Novak Djokovic reasserts his supremacy at ATP Finals

“Regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is, what number of the professional season in my career we’re facing, I mean, it’s always the same. The ambitions are as high as possible,” says Novak Djokovic after winning winning his record-equalling sixth title at the ATP Finals.

Superstar: Novak Djokovic boasts the best serve return and backhand in tennis history, and these two shots have overshadowed two other mighty weapons: his serve and forehand.

Superstar: Novak Djokovic boasts the best serve return and backhand in tennis history, and these two shots have overshadowed two other mighty weapons: his serve and forehand. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“Regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is, what number of the professional season in my career we’re facing, I mean, it’s always the same. The ambitions are as high as possible,” says Novak Djokovic after winning winning his record-equalling sixth title at the ATP Finals.

“In my mind, I always see myself as the best player in the world, of course,” said supremely confident Novak Djokovic after winning his record-equalling sixth title at the ATP Finals. You have to love the “of course.”

That uber confidence has rarely ebbed during Djokovic’s long and storied career. Only after he’d lost five of six major finals in 2012-14 did he admit he had struggled to have his convictions overcome his doubts.

At age 35, those convictions seem stronger than ever now as he strives to earn GOAT recognition. “I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach,” Djokovic said. “Regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is, what number of the professional season in my career we’re facing, I mean, it’s always the same. The ambitions are as high as possible.”

Djokovic’s great ambitions got sidetracked this season, though — but not because of his opponents. His refusal to get a COVID vaccination prevented him from playing the Australian and U.S. Opens and four Masters 1000 tournaments. But when the defiant Serb did play, he often prevailed with five titles in 12 events. At the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin, Italy, No. 5-ranked Djokovic whipped five of the Elite Eight, prompting former No. 1 Andy Roddick to say, “I don’t care what he’s ranked. He’s the best player in the world.”

Let’s take a close look at his tour de force in Turin and see how Djokovic reasserted his supremacy and how the other contenders fared.

The Djokovic game — The Great Ones always strive to improve because they are perfectionists. “He’s practising even harder than when he was 22,” said Goran Ivanisevic, his coach and former world No. 2. “That’s why he’s still so good, and that’s why he’s still going to be even better.”

But how can Djokovic improve if his technique is already virtually perfect? The short answer is to hit harder, stay consistent, and play smarter.

That’s exactly what Djokovic did in his competitive yet decisive 7-5, 6-3 victory over World No. 3 Casper Ruud in the final. The Serb boasts the best serve return and backhand in tennis history, and these two shots have overshadowed two other mighty weapons: his serve and forehand.

Against Ruud, Djokovic made 71% of his first serves, won an excellent 85% of first serve points and a terrific 69% of his second serve points, belted nine aces, had no double faults, and never faced a break point. “He has one of the best serves,” said Ivanisevic. “Especially when it’s tight, it’s tough, especially this week he was hitting unbelievable serves under pressure.”

Even when Ruud managed to return Djokovic’s serve, the Serb often overpowered him during baseline exchanges. He smacked 14 of his 27 winners with his forehand. “I was really pleased with the way I was playing from the back of the court,” said Djokovic. “With my forehand, I was looking to be very aggressive, and it worked great.”

Tactically, Djokovic mostly eschewed drop shots — which sometimes had backfired in earlier matches — and came to the net often enough to keep the Norwegian off-balance.

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Lastly, Novak excelled on the big points, winning four of five tiebreakers during the tournament. For the entire season, he racked up a sensational 19-5 tiebreaker record.

Ruud is runner-up again — The ATP Finals mirrored much of Casper Ruud’s highly successful yet bittersweet year. The mild-mannered, 23-year-old seized three tour titles but lost four prestigious finals at the U.S. Open, Roland Garros, the Miami Open, and the ATP Finals.

“In the end, it’s been disappointing to end up losing these big finals,” Ruud said. “Overall, if you gave me an offer to end the year at No. 3, play the finals that I’ve played, on the 1st of January this year, I would sign the contract right away. No doubt about it.”

Making an impact: Casper Ruud of Norway makes a return against Djokovic in the final. Final-round losses to No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in Miami and the U.S. Open, to Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay at the French Open, and to Djokovic on fast indoor hard courts in Turin — all terrific players on their best surfaces — should not dishearten Ruud.

Making an impact: Casper Ruud of Norway makes a return against Djokovic in the final. Final-round losses to No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in Miami and the U.S. Open, to Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay at the French Open, and to Djokovic on fast indoor hard courts in Turin — all terrific players on their best surfaces — should not dishearten Ruud. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Rudd far surpassed one of his modest pre-season goals — reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. From that perspective, he said, “I’ve overachieved compared to my own mind, so I’m very happy about that.”

