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Novak Djokovic Concludes Complicated Year on a High Note

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Tennis authorities have long lauded Novak Djokovic for a wide range of attributes which define who he is and why he has accomplished so prodigiously. He has almost inarguably the greatest return of serve the game has yet seen. His stellar two-handed backhand is right up there among the best ever. His inexorable combination of offense and defense from the backcourt is clinically unassailable. And his uncanny precision on serve is never talked about as much as it should be.

 

But the 35-year-old Djokovic outdid himself this past week in Turin at the Nitto ATP Championships as he became by far the oldest champion ever at the event. In taking a title for the sixth time that is the most prestigious in men’s tennis outside of the four Grand Slam championships—placing himself in a tie with Roger Federer for the record— Djokovic demonstrably displayed something larger, deeper and more important about himself. He prevailed with the kind of willpower only the most steadfast champions can summon. The last three times he stepped on court at the end of the tournament for appointments against Daniil Medvedev, Taylor Fritz and Casper Ruud, Djokovic battled extreme fatigue and occasional dizziness. His hands were shaking at some changeovers. Seldom has he looked as debilitated in the arena over the last decade and even beyond. The cause of his turmoil was a mystery to him and everyone else, but Djokovic fought on valiantly until his work was complete. He had not won this tournament since 2015, and clearly he was absolutely determined to regain that crown and conclude a complicated year on his terms. 

Ultimately, Djokovic did just that by casting aside five of the world’s top ten players at the cost of only one set across a remarkable week for his 91st career ATP singles title and his fifth tournament win in an abbreviated 2022 campaign. Djokovic took apart the earnest and admirable Norwegian Ruud 7-5, 6-3 in the final at Turin with another exemplary demonstration of his court craft. It was his way of announcing to the tennis world and his colleagues that he may not be ranked No. 1 in the world anymore after occupying that lofty post for a record 373 weeks and an unprecedented seven season-ending finishes at the top, but he irrefutably remains the best player in the sport. The only reason he will wrap up this year at No. 5 is because he could not compete at two of the four Grand Slam tournaments and he missed a slew of other big events— including four Masters 1000 hard court tournaments— as a result of being unvaccinated.

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In Turin, Djokovic moved economically through his first two matches in the Red Group during the round robin. He took apart Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 7-6 (4) without losing his serve, breaking the Greek stylist in the first game of the match and then ending the contest with a nearly impeccable tie-break performance. Next he accounted for Andrey Rublev 6-4, 6-1, sweeping eight of the last nine games with growing assurance.

By the time Djokovic confronted Daniil Medvedev in his last round robin assignment, he had already qualified for the semifinals and was also assured of winning his group. His match with the Russian was fundamentally about pride and a significant rivalry in the upper regions of the game. Medvedev had lost two heartbreakers prior to his meeting with Djokovic, falling in final set tie-breaks to both Rublev and Tsitsipas. But he approached this duel versus Djokovic with serious intentions, wanting to achieve one morale boosting win for the week after two bruising setbacks.

That was commendable. But Djokovic’s full out intensity and unwavering professionalism was even more impressive. He was scheduled for a semifinal on Saturday and, potentially, a Sunday final. Competing against top of the line adversaries three days in a row was a demanding task. Others in Djokovic’s shoes might have wanted to avoid a long and strenuous contest at all costs, feeling they had to conserve their energy for the weekend.

Not Djokovic. He treated this round robin clash as if it was a major final, and so, too, did Medvedev. Their confrontation was in many ways the highlight of the week. The court conditions were the fastest of the year and Djokovic exploited that to the hilt over the course of the opening set. He broke Medvedev for 5-3, and then served it out in the ninth game, holding at 30 with a backhand winner up the line.

At 1-1 in the second set, Djokovic had a break point that might have sealed the deal, but an increasingly formidable Medvedev fended off the Serbian in a 28 stroke exchange that ended when Djokovic netted a backhand down the line drop shot. They went on serve to 4-4, and once more Djokovic advanced to break point. Medvedev wiped it away with a forehand winner off a short ball. Djokovic then saved three set points on his serve at 4-5 with a perfect serve-and-volley combination, an ace down the T and a spectacular running crosscourt forehand winner that landed on the sideline, ending a dazzling 33 stroke rally. To 5-5 went Djokovic.

