The sorrows of the young Sinner - UBITENNIS
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The sorrows of the young Sinner

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How strong is Jannik Sinner really? How the renaissance of Italian tennis deflated in Rome…

By Ubaldo Scanagatta

What could have been a memorable fortnight in Rome, despite some questionable scheduling and court quality, was hampered not only by the dire weather but also by the Italian players, who didn’t live up to the expectations. For the first time since 2019 no Italian, man or woman, featured in the quarterfinals. 

Jannik Sinner had reached the quarter finals one year ago, where he was defeated by Tsitsipas (76 62). In 2021 Lorenzo Sonego had an outstanding run to the semifinals, putting away Thiem and Rublev, and was only halted by Djokovic. Matteo Berrettini made it to the quarterfinals in 2020, where he lost to Ruud. 

Have we been overly trumpeting a Renaissance of Italian tennis in these years?

If we delve into the matter, we cannot really blame Matteo Berrettini for missing Internazionali BNL d’Italia two times in a row because of an endless string of injuries, neither can we criticize Lorenzo Sonego and Lorenzo Musetti for losing in straight sets against Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 5 in the world and one of the best clay specialists, a two-time winner in Montecarlo, finalist in Roland Garros 2021 and Rome 2022. And Marco Cecchinato, while brushing away Bautista Agut, flashed glimmers of his heyday, namely 2018-19 when he reached the semifinals in Paris and a peak ranking at No.16.

Sonego even had two setpoints in the second set, which he didn’t play so brilliantly. Musetti had snatched a break in the second set but let the Greek back in before fatally dropping serve in the 12th game, just like in the first set. When the points get tight, the gap between the top players and the others suddenly widens.

There is no doubt that the great disappointment came when Jannik Sinner unexpectedly lost to Francisco Cerundolo. Throughout his young career the Argentinian had already beaten three top ten players (Ruud, Rublev and Auger-Aliassime) and is a tough hurdle to clear on clay, but the way he disposed of Sinner in the last two sets with a double 62 was discomforting.    

A great disappointment because expectations were immense, considering that in the three Masters 1000 he played this year he had reached one final (Miami) and two semifinals (Indian Wells and Montecarlo).

 Djokovic and Alcaraz, were the first two favourites for the title. But Sinner was rated as a third pick. And once Alcaraz and Djokovic were most unexpectedly ousted from the tournament he appeared as a likely winner. Also because Tsitispas hadn’t got off to brilliant start of clay season; Ruud had been struggling even more and Medvedev had never won a match in this previous four participations in Rome. 

So is Sinner really as strong as here in Italy we say he is? Only Einstein could answer: it’s all relative.

Of course he’s a strong player. And it’s likely he’s going to stay in the top 10 for a long time. Much longer than Panatta, Barazzutti and Fognini did. Probably also than Berrettini, who has already been in the top ten longer than the three I mentioned, though helped by  favourable circumstances, like the frozen rankings due to Covid.

How strong is he? Well, it depends on who we compare him with. If we look at his birth certificate, we cannot but think of Carlitos Alcaraz and Holger Rune.

Well, perhaps we have a little exaggerated, spurred by patriotism and craving for a true Italian champion, who has been missing since Panatta. Because the results achieved by Alcaraz, a Major and 4 Masters 1000, as well as No. 1 of the ATP ranking are quite different. It’s true that Jannik has beaten him on 3 occasions out of 6, at Wimbledon, Umag and Miami, not to mention the epic match at the US Open when he lost in 5 sets after having a match point. But this simply means that Alcaraz suffers his game, his powerful hitting from the baseline. In this sense there’s not such a huge gap, but many other aspects have to be taken into account.

Which are Jannik’s limits, compared with the current No. 1 in the world? Alcaraz is a much more complete player in terms of touch and finesse, natural gameplay fluidity, explosiveness of shots, physical strength, athleticism and variety of recovery skills and, therefore, unpredictability, tactical ductility, from serve and volley which he sometimes executes persistently, as he did against Medvedev, never looking like a fish out of water at the net) to marathon runner resilience. He can mix up powerful serves and kick serves, continuously varying angles and spin. His dropshots are completely natural. Jannik’s tennis, instead, often gives the impression of being robotic, even though he has made great progress in the last year.         

I have often said that Jannik Sinner resembles Ivan Lendl, because Ivan’s philosophy was centred on work, work, and work, but he definitely wasn’t endowed with the same natural talent as John McEnroe. Yet he won more than McEnroe and this must be the hope, the goal of Sinner and his team.