Final-round losses to No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in Miami and the U.S. Open, to Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay at the French Open, and to Djokovic on fast indoor hard courts in Turin — all terrific players on their best surfaces — should not dishearten Ruud. Each setback exposed weaknesses in his game.

For example, his much-improved backhand eventually broke down in gruelling, power rallies against Djokovic, who beat him for the fourth straight time in straight sets. Ruud’s volley also erred too often. The smart, level-headed Norwegian learned from these losses, saying, “I feel like there is room for improvements, so that’s a good thing.”

Fritz breaks through — Taylor Fritz, who had incrementally improved his ranking during the previous three years, broke through in 2022 with a career-high, season-ending No. 9.

The 25-year-old American climaxed his campaign by making the semifinals in his debut at the ATP Finals. He notched round-robin victories against Nadal and Felix Auger-Aliassime (FAA) before bowing to Djokovic 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6). As Fritz served for the second set at 5-4, 30-all, a spectator yelled when he was about to hit an easy backhand. Distracted and angered, he netted the shot. Djokovic won the next point to break serve and reverse the momentum. Fritz should learn from that misstep.

“I absolutely feel like I belong,” said Fritz. “I think I’ve proved that I belong in the Top 10. I just need to keep working hard. Fortunately, for me, I think there’s a lot of positives to take out of this year. I finished where I did and I missed pretty much the whole clay-court season, didn’t have any training going into the beginning of the hard-court season. I was dealing with injuries, and I still was able to produce a really solid year.”

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That he did! He captured his first Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells, where he upset Andrey Rublev and Nadal. He also won Eastbourne on grass and Tokyo on hard courts. A huge first serve, a more aggressive forehand, and a newfound confidence bode well for Fritz next year.

Rublev got game — Andrey Rublev fired back with the force of his rocket serve when ungracious loser Stefanos Tsitsipas criticised his game. After Rublev prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 at the ATP Finals, Tsitsipas carped, “I didn’t really feel threatened…. I feel like the better player…. I felt like I could just be much more creative…. But, yeah, he prevailed with the few tools that he has.”

When asked about Tsitsipas’ uncalled-for comments, Rublev said, “If we go shot by shot, I think his backhand is better than mine. His forehand is not better than mine. His serve speed is not better than mine. But I don’t think that I beat him because of few tools. If you take our match, every match, we have tough battles. This year I lost to him twice in three sets, and now I beat him in three sets.”

The No. 8 Rublev has plenty to be proud of, having won four titles this year — in Marseille, Dubai, Belgrade, and Gijon — and making the semis at the ATP Finals for the first time.

Even so, Rublev clearly needs more tactical variety. He must capitalise more on his booming serve and forehand by coming to net more, using angles, and stroking timely drop shots. He also needs more power and spin on his weak second serve, which averaged only 91 mph against Djokovic, 90 mph against Tsitsipas, and 85 mph against Ruud.

During his 6-7 (7), 6-3, 7-6 (7) victory over fellow Russian Daniil Medvedev, he displayed an excellent tactic by returning second serves from a foot inside the baseline. Rublev also did a great job of controlling his aggression and staying patient against a great counterpuncher by winning 21 of 29 points that went nine shots or more. And on his fifth match point, he ended a brutal, 37-shot rally with a forehand volley winner.

Rublev now knows that being an aimless, one-dimensional slugger can take him only so far.

Medvedev’s slump worsens — Since losing a five-set final to Nadal at the 2022 Australian Open, the 26-year-old Russian has gone 0-8 against top 10 opponents. The last three losses came at the ATP Finals, all by 7-6 in the third set to Rublev, Tsitsipas, and Djokovic. Two weeks before, he lost 7-5 in the third set to No. 25 Alex De Minaur in the Paris Masters first round.

When Medvedev was dominating the second set of the Paris match, Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone averred, “Medvedev is a strategic genius when it comes to playing points. He knows just what he wants to do. He is such an anomaly. It’s tough to figure him out.”

On top: Djokovic with the trophy after the final.

On top: Djokovic with the trophy after the final. | Photo Credit: AP

Not anymore! First, Medvedev’s too-deep positioning prevents him from dominating baseline rallies with powerful groundstrokes or sharp angles. Poor positioning also makes it harder to hit drop shots and reach short balls. It causes him to hit short balls himself. It’s also tougher to hit passing shots, particularly crosscourt, from deep positions, and Tsitsipas capitalised by winning 30 of 37 net points.

