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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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Brazilian Rising Star Joao Fonseca Waives College Eligibility To Turn Pro

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One of Brazil’s most promising young tennis players has made the bold decision to abandon a dream of his to play college tennis in America to turn pro. 

17-year-old Jaoao Fonseca was committed to playing college tennis at the University of Virginia but says professional tennis has called him in a way he couldn’t refuse. The rising star has played just two Tour-level events so far in his career and is currently ranked 343rd in the world. 

At last week’s Rio Open, he became the second-youngest player after Alexander Zverev to reach the quarter-finals of an ATP 500 event since the category was introduced. In his home tournament, the Brazillian beat Arthur Fils and Cristian Garin before losing to Mariano Navone.

“It was an incredibly tough decision for me and my family as I have been dreaming about living a college life in Charlottesville, playing the sport that l love with a wonderful team and coach, but, in the last months, professional tennis called me in a way that I simply couldn’t say no,” Fonseca wrote in a statement published on Instagram
“Although I will not be attending school, I think it is an extremely valuable and viable path for young players in their way to professional careers,” he added.

Fonseca has already enjoyed success on the junior circuit. Last year he was runner-up in the doubles tournament at the Australian Open boy’s event. Then at the US Open, he won his first Grand Slam junior title in singles. He is also a former ITF Junior World No.1 and is currently ranked second in the standings. 

The youngster has already been hailed by compatriot Beatriz Haddad Maia, who is currently ranked 13th on the WTA Tour. Speaking to reporters at the San Diego Open, she has offered her support to Fonseca if he needs it. 

“João is a nice person. He has a great future, if he keeps working hard and keeps doing what he’s doing. I think he has a very aggressive mentality and tennis.” She said.

“We sometimes text each other, but not that much. But I’m always following.. not only him.. but the Brazilians. I’m proud of what he’s doing. He has a long way and he needs to understand that it’s a marathon, it’s not a 100 meter race.’
“Tennis has its ups and downs. I wish him all the best, for sure. I’ll be here whenever he wants. I’m happy with what he’s doing.” 

Fonseca played at the Chile Open this week but lost in the first round to Thiago Agustin Tirante.

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Injured Alcaraz Pulls Out of Rio Open After Two Games

A sprained ankle a couple of minutes into his debut at the Rio Open forced top seed Carlos Alcaraz to abandon his match against Thiago Monteiro

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Carlos Alcaraz after the injury - Rio 2024 (photo Tennis TV)

For world no. 2 Carlos Alcaraz, this year’s Rio Open lasted two games: the Spanish champion had to retire on the score of 1-1 in the first set during his first-round match against Brazilian Thiago Monteiro due to a sprained right ankle suffered in the second point of the match.

In an accident somewhat reminiscent of the terrible one suffered by Zverev in the semi-final of Roland Garros 2022, Alcaraz’s right foot “got stuck”  in the clay as he returned towards the center of the court after returning from the left, and he immediately flew to the ground dropping his racket. The Spaniard immediately asked for a medical time-out, but as soon as he took off his shoe it was immediately clear that his ankle had already swollen.

After having a tight bandage applied, Alcaraz tried to continue the match, but just two games later he understood that it was not possible to continue so he shook hands with his opponent, abandoning the Brazilian tournament.

The match was played on a very heavy court due to the rain that had fallen heavily during the day. The organizers had been forced to cancel the daytime session and play could only begin around 7.30 pm local time, after the courts had remained under pouring water all day.

Alcaraz told the press present in Rio: “I think these things happen, especially on clay. It wasn’t a problem with the court, I hurt myself in a change of direction and this happens on this type of surface. I went back into the match to see if I could continue or not. I spoke to the physiotherapist on the court and we decided, together, that I would continue to see if the ankle would improve. It didn’t happen, so we preferred to be cautious and withdraw as a precaution.”

Considering that Alcaraz left the court on his own two feet and managed to wobble through a couple of games after the injury, it is quite likely that the injury he suffered is much less serious than the one that kept Alexander Zverev away from tournaments for over seven months. However, it will be necessary to verify whether it is just a sprain or whether tendons or ligaments have been involved. If this were to be the case, the prognosis could turn out to be longer, and this is happening less than two weeks before the start of the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami.

The Spaniard is scheduled to play an exhibition in Las Vegas on 3rd March against Rafael Nadal: it will be decided in the next few days whether to withdraw as a precaution for the first Masters 1000 of the season in Indian Wells.