Rune is a much more natural talent than Jannik. And it’s not only his mentor who says this.  He’s more complete, he serves better, he lands drop shots with greater ease, he can alternate powerful groundstrokes and changes of pace…like Big Cat Mecir. He plays a clever tennis, instinctive at times, but also well-reasoned.

He has already won a Masters 1000, and he’s ahead of Jannik. He’s got a big personality, though sometimes he comes up with unpleasant behaviour on court. He quite reminds me of McEnroe. People just would wait for Mac to meltdown. It will be the same with Rune. The way he put away Djokovic, in spite of the match interruption due to rain which probably cost him the second set, proves his mental qualities. He had displayed the same qualities when he beat Sinner in Montecarlo.

He has achieved goals which Jannik has just got close to. Jannik seems to be often hampered by injuries. He’s not a natural tennis player, he’s not a natural athlete. But his desire to succeed is so impressive that he will overcome these shortcomings.

Alcaraz lost to Marozsan, but before losing he tried everything. He snatched a 4-1 lead in the tiebreak of the second set, which he ended up losing 7-4, because he too is young and can suddenly have lapses. But he battled away and tried to change tactics, whereas Jannik seemed flat and just gave in, without finding the strength to react and fight back.

Sinner is young too, and sooner or later he’s going to get through these situations. But he has to find his way. Many are the features of his game he has to work on: his serve, his volleys. His ultimate breakthrough is still to come.      

Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye  

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Can Defensive Tennis Still Be A Success Story In Women’s Tennis?

Slam triumphs, top rankings: in just a few years we have witnessed the rise and fall of a certain way of playing tennis. So what’s really been happening? Kerber, Halep, and Wozniacki have been the latest successful performers of defensive gameplay.

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

The last two WTA 1000 events, Miami and Madrid, whose final featured Danielle Collins vs. Elena Rybakina and Iga Swiatek vs. Aryna Sabalenka respectively, have confirmed a trend that in recent seasons seems more and more entrenched in the women’s tour: the prevalence of offensive tennis over defensive tennis.

Compared to a few years ago, things seem to have profoundly changed, to the point of almost being reversed. This does not mean that a certain type of “reactive” game has disappeared, nor that tennis based on the effectiveness of the defensive component has been scrapped. Yet, it is a matter of fact that players who rely predominantly on this approach struggle to break through and reach the top positions, unlike just a few years ago.

Before trying to identify the reasons for this phenomenon, it is necessary to verify whether the thesis is true. Here are some data. Below are the WTA rankings of the past years starting from 2015. I have highlighted in yellow the players who, in my opinion, can be associated with a defensive type of tennis.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Carattere, numero

Descrizione generata automaticamente

A first comment on the 2015-17 period and the players I highlighted. Few doubts about Wozniacki, Kerber, Svitolina, and Errani. These are athletes who were never afraid of engaging in long rallies, and who often strove to turn the match into an endurance challenge, an arm wrestle over durability. It was not logical for them to seek quick and rushed points.

Including Simona Halep may seem less obvious. However, in my view, in her approach there prevails a tendency to rely on a “reaction” strategy, hitting back at her opponent’s choices; a counter-attack game, specular to an idea of pure aggressive tennis based on systematically and immediately getting the upper hand in rallies.

That is why I also highlighted Radwanska and Sevastova. In their case, it was mainly their lack of power that forced them to leverage their opponent’s power. As a result, hitting a winner could not be their first option. Winning points by eliciting errors from their opponent was far easier, simply by lengthening the rallies.

I was tempted to include Stephens and Kuznetsova as well, but in their case the matter is particularly complex because they are such eclectic players that they are difficult to confine to just one category. In fact, on the occasion of Sloane Stephens’ victory in the 2017 US Open, I decided to describe Stephens as “indefinable.”

Now let’s move on to the next three years, 2018 to 2020. 

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Carattere, numero

Descrizione generata automaticamente

2018 represents the pinnacle of defensive tennis, with four of its icons at the top of the rankings and three more in the top 15. After all, 2018 is the year that sees Wozniacki win in Australia (defeating Halep in the final), Halep in Paris, and Kerber at Wimbledon. At the WTA Finals in Singapore, Elina Svitolina reaps the most prestigious title of her career.

If 2018 is to be considered the zenith of defensive tennis, since 2019 there has been quite a crushing decline, confirmed by the rankings of the last three years, 2021 to 2023. 

