Djokovic was gathering steam, gaining confidence and raising his game while making the match immensely physical. Under those circumstances, with Djokovic attacking and defending stupendously and using every inch of the court, Medvedev recognized precisely what he was up against. They went to 2-2 in the third on serve as Djokovic held in the fourth game with another outstanding serve-volley package, punching a backhand first volley magnificently crosscourt for a winner.
Now Medvedev began to feel the commanding presence of Djokovic once more. Leading 40-15 in the fifth game, he lost four points in a row to an unrelenting and willful Djokovic. On break point, Djokovic sent a backhand down the line to lure Medvedev into an error. Djokovic promptly held at love for 4-2 on a cluster of mistakes from a beleaguered adversary. Medvedev was broken again in the seventh game by a resolute Djokovic. The Russian’s spirit had been sorely broken. Although Djokovic did not serve out the match at 5-2– missing all five first serves and double faulting once—it did not matter. With Medvedev serving to stay in the final at 3-5, he reached 30-30 but then Djokovic blocked a backhand return deep down the middle as only he can and Medvedev missed off the forehand. Now, at match point, Djokovic and Medvedev kept shifting from offense to defense before the Serbian drove a penetrating backhand down the line to set up a pinpoint forehand down the line winner.
After that scintillating 26 stroke exchange, Djokovic had prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 for his single most important victory of 2021 outside of the four majors. It was also his fourteenth win of the year from a set down, which is no mean feat. Djokovic’s match record is 48-6 on the season so he has battled back after the loss of the first set nearly 30% of the time. It marked his fifth title run of 2021; in ten years across his sterling career, Djokovic has collected at least that many titles. Most impressively, he won 79% of his first serve points compared to Medvedev’s 59%. And nothing mattered more than his timely attacking as Djokovic won 27 of 36 points when approaching the net. Seldom if ever has he come in more, especially in a three set match. He outthought Medvedev as well as outplaying the determined Russian, demonstrating irrefutably that he can overcome formidable opponents in a variety of ways. He is indeed a multi-faceted player and individual.
Strangely, it was Djokovic’s first Masters 1000 tournament triumph of 2021. He had put so much emphasis on the four majors this year that he only played two clay court ATP 1000’s and skipped all the rest. That is the only reason he did not secure the year-end No. 1 ranking sooner. But the fact remained that he had to treat his Medvedev Paris encounter as a must-win situation. He had lost four of his last six meetings with the Russian.
They had split their two Grand Slam tournament finals this season, with Djokovic routing Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 at the Australian Open before losing to his keynote rival at the U.S. Open. A loss in Paris might have left the Serbian with lingering doubts about himself in that rivalry. They would have been locked at 5-5 in their career series with everything moving in Medvedev’s direction; instead, Djokovic has extended his lead over the tenacious Russian to 6-4. This was among his most crucial victories in recent years.
Djokovic felt the burden of pressure had been lifted from his shoulders after his semifinal win and the securing of No. 1 for the season. As he said after the final, “I felt a huge relief knowing that I had achieved the biggest goal of the week for me. When I did that yesterday, I just kind of felt more relaxed today. Even though there is always pressure playing against No. 2 of the world and probably my biggest rival in tennis at the moment in this season, I wanted to finish the tournament with a trophy. There is no doubt about it. But I didn’t want to lock myself in mentally and emotionally into this stressful mode where I’m unable to swing freely. So it’s not like I didn’t care. I just felt a little more relaxed and that things will come together. I just had to work myself into the match a bit more.”
Djokovic did just that, and found his finest tennis when it counted the most. One of the critical reasons he triumphed was the intelligence and unpredictability of his aggression. He won 27 of 36 points when he approached the net (taking 14 of 17 in the second set), primarily because he kept Medvedev guessing about his intentions. Medvedev had difficulty anticipating when Djokovic would serve-and-volley and when he would stay back on his delivery. Moreover, the Russian was dumbfounded with Djokovic’s accuracy on wide serves in both the deuce and ad courts. That pattern of going “wide and wide” set up Djokovic for clusters of open court first volley winners. And when he would sense that Medvedev might be ready for that tactic, Djokovic would serve, stay back, and take control from there.
Clearly, Djokovic had done his homework and learned from what happened in New York. His performance in the Paris contest was similarly high to what he produced in Melbourne. He broke Medvedev five times altogether, and no less than three times in the final set. Djokovic was a prisoner of his own substantial ambitions in New York, but not so in Paris. The essential Djokovic was back, playing the game much more on his own terms, delighted to be taking on another challenge so late in the season, performing at the end with both gusto and gumption.
Medvedev lauded his revered rival, saying, “I gave everything I had. I was playing one of the best players in history, and you could feel that he really, really wanted to win. It was a huge battle.”