 And yet, his fatigue was starting to surface. Djokovic was doing everything in his power to get off the court with a two set victory, and he nearly pulled it off. The set was settled in a tie-break. The score in that sequence was locked at 5-5 when Djokovic got to the net behind a forehand down the line. Medvedev teased him with a low backhand sliced pass, forcing Djokovic to play a difficult low volley. Now Medvedev drove his two-hander up the line and rushed a lunging Djokovic into a forehand volley error. He secured the next point to make it one set all.

By this time, Djokovic was breathing uncomfortably, and not moving with his customary alacrity. He looked to shorten points with excellent serving-and-volleying in the deuce court, pulling the Russian wide and opening up the court for winning volleys. He also took calculated risks off the ground while Medvedev settled rhythmically into many long rallies and tried to exploit his opponent’s physical vulnerability. At 4-4, Djokovic fought ferociously through an eight deuce game and had no fewer than seven game points, but Medvedev would not let go.

The Russian broke through after 16 pulsating minutes, and seemed almost certain to prevail in this high quality skirmish. But Djokovic was undismayed. When Medvedev served for the match in the tenth game, Djokovic lost only one point in breaking back for 5-5, taking advantage of a Medvedev double fault at 15-30 and then coming forward to put away a backhand volley on the following point. After both men secured difficult holds, it all came down to a final set tie-break, and Djokovic ran away with it in the end. He did not make a single mistake in that sequence, missing only one first serve, closing it out seven points to a two with a searing backhand down the line setting up a forehand down the line into the clear. Djokovic came through 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2).

That encounter lasted three hours and eleven minutes. Djokovic thus toppled Medvedev for the third time in a row since losing the 2021 U.S. Open final to the Russian when he was three sets away from the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969, raising his record against the Russian to 8-4. But it had taken a considerable toll to get the job done in Turin. The last two sets featured one lung-busting rally after another. Djokovic would lose his breath, regain it, then lose it again.

One day later, he took on Taylor Fritz in the semifinals. Fortunate to be in the field at all, the appealing American only made it in because world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz had to withdraw with an injury. Fritz made the most of his opportunity, opening with a 7-6 (3), 6-1 triumph over Rafael Nadal in the Green Group. Fritz served the Spaniard off the lightening fast court, winning 80% of his first serve points, and 70% on second serve. He never even faced a break point. Then the Californian lost a hard fought battle with Ruud, bowing out 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6). Fritz rallied gallantly from 1-5 in the final set tie-break all the way back to 6-6, but, somewhat unluckily, was narrowly beaten in the end. 

And yet, Fritz then ousted Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-2 to propel himself into the semifinals. Across the first two sets, neither player lost serve, but Fritz broke twice in the third. The quick conditions in Turin seemed to suit the American to the hilt. He came into his contest against Djokovic with cautious optimism, fully aware of what he was up against.

Djokovic recovered reasonably well from his ordeal with Medvedev, but remained well below his best. Nevertheless, he achieved a break against the big serving Fritz to take a 3-2 first set lead. Yet he gave it right back in the sixth game with a cluster of unforced errors. Unsurprisingly, the set was settled in a tie-break, with Djokovic gaining a quick mini-break for 3-2 but immediately sending a routine forehand into the net. Soon the Serbian served at 4-5. Rising to meet that crucial moment, he connected with a first serve that opened the court for a forehand winner; drove a forehand cleanly down the line that Fritz barely touched; and then laced a forehand down with the line supremely, with his shot landing safely in the corner for a winner. Three straight clutch points played by Djokovic carried him to a one set lead.

After experiencing dizziness at the changeover, Djokovic lost his serve somewhat carelessly at the start of the second set. He trailed 3-5, 0-30, but held on with some good fortune and then Fritz served for the set in the tenth game, advancing to 30-15. Djokovic’s backhand down the line was too good. At 30-30, Djokovic’s return was short, but as Fritz came forward for a backhand down the line, a spectator screamed something inaudible from the stands. Fritz grimaced after missing that shot and then Djokovic drew an error with a deep sliced backhand to climb back to 5-5.