Here follows a chart of the results in the Slams and WTA Finals from 2015 to 2024.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Parallelo, Carattere

Descrizione generata automaticamente

The final Top 10 ranking 2023 featured no player with a markedly defensive imprint. Daria Kasatkina was the only flagbearer holding on in the top 20.  Players deploying aggressive tennis now seem to have taken the lead in operations.

Which are the causes that have led to the current scenario? I have identified three, which may also have been acting jointly.

1) Lack of generational turnover

One possible thesis is that the structural conditions of the women’s tour haven’t changed significantly, but that we are simply going through an episodic lack of generational turnover in defensive tennis. A temporary blackout which is bound to be overcome over time.

Wozniacki (born 1990) and Kerber (born 1988) were halted first by physical issues and then by maternity leave. Maternity also for Svitolina (born 1994), while Halep (born 1991) has been sidelined for almost two years by her doping case. In essence, all of the strongest defensive tennis players have disappeared from the top ranks due to factors unrelated to the court; somewhat prematurely, and that is also why there has not been time to find successors.

On the other hand, as of today, there are not many players aged under 30 on the horizon. I would mention Mertens (born 1995) and Kasatkina (born 1997). If we take into account that a possible alternative like Sorribes Tormo (best ranking 28) is 27, it’s quite hard to identify who can perpetuate defensive tennis.

2) Changed game conditions

For this second hypothesis, we are venturing along a complex and uneven path, which would require much more space for being addressed as it deserves. In short, the proposition holds that “slow” playing conditions favour defensive tennis, whereas “fast” playing conditions snugly fit with aggressive tennis. Should this hypothesis turn out to be grounded, organizers would simply have to decide to speed up or slow down the playing conditions and tables would be turned.

I recall the “very slow” 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore, won by Svitolina over Stephens.  As far as I am concerned, I do not have such data to suggest that in recent years the playing conditions have been sped up, thus penalizing defensive players. Almost certainly the last Finals (Guadalajara, Forth Worth, and Cancun) were played in faster conditions than the previous editions held in Asia, but it is far more complicated to prove this for the Slams and other major tournaments. 

I remember that when talking about playing conditions, not only the surface of the courts should be taken into account, but also the balls used (as well as humidity, altitude, etc). And for some essential data there no certainties, which means that the thesis is possible, but not provable.

3) Further growth of offensive players

Third hypothesis: in recent seasons new aggressive players who have risen to the very top have also enhanced the quality of their tennis, raising the bar to such heights which appear to be out of the reach of defensive players. Ultimately, offensive players have been making greater strides than defensive players.

I would say that such growth has manifested itself in two different directions. On the one hand, some players have further strengthened the offensive component, starting with the quality of their serve or and groundstrokes (as in the case of Rybakina and Sabalenka).

On the other, fewer “one-dimensional” tennis players have emerged. Currently we are seeing athletes who are comfortable not only when commanding the rally, but also when compelled to defend themselves. Let’s consider the latest year-end No. 1s: we went from Kerber/Halep (2016-18) to Barty/Swiatek (2019-2023). Well, both Barty and Swiatek were and are players capable of producing more wins than Angelique and Simona, but without going down when under pressure or scurrying and scrambling.

Wozniacki, Kerber, and Halep have relied on their great mobility and superior court coverage skills to reach the top. However, today No. 1 spot is held by a tennis player like Swiatek who, besides being a remarkable ball-striker, in terms of mobility is not at all inferior to Wozniacki & Co.

Indeed, my personal belief is that Iga is probably the best-moving tennis player since Steffi Graf. Maybe not yet when moving forward, but at least horizontally, off her right and left wing. In fact, as well as being endowed with a superlative rapidity and responsiveness, Swiatek possesses phenomenal coordination skills. A gift that enables her to organize her swing in very few moments, even if she is called upon to execute it at the end of a sprint or lunge, perhaps sliding. This means that those players who rely mainly on defensive skills are likely to find themselves lacking sufficient weapons to face an opponent with such qualities.

Conclusions

This is the current situation. What about the future? Since I do not possess a magic crystal ball, I do not feel like reciting a “de profundis” for defensive tennis. Things could change, especially in the long term.

In the short term, there is still the possibility that the “senior” players will be able to retrieve their best levels. After all, already last year at Wimbledon Svitolina was able to reach the semifinals after ousting Swiatek in the quarters. And probably if she had managed to defeat Vondrousova in the semifinals, in my opinion, she would have had very good chances against Jabeur, considering their records in finals (Ons 5 won and 8 lost, Elina 17 won and 5 lost).

