It’s perhaps worked out well for the year-ending Nitto ATP finals (11-18 November) in London that the tournament was preceded by three significant and reasonably dramatic events to build up tempo. Not surprisingly, all of them involved Novak Djokovic, who is tennis’ flavour of the season once again after a prolonged break from the limelight.
In chronological order, first came Rafael Nadal’s inability to recover fully from injury and subsequent withdrawal from the Rolex Paris Masters last week (and later the ATP Finals as well). His pullout gave Djokovic a push up in the rankings. The Serbian became the world No. 1 earlier this week, for the first time since 2016, almost exactly two years after losing that rank to Andy Murray at the same tournament.
A week ago, Djokovic played old rival Roger Federer, their 47th meeting, this time in the semi-finals. The three-set roller-coaster of a match lasted 3 hours, with Djokovic emerging as the expected winner, but not without a bit of a scare.
As Federer sought the old magic—which comes in bits and pieces these days because the body cannot achieve what the mind believes it can at age 37—Djokovic played the game he knows best, one of negligible errors.
As he slammed back returns from every corner of the court, stretching like a band and focused like a monk, the Swiss had just one wow moment. As a shot from Djokovic ricocheted off the net cord straight on to Federer’s face just a few metres away, the Swiss showed reflexes of The Flash and touch of class to volley it away.
Djokovic smiled ruefully from across the court, but roughly 2 hours later, he would have the last laugh.
Then the next day, playing in the final against 22-year-old rising star Karen Khachanov, Djokovic was expected to wrap-up a 23rd straight match win and, in the process, bagging his fifth Paris title and a record 33rd Masters 1000 title. But the big-hitting Russian scored the biggest win of his career to slap Djokovic with the law of averages. Before this final, Djokovic had lost just one in 32 matches since the first match at Wimbledon in July.
The world’s current best male player, in the space of just a few months since Wimbledon, has turned his career around from a possible has-been to the man to beat in any tournament. His slump, following injuries and personal issues, is now a thing of the past and his comeback has the flavour of a fairytale.
“There was never a doubt that he is strategically and technically the most dominant player in the world in recent times," said Cliff Drysdale, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist and commentator with ESPN, over the phone a few months ago. “He didn’t need any changes in technique, though he may have made some. All he needed was to get mentally and physically ready."
While Djokovic’s unexpected and sensational win at Wimbledon was overshadowed by the Fifa World Cup final on the same day, his ascent to No.1 and a possible victory at the ATP Finals should put him back firmly in the spotlight.
“I’m satisfied, of course (with this week)," said Djokovic in the post-match press conference in Paris last Sunday. “I’m going to be No.1 tomorrow officially. What more can I ask for? I won 20-plus matches in a row and had the most amazing last five months of the year. I’m going into the season finale (in London) with a lot of confidence and feeling good about my game."
This year’s ATP Finals at the O2, London, which pits the world’s top 8 players against each other, also marks the return of Kei Nishikori after a long injury-induced break and a lucky break—he made it into the top 8 after Juan Martin Del Potro, the world No.4, withdrew from the event. No.6 South African Kevin Anderson, enjoying the best phase of his career at age 32, makes his debut in the tournament and remains its most dangerous floater, while the presence of No.10 John Isner, Nadal’s replacement, will increase the chances of at least one marathon match next week.
The season-ending event is crucial for the number of points the winner can make (1,500), and its importance in the ATP calendar is second only to the Grand Slams.
Accounting for Nadal and Andy Murray’s absence and third-ranked Federer’s ageing vulnerability, 18 November could see Djokovic lift the title to complete his “return" to the top of the game in a year in which he won two Grand Slam titles as well.
The continued dominance of the Big Three tells a layered story about men’s tennis. Fans can continue relishing the rivalry among the three men who could each lay claim for being the greatest of all time. This year, Federer won the Australian Open, Nadal won the French Open, while Djokovic won Wimbledon and the US Open.
While Alexander Zverev, Marin Čilić and Dominic Thiem, the other participants in London, will score those odd wins over these champions, they still don’t have the mental strength to consistently rule the world of tennis.
Djokovic, for example, enjoys a better head-to-head win ratio against almost all these players—25-22 against Federer, 1-1 against Zverev, 7-1 against Anderson, 16-2 against Čilić, 5-2 against Thiem, 15-2 against Nishikori and 8-2 versus Isner—which puts him in a rarefied zone.
“He knows it, and believe me, what’s more important is that the guys on the other side of the net know it," Paul Annacone, former coach to Federer, told The New York Times. “They know that if they miss a target with a serve by 4 inches, they in all likelihood will be in a defensive position in one or two shots. It’s just relentless pressure."
The pressure now is on the top 7 to try and end the year with a title. If surprise successes in men’s tennis are few and far between, London, hosting its 10th edition of the ATP Finals, may not provide one either, because Djokovic has moved on from a will-he-won’t-he at the beginning of the year to becoming the man to beat at the end of it.