Fittingly, another tie-break was played. Djokovic had match point on his own serve at 6-5 but drove a routine two-hander well long. Changing ends at 6-6, Djokovic calmly collected his thoughts and sent a stunningly precise serve down the T to set up a swing volley to win the point. Then Fritz erred off the forehand. Djokovic prevailed 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6). By his standards, he had given a less than scintillating performance. But, most significantly, on the biggest points he played his best tennis.

Now the Serbian had to find it within himself to put it all on the line for the third day in a row. Everything was at stake in the final. Ruud had surprised a whole lot of people—including himself—by raising his game to such a high level in a setting that did not necessarily suit him well. Win or lose against Djokovic, his year was going to end exceedingly well. In the spring on the hard courts in Miami, he was runner-up to Alcaraz. A few months later, he was a finalist at the French Open, beaten there soundly by Nadal. And then he made a stirring run to the U.S. Open final before Alcaraz stopped him again.

In Turin, after defeating Auger-Aliassime and Fritz in the round robin and sealing a spot in the semifinals, Ruud was beaten 7-5, 7-5 by Nadal in his last Green Group clash. He proceeded to take apart Rublev 6-2, 6-4 to make it to the final. Rublev had garnered his semifinal place by coming from behind to defeat Tsitsipas for a 2-1 record, finishing second in the Red Group behind Djokovic. But Ruud made only two unforced errors in the first set and never looked back. He took 73% of his second serve points in the match and left Rublev dumbfounded about what to do. The Russian could not hit through him.

Djokovic seemed unsettled in the early stages of the final, and his hands were shaking again at one of the changeovers. But he gradually gained strength and stability.  He realized that he was barely going to be threatened on serve. Meanwhile, he had an immediate opening on Ruud’s serve in the second game at 15-40. Uncharacteristically, he went inside in off the backhand instead of his customary down the middle return, and missed wide. Ruud held on and then went to 0-30 on Djokovic’s serve in the third game.

Ruud had won six points in a row, but he then made a forehand unforced error before Djokovic released a pair of service winners followed by an ace for 2-1. Leading 4-3, Djokovic had another break point that Ruud erased with a clever kicker first serve that coaxed an error from Djokovic. But the Serbian was cruising through his service games. He would win 18 of 21 first serve points in that set and six of eight on his second delivery. In the twelfth game, with Ruud serving to stay in the set, Djokovic made his move. He broke to seal the set by peppering away at the weaker backhand wing of Ruud, drawing the error in the end. Set to Djokovic, 7-5. 

Djokovic was going at full tilt now, finding better depth off the ground, hitting his shots more freely, moving Ruud from side to side and setting the tempo almost entirely. He broke Ruud for 3-1 at the cost of only one point, taking over completely with his lethal forehand to keep Ruud at bay. That was essentially the match. Djokovic sedulously protected that break the rest of the way. Serving for the match at 5-3, Djokovic missed two forehand approaches off short, chipped Ruud returns. But it didn’t matter. At 30-30, he succeeded in a 36 stoke rally, jumping on a Ruud backhand drop shot, driving it deep crosscourt off his two-hander and forcing a lob long. Then he closed out the account fittingly with an ace down the T.

Djokovic connected with 71% of his first serves, won 33 of 39 first serve points (85%), and took 11 of 16 second serve points (69%). Ruud never even reached deuce on the Djokovic serve. Moreover, Djokovic was masterful from the baseline and unbothered by the heaviness of the Ruud forehand.

It was an outstanding serving week for Djokovic. In his five matches consisting of eleven sets, he was broken three times. Three of his five opponents—Ruud, Rublev and Tsitsipas—never broke him at all. He realized that on the fast, low bouncing court in Turin, his serve would be critical, and put plenty of emphasis on it.