Before being halted by Vondrousova, Svitolina had appeared as full of conviction, recharged by her maternity break. Which brings us back to the mental component, which can sometimes prove to be the extra weapon, capable of overshadowing physical-technical aspects.  If a defensive player endowed with an exceptional killer instinct were to burst into the WTA tour, quite different scenarios might open up.

Translated by Carla Montaruli

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Could Regional Groups Boost Davis Cup’s Appeal?

Home-and-away ties are charming, but may be complicated and expensive. Round-robin groups are efficient, but may lack atmosphere. A possible solution for Davis Cup to have the cake and eat it, too

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The Australian Open ended barely a week ago and tennis has celebrated another milestone of its ever-grueling calendar. The past weekend saw Davis Cup select the 16 teams for the final stage of the competition through the Qualifiers that took place across continents and time zones.

We gave an account of the results of these 12 ties, some of which ended in a nailbiter, over the course of the past few days. Here, however, we want to stress once again how this highly criticized event, profoundly changed in its formula by the “Kosmos revolution”, still manages to generate unique emotions in its actors despite the lack of some components that had accompanied its history for over a century.

The tears of Nicolas Massu, captain of the Chilean national team, after the victory of the decisive match by Alejandro Tabilo over Peruvian Ignacio Buse summarise what Davis Cup means in that country, in which there are entire areas devastated by fires and whose populations were mentioned by the former Olympic gold medalist: “This victory is for those who are going through a difficult time – said Massu in front of the packed stands of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago even though it was already past midnight – in the hope that it can bring them at least a little happiness.”

The tie between Chile and Peru, won 3-2 by the hosts, reminded everyone, in case it was needed, of the charm of the “home and away” component of the Davis Cup, that is when one of the teams hosts the opponent on their own turf. But he wasn’t the only one: the tie decided in the third set tie-break in the deciding singles between Argentina and Kazakhstan, played on clay in Rosario, in which Sebastian Baez angrily snatched the last four points against Dmitry Popko, as the light was fading in the Argentine summer evening, provided a moment of great emotional intensity.

And it is worth noting that nothing has been taken away from the drama of these matches by the distance of the two sets out of three of all the matches: the “best of five” would have lengthened the matches and made some of these clashes as epic as perhaps impossible to follow by a television audience that cannot have entire days available (and it would have been three days instead of two) to follow Davis Cup matches.

This year the ITF has granted greater flexibility on the scheduling of matches: when this new formula debuted, the “home and away” ties had to be played on Friday and Saturday, to leave Sunday as a travel day for players who had to reach the venue of the next tournament. However, we have now seen different variations, with some host countries deciding to play on Saturday and Sunday to maximize the attendance of the crowd. The match between Ukraine and the USA even took place on Thursday and Friday in Vilnius, Lithuania, to facilitate the return of American players to Dallas, home of the next ATP tournament.

This Davis Cup formula is not perfect, this has been clear for quite some time. And the ITF, now back in control of the event after the failure of the Kosmos experiment, is going ahead in a succession of trials and errors trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, or rather safeguarding what good things the old Davis Cup formula still had by mixing them with the new element of the round-robin groups which significantly simplifies players’ lives, makes the competition logistically more predictable and, most importantly, limits the total cost of the competition.

The solution with the four groups in September and the knockout finals in November seems promising, but there are still too many matches played in front of half-empty arenas populated by only a few hundred fans. The groupings in a single venue, if on the one hand allow for more efficient logistical planning and limit unexpected changes of surface for the players, on the other hand in some cases remove the crowd factor which has very often been the essence of historic Davis Cup matches. One of the pillars of Kosmos’ vision, the ”World Cup of Tennis”, immediately proved to be an unattainable chimera, and that’s where Kosmos’ entire business plan started to crumble. Expecting tennis to have a sufficient number of fans willing to travel across the world to follow their national team, and do so every year, has proven to be completely unrealistic.

It is necessary to find corrective measures to bring the atmosphere of “home and away” ties to the arenas of round-robin groups. And one of these corrective measures could be to group the teams taking into consideration some geographic criteria. Up to this moment all the round-robin groups of the “new Davis Cup” have been played in Europe: many of the top players are European, most of the teams competing are European, and therefore it was a quite logical consequence. But if we look at the list of the 16 teams qualified for the September 2024 groups, we will notice that there are five teams from the American continent: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and the USA.