Now they will move on to Turin for the Nitto ATP Finals. Medvedev is the defending champion. Djokovic will go full force after a sixth title. The feeling grows that we may well be watching them again in the final of that prestigious year-ending event, which would be fitting. Meanwhile, Djokovic should be very proud of capturing his 86th career singles titles on the ATP Tour in Paris. The French Open champion has won two titles in that city during the same year for the first time in his career, and no one could argue that he did not thoroughly deserve his latest high honor.
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.
Novak Djokovic’s Moment Too Big For Tsitsipas
Perhaps, it was too much for Stefanos Tsitsipas to think about achieving in one day. That’s beating Novak Djokovic and winning his own initial Grand Slam title, not even to think about the bonus part of the package — becoming the No. 1 player in the world.
At any rate, it obviously wasn’t meant to be for Tsitsipas to derail Djokovic.
Djokovic accomplished it all in one neat package. Say hello to the player many tennis experts are now calling the greatest player ever. Of course, that’s a little premature due to the fact Rafa Nadal was all alone with 22 Grand Slam titles before Djokovic matched the total on Sunday by winning the Australian Open’s men’s singles title.
FORGET THE GOAT TALK
Then, there’s the great Roger Federer, in reality, possibly the greatest player who ever lived.
So, forget GOAT. It doesn’t matter, whether Nadal or Djokovic wins another Grand Slam title.
Poor Federer. He’s probably home with his children laughing about all of this.
And Rod Laver? Of course, Laver was on hand to watch Djokovic’s superhuman effort.
Back to reality. The moment.
Djokovic lived there Sunday night.
THE MOMENT WAS TOO MUCH FOR TSITSIPAS
Tsitsipas wasn’t ready for the challenge. Djokovic certainly was.
It’s as simple as that.
Novak played great. Tsitsipas didn’t give himself a chance to win.
Djokovic stayed in the moment. Tsitsipas allowed the situation to take over his game and apparently his mind.
Tsitsipas must have been back home in Greece where he would be crowned if he could be No. 1 in the world and win a Grand Slam.
NEAR-PERFECT NOVAK A LEGEND
Tsitsipas had his chances, even though he was down 4-1 in the first set before you could blink an eye.
He actually was two points from winning the second set in regulation, then quickly fell behind, 4-1, in the tiebreaker.
Tsitsipas took the third set to another tiebreaker, but lost the first five points and then lost the match, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).
He never seemed to be keyed into the match, repeatedly miss-hitting key shots, even to open courts.
Meanwhile, Djokovic was near-perfect. He surely is a great one, a legend.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open
It’s a good thing the Aussies allowed Novak Djokovic to stay in Melbourne this year.
Otherwise, the young crowd of players might have taken over completely in this Australian Open. After all, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek among others didn’t stick around very long.
Novak is saving the day Down Under for the great ones.
This is an Australian Open unlike any in recent years. It’s almost like the Australian Open, with its usual midnight to early-morning Eastern Time matches has taken a step backward in world tennis.
American fans apparently no longer can watch those great matches that start at 3 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. ET, except on ESPN+.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN LOST IN THE SHUFFLE
This Australian Open appears to be kind of lost in the shuffle this January, virtually taking away its major status.
In the absence of those early-morning battles, I guess it’s okay that most of the top men and women other than Novak, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Tommy Paul, Elena Rybakina and Jessie Pegula have sang their Aussie songs and headed elsewhere, except maybe for doubles.
Don’t overlook the tall Russian Rybakina on the women’s side. She’s two wins away from her second Grand Slam title, having upended the top-ranked Swiatek in the round of 16 and then taking care of former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals.
ALMOST LIKE A COLLEGE EVENT
Ben Shelton and J.J. Wolf are certainly outstanding American college level talents that came racing out of the winter red-hot.
But like MacKenzie McDonald, who thrashed an unprepared Nadal with a college-like all-power game only to falter the next round against a journeyman player like Yoshihito Nishioka, it’s doubtful that either Shelton or Wolf can stand the test of the only great one left — Djokovic.
In the long run, Shelton especially and Wolf likely will be stars. But these newcomers aren’t likely to hit the tour with the greatness that Carlos Alcaraz displayed when he was healthy during the last half of 2022.
WATCH FOR THE OTHER STARS AFTER AUSTRALIA
Other stars from last year such as Jannik Sinner, Cameron Norrie, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime will make their own noise once the tour hits Europe and America.
As far as Americans other than Paul, I like the looks of young Jenson Brooksby, who upended the second-ranked Ruud in the second round. The 22-year-old Brooksby looks like a future star, that is if he gets in better physical condition.
Thus, Novak appears to be an almost certainty to sweep to his 22nd major title in an event that has been his own private playground for much of his career. That shouldn’t change on Sunday in the Australian Open final.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris
Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.
Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.
To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.
Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.
It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.
He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.
Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.
Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.
There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.
And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.
Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.
Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.
Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.
Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.
An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.
In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.
Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.
Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.
No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.
What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.
In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.
Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.
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