When Djokovic won his fifth ATP Finals crown in 2015, it was his fourth title in a row. The following year, he faced Andy Murray in the final with the No.1 year-end ranking on the line in London, losing a straight set final to the British standout. Injured in 2017, he did not play the event but the following year he rolled into the final, suffering a surprising loss to Sascha Zverev after beating the German in the round robin. In 2019, the Serbian lost to Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem in the round robin and did not quality for the semifinals, and then he lost to Thiem again in a riveting semifinal after leading 4-0 in the final set tie-break two years ago. Last year, Djokovic was perfect in the round robin but lost a hard fought semifinal to Thiem.

So this triumph in Turin was long overdue. It will carry him into 2023 with considerable confidence. After a slow start this past year— largely brought about by his not being allowed to play the Australian Open—Djokovic was magnificent the rest of the season, capturing four of his last five tournaments, losing only to Holger Rune in the final of the Rolex Paris Masters. He will now return to the Australian Open in search of a tenth crown “Down Under” and a 22nd major as well, which would tie him with Nadal.

Undoubtedly, Djokovic will be the favorite in Melbourne, and he might well recover the No. 1 world ranking with a triumph there. Alcaraz will be severely hindered in his preparation for the first major of the year as he recovers from a serious injury. Nadal did salvage something by ending a four match losing streak with his win over Rublev in Turin. He ends 2022 at No. 2 in the world behind his young countryman. Perhaps he will make another run at the upcoming Australian Open, but the view here is that he will be hard pressed to defend his title. He will, however, be a demon on the clay as usual, and a big threat to win title No. 15 at Roland Garros.

Ruud made immense strides in 2022 and deserves his No. 3 year-end ranking. Tsitsipas finishes at No. 4 but he is an enigma. He is one of the most complete players in the world of tennis but often his own worst enemy. After he lost to Rublev in Turin he made some ludicrous remarks about how he was the more “creative” player. Too often he gets in his own way, but he will always be a strong contender at the majors.

The rest of the top ten will be fascinating to watch next year. Auger-Aliassime had a sparkling three title run this fall. He may suffer some stunning losses in 2023 but he also might just take his first major. Medvedev, who spent some time at No. 1 this year, finishes 2022 disappointingly at No. 7 after winning only two tournaments. He was an unlucky fellow in Turin. In addition to serving for the match against both Djokovic and Tsitsipas, he saved seven set points in the opening set against Rublev and nearly stole the third set from 6-3 down in the tie-break, losing that blockbuster of an all-Russian duel 6-7 (7), 6-3, 7-6 (7).

Medvedev will make inroads again in 2023, but will he win a second career major? I have my doubts, although I am not counting him out. Rounding out the top ten in the rankings are Fritz and Hubert Hurkacz. Fritz should be enormously proud of his No. 9 finish in 2022. I believe he can move a few places higher next year with his dynamic serve and easy power off the ground. Hurkacz has a big game but he can self destruct with his negativity at times. Right behind him at No. 11 is Rune, who seems certain to push on into the top five in the year ahead. He has the game and the temperament to achieve on a lofty scale next year.

But the feeling grows that Novak Djokovic will be the 2023 “Man of the Year” in tennis.   

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Emma Raducanu Draws Inspiration From Andy Murray Ahead Of 2023

Emma Raducanu spoke about Andy Murray’s influence on her career.

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(@HeartThamesNews - Twitter)

Emma Raducanu has spoke about Andy Murray’s influence on her career and is optimistic about turning her form in 2023.

 

The former US Open hasn’t had too bad of an off-season after receiving her MBE for her services to sport.

Raducanu made history in 2021 as she won the US Open as a qualifier at 18 years of age.

However the Brit has yet to back that up with Raducanu changing coach on a number of occasions as she looks for some stability in 2023.

Speaking in a recent interview with Grazia Raducanu said that she believes that momentum can change quickly in tennis and that confidence is the key to success, “[In tennis] it could look like it’s all going down, down, down and just not getting any better,” Raducanu was quoted by tennishead as saying.

“Just one match can have a big influence on your confidence and once you have confidence and the momentum comes, you feel like you can’t lose. It’s a very individual sport – people are friendly but it’s difficult to be really close with those you’re competing with.”

One player that can relate to what Raducanu is saying is Andy Murray with confidence being a key theme of the highs and lows of Murray’s career.

Raducanu said that she talks to Murray regularly about the highs and lows of tennis, “Andy Murray is so good to talk to because he’s been through pretty much what I’ve been going through,” Raducanu said.