If it were possible to organize a grouping with four of these national teams in North America, Davis Cup would benefit immensely: a week-long event in a large arena in Canada or the USA, in a city with a strong immigrant component in which each of the South American national teams could count on a base of “local” fans, with the strong historical rivalries of these national teams (for example Canada vs USA, Argentina vs Brazil, Argentina vs Chile just to name a few) creating an incandescent atmosphere in the stands.

American players should not travel to Europe after the US Open and before the Asian swing, at that time NBA basketball and NHL hockey have not yet started, so it should not be difficult to find the availability of one of the iconic arenas in the United States or Canada. Furthermore, in this way, television broadcasters would also benefit as they would have some matches staggered by time zone instead of having four events almost all at the same time in Europe. Not to mention that American broadcasters would be able to show the ties of their own teams at more comfortable times, rather than early in the morning.

If we think about it, even American professional leagues such as the NBA and the NHL have created “divisions”, sub-groupings that require some teams to face each other more often than others, which not only limits the travel days in the very busy calendars of professional leagues but they are also designed to fuel historic rivalries in order to create an ever-increasing number of matches that can ignite the interest of fans.

The Davis Cup needs to find a similar mechanism to ensure that fewer and fewer aseptic matches are played in the echoing void of a deserted arena. In a few weeks the draw will decide the four September groups, when at least two of the three venues seem more or less safe (Bologna, Valencia and probably one in the United Kingdom). Last year the fourth venue for the September groups was Split, in Croatia, but this year Croatia will not take part in the Final stage after the defeat at home against Belgium last weekend. It will be unlikely that the ballot box will deliver an “entirely American group, but for the Davis Cup and for tennis it would be a godsend. Let’s hope the ITF can spot this enormous opportunity and acts accordingly.

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Djokovic Reminds Everyone In Turn And Around The World Who Is The Tennis Boss

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image via ATP Twitter

The season ending Nitto ATP Finals is a singularly sparkling showcase for the top eight players in the world, a tournament that ends the season in men’s tennis on a high note with so many sparkling matchups, and a celebration of how stirring a spectacle the indoor game can be. With two round robin groups comprised of four players each leading into straightforward, single elimination semifinals and final, there is an intrigue surrounding the festivities at this tournament that does not even remotely resemble any other event.

This time around in Turin, the round robin produced some majestic tennis, and the keynote performer was none other than the swashbuckling Italian Jannik Sinner. He kept Italian hopes exceedingly high all week long, taking all three matches he played in the round robin before eclipsing Daniil Medvedev for the third time in a row to claim a place in the most significant final of his career. Among those he defeated in round robin play was none other than Novak Djokovic. Sinner was riding high, raising expectations all across his nation, and making everyone stand up and pay close attention to him and his exploits.

But what too many learned observers failed to recognize was that Djokovic is the ultimate big match player. He can turn himself into an entirely different player when he has a mission on his mind and whenever he feels the need to redefine himself to his fellow players and the tennis world at large. Moreover, after winning two of his three round robin clashes but being pushed to three sets in all of them, he was dissatisfied with his level of play and determined to prove to himself that he could win a record breaking seventh ATP Finals crown and perform at the loftiest heights when the stakes were greatest and the pressure was on.

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The tennis that Djokovic unleashed over the weekend in Turin across the semifinal and final may very well have surpassed anything he put on display in winning three of the four majors in 2023. It was almost inarguably the best he has summoned all year long because he clearly wanted to conclude the 2023 tournament campaign with a flourish and use his triumphant run in Italy to roar into the year ahead with force, conviction, persuasion and the utmost of confidence.

Given the opportunity to avenge his loss to Sinner five days after they had met in the round robin, Djokovic was well aware that he had been too conservative in that initial appointment. Both players won 109 points in that memorable round robin duel, but it was Sinner who had been unmistakably bolder on the biggest points, particularly down the homestretch. Djokovic recognized swiftly that he would need to make amends if he got a second chance against Sinner, and he did just that.

From the outset in the final, Djokovic was outhitting Sinner from the backcourt, serving with uncanny precision and purpose, taking matters entirely into his own hands, and playing the match on his own terms. He was setting the tactical agenda.

Above all else, the ease with which Djokovic was holding serve was creating a tension in Sinner that was almost tangible. The first game was thematic. Djokovic held at love, releasing a pair of aces in the process. On his way to 2-1, the Serbian produced two more aces and held at 15. Sinner established a 40-15 lead in the fourth game but a serve-and-volley combination did not do the job. Djokovic beat him with a topspin lob winner before the 22-year-old lost the next two points with errant forehands, although he should have challenged the second one because his forehand clipped the baseline.