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Can Jannik Sinner dodge the morning-after syndrome?

Very few players have managed to follow up their first triumph in a Major. Hewitt is the last new Grand Slam champion to immediately win an ATP title. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all misfired, can Jannik Sinner do better?

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Jannik Sinner - Australian Open 2024 (photo: X @federtennis)

By Roman Bongiorno

“The morning-after syndrome,” as they call it. The list of great champions who have suffered from it – Carlos Alcaraz, Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, is impressive.  Some of the most illustrious names in our sport, the most successful ever. Yet, even for those who are legends, the match immediately after their first Grand Slam triumph is often an insurmountable hurdle.

The very young Spanish phenomenon, born in 2003, was the latest striking example. After winning the 2022 US Open and becoming the new world No. 1, Alcaraz managed to win just one set in his next two matches: he lost 6-7 6-4 6-2 in the Davis Cup against Felix Auger Aliassime, who was definitely on fire in that period, and was inflicted a 7-5 6-3 defeat by veteran David Goffin in his first match at the ATP 500 in Astana.

Mentally, it’ not easy. The most important triumph of one’s life, immediately to be put aside.  And go back to work. The media are quick to pounce on any slip, headlines hinting at signs of a career already over: “it’s gone to his head”, “he has made his money” etc.

Less than a year later, Carlos Alcaraz was once more a Grand Slam champion, beating Novak Djokovic in the final at Wimbledon.

Just think of tennis legends such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who fell victims to this serious syndrome. The former, after his triumph at Roland Garros 2005, stepped back on court on the green grass of Halle, losing in 3 sets to the world number 147 German Alexander Waske: 4-6 7-5 6-3. For many, that was a disastrous defeat foreshadowing a future that would not be as bright as it had seemed. Rafa told another story, by winning another 21 Grand Slam titles, on every surface.

The Serbian, on the other hand, thrived on the hard courts of Melbourne, just like Jannik Sinner. In 2008, after winning the title, he was engaged in Davis Cup against Russia. He did not finish his rubber against Nikolay Davydenko and retired at the beginning of the fourth set while trailing 2 sets to 1. In his first ATP tour appearance, in Marseille, after brushing aside Ivan Dodig, he was ousted in three sets by Gilles Simon. Over the following 15 years Novak Djokovic went on to become the has become the most successful player ever.

What about Roger Federer? After lifting the trophy won at Wimbledon in 2003, he moved to the home clay of Gstaad.  He survived the morning-after syndrome  after a fierce but victorious struggle in the first round with the Spaniard Marc Lopez, ranked No.190. Then he cruised till the final, but was defeated in a five set hustle 5-7 6-3 6-3 1-6 6-3 by Jiri Novak.

The morning-after did not spare Juan Martin del Potro. After his stunning victory over Federer at the 2009 US Open, he set foot on an ATP tennis court three weeks later in Tokyo. It was Edouard Roger Vassellin, 189th in the world, who spoiled the party, neatly defeating the Argentinian in two sets, 64 64.

Even “Ice man” Bjorn Borg, the man without (apparent) emotions, focused only on tennis and winning, lost the first match after his success at Roland Garros 1974. He was defeated in the first round in Nottingham by world No. 71 Milan Holecek from Czechoslovakia. Over the next years he definitely made up for that impasse on English lawns.

A rare bird at last, and not by chance does it come from Australia, a land which is ever so rich in unique species. Lleyton Hewitt, who in 2001 after steamrolling Pete Sampras in the US Open final, immediately won his next matches, two singles rubbers in the Davis Cup against Jonas Bjorkman and Thomas Johansson, and then went on to win in Tokyo by beating Michel Kratochvil in the final.

Jannik Sinner has been building up his success on gruelling feats. Sure he’s eager to be back on the Dutch indoor courts of Rotterdam where he enjoyed a brilliant run last year, only surrendering to Danil Medvedev in the final. Just one year ago the Russian seemed an impossible opponent to defeat. Now, in the last 4 challenges, Jannik has beaten him 4 times. The last one, in the final of the Australian Open.

Rotterdam could have been the stage for a rematch, but Medvedev has pulled out of the tournament. Jannik Sinner appears as a favourite, and is vying to close in on that third place of the rankings currently held by Daniil.

Jannik has set out on his mission. But even if he were to be defeated in the first round by an opponent ranked beyond the top 200, no one should dare cry failure. Italy at last has a Grand Slam winner, and he is not to be downplay him in case of first defeats.

Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye

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