“I have always looked up to him and watched him winning his first Wimbledon and the Olympics.”

Raducanu will hope that she can use Murray’s words as inspiration for next season as she currently sits at 75 in the world.

The Brit will start her season in 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand on the 2nd of January.

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Fernando Verdasco Given Two Month Doping Ban

Fernando Verdasco has been banned from tennis until the 8th of January.

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Fernando Verdasco (@UniversTennis - Twitter)

Fernando Verdasco will miss the first week of the 2023 season after being provisionally suspended for two months after testing positive for the drug methylphenidate.

 

The former world number seven tested positive for the drug at the Challenger event in Rio De Janeiro and has accepted a voluntary ban until the 8th of January.

As well as testing positive for the drug methylphenidate, Verdasco had also forgot to renew his Therapeutic Use Exemption despite the Spaniard admitting that he was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

In a statement published today the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), explained why his ban has been shortened from two years to two months, “The ITIA accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” they said in a statement on his website.

“In the specific circumstances of this case, based on the player’s degree of fault the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme allows for the applicable period of ineligibility to be reduced from two years to two months.”

The 39 year-old will as a result miss the first week of the new season with the Spaniard being currently ranked at world number 125.

In 2022, Verdasco’s best results on the ATP tour were quarter-final performances in Buenos Aires and Estoril while he also won a challenger title in Monterrey in March.

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‘I Hope I Can Keep Up’ – Alexander Zverev Speaks Out Ahead Of Return From Injury

After suffering a horrific accident at the French Open, the German is once again raring to go. 

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Alexander Zverev - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

Alexander Zverev says he has missed his fellow rivals as he prepares to return to the court at an exhibition event in Saudi Arabia in just over a week. 

 

The former world No.2 has been absent from the sport since June after badly injuring his ankle in his semi-final match against Rafael Nadal at the French Open. A scan later revealed he had torn various ligaments in his foot and he was later diagnosed with bone edema which is where there is an abnormal amount of fluid around the bone area. He had originally hoped to return to action earlier in the season but was unable to recover in time. 

Instead, Zverev’s first taste of competitive tennis in his comeback will be at the extravagant Diriyah Tennis Cup which features 12 players with the singles champion winning $1M in prize money. 

“I’m just looking forward to being back on court and being back on a competitive court because it’s been a very long time for me,” Zverev said during an interview for the event. “The best players in the world are there so it’s gonna be a high level tournament and I think everybody’s in form because they’re still either coming from Davis Cup or they just came from the ATP Finals so everybody will still be playing great tennis and I hope I can keep up with them.”

Also playing at the event will be Stefanos Tsitsipas, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev. It will be far from an easy return to action for Zverev after his lengthy absence from the sport. However, he is looking forward to being reunited with his peers. 

“I’ve also missed those guys to be honest even though we’re competitors but I have great friends there as well. You know, I missed seeing those guys on tour,” he said.
“I feel like me and Dominic (Thiem), we haven’t seen each other for almost two years now because he was injured in 2021 And I was injured in 2022. So we missed each other in a way. Yeah, so I’m just looking forward to being back on tour and I’m just looking forward to getting matches.”

Prior to his injury setback, the 25-year-old has won 29 out of 39 matches played this season with his best run being to the finals of events in Montpellier and Madrid. Out of those 29 wins, only three were against top-10 opposition.

Explaining his decision to play in Saudi Arabia, Zverev said it was important for him to play matches against the best in the world ahead of the new season. Some players have been criticized for playing in the country due to its human rights record. Saudi Arabia has been accused of sportswashing which is the process of staging sports events to improve the image of a country which has been tarnished by wrongdoing. 

“You don’t want your first event to be back in Australia, because you then feel like okay, you may be fit physically, you may be in the best shape of your life, but if you haven’t played matches in seven months, it’s still a different fitness level it is still a different, mental stress as well,” Zverev explained. 
“So you want to play before the Australian Open and I think that’s why Saudi Arabia fits in so well this year.” 

The Diriyah Tennis Cup will begin on December 8th. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaCyGMghDMM

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