At break point down, Sinner overcooked another forehand, sending it wide, allowing Djokovic the luxury of a 3-1 lead. Djokovic surged to 4-1 at the cost of only one point and then advanced to 5-2 at love with an ace, a service winner and two more unreturned serves. Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic did not allow Sinner a point as he closed out the set 6-3 very commandingly. In five service games, he won 20 of 22 points, connected with 73% of his first serves, and aced Sinner seven times. He made two unforced errors over the course of nine games.

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The 36-year-old built on his momentum by breaking Sinner at love to start the second set before holding at love to reach 2-0, sending out his eighth and ninth aces in that game. By the time a masterful Djokovic reached 0-30 in the third game, he had won 14 consecutive points and was threatening to break the contest wide open. Later in that third game he had three break points but Sinner erased the first with an unanswerable 115 MPH second serve down the T. Djokovic had a golden opportunity on the second but his forehand down the line passing shot which had Sinner beaten cold bounded off the net cord and landed wide. He had a third break point that Sinner saved with an ace. After three deuces, Sinner tenuously held on.

Djokovic was unswayed, holding at love for 3-1 with three straight aces followed by a service winner. But he was given his sternest test yet in the sixth game, falling behind 15-40. And yet a service winner out wide saved the first break point and another effective first serve coaxed a backhand return error from Sinner, enabling Djokovic to make it back to deuce. He took the next two points confidently for a 4-2 lead.

Once more, Djokovic made a concerted effort to get the insurance break. With Sinner serving in the seventh game, there were eight deuces and Sinner did not hold until his seventh game point after Djokovic had two break points that he squandered with a sliced backhand error and a miscalculation on a Sinner forehand that landed on the sideline and left the Serbian unprepared. Sinner secured that arduous hold with an ace, leaving Djokovic apprehensive about another missed chance.

Serving with new balls at 4-3, Djokovic trailed 0-30, but eventually held from deuce, finishing off that somewhat shaky hold with his 13th ace. Now Sinner was serving to stay in the match in the ninth game and, despite an ace for 30-30, he was broken at 30 on his lone double fault of the match. Djokovic emerged victorious 6-3, 6-3. His triumph can be attributed to two primary virtues: the quality of his first and second serves, and his blend of firepower and consistency from the backcourt. He was hitting his forehand considerably harder than Sinner, which is no mean feat. He won 38 of 46 points on serve altogether, most notably 29 of 32 on his first serve. And he never allowed Sinner to get comfortable from the backcourt, keeping the Italian at bay with pace and persistence off both sides.

Djokovic was no less dazzling in his dismantling of Alcaraz in the penultimate round. Every time they had met prior to this collision, Djokovic and Alcaraz had played matches that would not be classified as one-sided. Not one of their four previous duels had ended in straight sets. Alcaraz took their first contest in a final set tie-break on clay in Madrid 18 months ago. The Serbian and the Spaniard split two spectacular sets at Roland Garros this year in the semifinals before Djokovic prevailed 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. Alcaraz had started cramping late in the second set.

In the Wimbledon final back in July, Alcaraz succeeded in five sets and then they did battle in the final of Cincinnati with Djokovic saving a match point in the second set tie-break before pulling out a gratifying victory in a third set tie-break. That spellbinding battle lasted nearly four hours.

Most members of the tennis cognoscenti were expecting another razor thin margin between the two best players in the world at Turin, but for the first time Djokovic defeated Alcaraz handily on the fast indoor hard court. It did not look like a romp in the early stages. Djokovic was down 15-40 in the opening game when Alcaraz drove a two-hander wide off the net cord. Djokovic’s 116 MPH second serve down the T put him in charge of the next point and Alcaraz missed his second shot off the forehand. A service winner and an ace took Djokovic out of danger and into a 1-0 lead.

But Alcaraz was serving up a storm. He made 14 first serves in a row and took 12 of 16 points on his delivery en route to 3-3. Djokovic had worked his way out of another difficult service game at 2-2 that went to two deuces as Alcaraz blasted away freely off the ground. But the 20-year-old Spaniard lost his range off the backhand in the eighth game and Djokovic broke him for a 5-3 lead. The Serbian then held at love with an ace out wide to seal the set 6-3.

Djokovic was pummeling away at Alcaraz’s backhand and keeping the Spaniard ill at ease and off balance. He broke for 2-1 in the second set, held easily for 3-1 and nearly gained another break in the fifth game. Alcaraz’s saved a break point and then found renewed inspiration when Djokovic served in the sixth game. Three rallies in that game lasted between 20 and 24 strokes. The Spaniard showed off his astounding speed and shotmaking versatility. At 15-15, Djokovic had Alcaraz on a string, moving him from corner to corner, controlling the rally ruthlessly. But Alcaraz somehow recovered, shifted from defense to offense and stunned the approving audience and his opponent with a forehand winner. He advanced to 15-40 with a forehand volley winner down the line.

Clearly the Spaniard believed he was about to break back and change the color of the contest. But Djokovic had other notions. A service winner down the T took him to 30-40. Now he had to defend steadfastly, but he did just that. On the 23rd shot of a fierce exchange, he angled a forehand crosscourt passing shot into the clear. From deuce he put away a forehand swing volley and then hit a service winner to reach 4-2. Djokovic was not complacent. He went full force after another service break in the seventh game and achieved it. After a 24 stroke exchange, he elicited a forehand error from the Spaniard to reach 5-2, and then easily served it out in the following game to finish off a satisfying 6-3, 6-2 victory over his chief rival all year in the battle for No. 1. Despite getting 84% of his first serves in and serving ten aces, Alcaraz was trounced by a top of the line Djokovic.

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The Djokovic who toppled Alcaraz and Sinner was not playing the same brand of tennis in the round robin stage of the tournament in Turin. He had come into the event knowing he needed only one round robin victory to seal an eighth year-end No. 1 world ranking. That was his overriding goal. Pete Sampras concluded six consecutive (and total) years at No. 1. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Jimmy Connors all ended five years at the top. Djokovic was determined to separate himself even more from those luminaries in this department, and he was well aware that he could add to his record for time spent at the top of the rankings to 400 weeks following Turin. Federer is in second place at 310 weeks.

So Djokovic took great pride in his dual achievement of eight year end finishes at No. 1 as well as 400 weeks. He secured that honor by taking his opening round robin match over Holger Rune 7-6 (4), 6-7 (1), 6-3. He was far from his zenith against the 20-year-old Dane. He did play a disciplined opening set tie-break but the second set tie-break was dismal from Djokovic’s end of the court. Even with Rune struggling physically in the final set and seemingly spent, Djokovic was below par but from 2-2 he took three games in a row. At 5-3 he held at love to close out the account. 

The next day Djokovic was honored by the ATP with an on court ceremony for his No. 1 accomplishment. He returned the following evening to face Sinner, who had already easily dismissed Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets. Djokovic played good but not great tennis in this match, while Sinner was feeding off the crowd, performing magnificently. At 4-5, 15-30 in the first set, Sinner was fortunate when Djokovic inexplicably attempted a sliced backhand when he could have driven that shot. He missed it long. In the next game, Djokovic led 40-0 but Sinner swept three points in a row. At deuce, Djokovic double faulted and Sinner took the next point with calculated aggression. The Italian had the break and closed out the set unhesitatingly. Djokovic was twice down a mini-break in the second set tie-break but he rallied to win it seven points to five.

Sinner broke Djokovic to lead 4-2 in the third set but the Serbian retaliated in the following game. It all came down to a tie-break and Sinner was unstoppable. He won the first five points and pulled away to defeat Djokovic for the first time in four career appointments despite 20 aces from the Serbian. Sinner won 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2).

Matters got complicated in that group. Tsitsipas retired with a back injury after trailing 2-1 in the first set against Rune. He was replaced by Hubert Hurkacz. Djokovic recouped from his loss to Sinner and beat the big serving Polish player 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-1. Hurkacz did not miss a first serve in the tie-break but Djokovic was tremendous on his returns. The only point he lost was on his own serve at 6-0. But Hurkacz broke Djokovic once in the second set and was unyielding on his delivery. Not until the third set did Hurkacz’s level recede. His first serve percentage dropped to 45% with only ten first serves landing in the box. Seven of those ten were aces. He had 24 for the match.

Djokovic finished round robin play with a 2-1 record but only a 5-4 winning record in sets. That meant Rune could join Sinner in the semifinals from the Green Group if he beat the Italian that evening. Djokovic’s fate was in Sinner’s hands. Some wondered if Sinner might want to spare himself a potential rematch with Djokovic in the final by deliberately losing to Rune. But they failed to recognize that Sinner is a professional through and through. He was not going to give anything less than his best. He has a lot of integrity.

Sinner crushed Rune in the first set but dropped a tight second set. His back seemed to be bothering him. But he battled on gallantly in the third set and fended off a break point against him at 3-4. A body serve from the Italian drew an errant down the line backhand return from the Dane. Sinner came through 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 and saved Djokovic from missing out on the semifinals. Sinner finished first in the Green Group and Djokovic second.

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In the Red Group, Daniil Medvedev had won his first two matches over Andrey Rublev and Sascha Zverev, prevailing in straight sets both times. His semifinal place was assured. But the other semifinalist from that group was up in the air. Alcaraz had lost a hard fought and well played encounter against Zverev 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4. It was perhaps Zverev’s best performance of the 2023 season. But then he lost to Medvedev. On the last day of round robin competition it all came down to Alcaraz confronting Medvedev with victory assuring him of a semifinal slot. More confident after beating Rublev in straight sets, Alcaraz avenged his U.S. Open loss to Medvedev with a 6-4, 6-4 triumph. The Spaniard kept Medvedev completely at bay with his capacity to attack at opportune times. He never lost his serve.

And so Alcaraz won the Red Group and Medvedev finished second. Medvedev was determined to prevent Sinner from ousting him for the third time in a row after winning their first six head to head contests. But Sinner was too composed. In the first set Sinner was up 40-0 at 1-1 but had bail himself out from break point down before holding on. Then Medvedev led 40-0 at 1-2 but lost his serve primarily on surprising mistakes. Sinner held from 0-30 in the fifth game and moved on to 4-1. Sinner took that set comfortably in the end, but Medvedev served with clinical efficiency in the second set.

He then left the court to get help from an ATP physiotherapist for an apparent ailing hip. Sinner rolled in the third set as Medvedev emotionally imploded. The Italian won 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-1. A nation anticipated a significant breakthrough for the world No. 4. But their dream was hit by a hard reality. Nonetheless, he was the best player outside of Djokovic in the second half of 2023. He made it to his first major semifinal at Wimbledon, won the Masters 1000 title in Toronto and then added tournament wins in Beijing and Vienna before his runner-up showing in Turin.

History was largely on Djokovic’s side in the final. In the 47 previous editions of the ATP Finals when played under the round robin followed by a single elimination semifinals and final round format, there had been 26 times when a player who lost a round robin match went on to win the tournament. Djokovic had done it twice himself. In 2008 he was defeated by Nikolay Davydenko in the round robin but he came back to beat Davydenko in the final. Seven years later, he was beaten by Federer in the round robin but stopped the Swiss Maestro in the final.

Moreover, Djokovic had time to accept his round robin loss to Sinner and move on, and was surely motivated by the opportunity to get some revenge. He wanted that record of seven titles at the ATP Finals that he had previously shared with Federer, and was delighted to win his seventh title in twelve tournament appearances this season. The last year he won as many as seven tournaments was back in 2016. This was also his 98th career ATP Tour singles championship and so Djokovic is now only five titles behind Federer and eleven in back of the leader Connors.

History is still the driving force that fuels Novak Djokovic, and he won’t shy away from any pursuit that will enhance his legacy and enlarge his reputation. No wonder Djokovic was saying in Turin that he considers 2023 to be one of his finest seasons. This was the fourth year in his shining career that Djokovic has won three majors. It was the third time he reached all four Grand Slam finals in a season. He wraps up this season with a pair of Masters 1000 titles and the fifth biggest tournament of them all— the ATP Finals—backing up his stellar record at the Grand Slam events. After losing to Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final, Djokovic closed his season with victories in his last four tournaments—Cincinnati, the U.S. Open, Rolex Paris Masters and ATP Finals— as well as winning 22 of his last 23 matches as he heads into Davis Cup this week. Conversely, Alcaraz did not win a tournament after taking his sixth title of the season at Wimbledon.

For Djokovic to be so prolific at 36 is nothing short of stupendous. Djokovic should have another two prodigious years ahead of him. I remain convinced he will win at least three or four majors over the next couple of seasons, and he will push hard to break the Connors tournament titles record. Sooner or later his supply of ambition will diminish, but, for at least another few years, Novak Djokovic will remain the game’s central figure, the premier match player in tennis and a champion of enduring excellence who seems in so many ways to be getting better with the passing years as he zeroes in on his chief targets with a ferocity and purpose that no one else can match.

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