Second, though Medvedev can run his opponents around, he lacks a knockout punch to end points quickly with one shot. That creates long rallies, especially against other counterpunchers like the tenacious, speedy De Minaur. Extended rallies aren’t necessarily good for the Russian, though, because he often gets tired before his opponents do. Oddly enough, he’s a counterpuncher who admitted he doesn’t like to run. Unless 2021 U.S. Open champion Medvedev becomes more offensive-minded and improves his backcourt positioning, develops a knockout shot, and corrects his flawed volley, he won’t win another major.

Auger-Aliassime’s dream — Thrilled at making his ATP Finals debut, Felix said, “It’s something I’ve dreamed of and recently became my goal. And now that I have achieved this goal, it makes me feel very proud and also for the people around me, including my family and team.”

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Auger-Aliassime reached his dream destination as the Tour’s hottest player. He captured three consecutive titles in Florence, Antwerp, and Basel before teenager Holger Rune ended his 16-match winning streak in the Paris semifinals.

The lightning-fast courts in Turin helped power-hitting FAA upset his boyhood idol Nadal 6-3, 6-4 for the first time in three tries. “When I am playing like this, I have proven I can compete and beat some of the best players in the world,” said Felix, who hammered 15 aces.

Against Ruud, the handsome, 22-year-old Canadian boldly hit 38% of his groundstrokes from inside the baseline in the first set, but, paradoxically, came to net only 10 times, despite winning all 10 points. He lost the match 7-6 (4), 6-4 and should learn to maximise a winning tactic.

Faulty shot selection in the deciding set also hurt Auger-Aliassime in his duel against Fritz with a berth in the semis at stake. After his 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 6-2 setback, FAA said, “In the third set, [I made some] bad [shot] choices, bad execution. Maybe I lost focus a little bit. The fact that I’m tired, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re tired, but it’s late, you’ve played a lot. I’ve played a long year.”

Indeed, he had, but it was also his most successful year. The highly athletic Canadian need only strengthen his second serve and backhand and tweak his tactics to win a major in 2023.

Tsitsipas family dysfunction — Tennis parents have ranged from violent monsters like Damir Dokic and Marinko Lucic to role models like Karolj Seles and Jimmy Evert. Where Apostolos Tsitsipas, the father-coach of world No. 4 Stefanos, ends up on the tennis parent spectrum is anyone’s guess. But their fraught relationship is trending downward.

Let’s start though with the good news. Stefanos’ thrilling 6-3, 6-7 (11), 7-6 (1) triumph over Medvedev, climaxed by the Greek’s splendid 7-1 deciding set tiebreaker, proved the highlight of his tournament. No one expected Tsitsipas to beat Djokovic, who had won their last nine matches, so Novak’s 6-4, 7-6 win was predictable.

The Tsitsipas family has a history of illegal coaching during matches, drawing repeated warnings from umpires and complaints from opponents. Stefanos has told his parents he doesn’t want their input, but that hasn’t stopped his garrulous dad from shouting from the player’s box. In the third set of his 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 loss to Rublev, a frustrated and angry Tsitsipas whacked a ball towards his father.

Former No. 1 Jim Courier best summed up the Tsitsipas family dysfunction. “Things out of his control are impacting Stefanos,” Courier said on Tennis Channel. “His family is so invested in his success. They want to help him from the sidelines, but they’re just hurting him. And it’s hurting his chances to play good tennis. You saw how he threw his serve away with two double faults [in the third set]. He got lost in the match when his parents started jawing at each other. It seems like they need a therapy session to figure it all out. Because they want their kid to do well, but it’s just not working. The way it’s going right now, it’s hurting him more than it’s helping.”

Nadal fights valiantly — Like an old, battered warhorse who relishes competing until he drops, Nadal staggered into the ATP Finals to finish a mostly superb but injury-riddled year.

He captured the Australian Open despite a case of COVID and a chronic foot injury that left him on crutches in December 2021. He lost the Indian Wells final to Fritz while hampered by a painful fractured rib. At the French Open, tormented by severe foot pain from a congenital foot disease, Nadal needed a pre-final injection, which made his foot feel “asleep,” to win his 14th title.

At Wimbledon, his father urged Nadal, hampered by a seven-millimetre tear in his abdominal muscle, to retire against Fritz. Instead, this ultimate warrior, now 36, received treatment and came back to win in a fifth-set tiebreaker. He then defaulted his semifinal match to Nick Kyrgios to end his bid for a rare Grand Slam.

No wonder the debilitated Nadal won only three matches in the next four months before the ATP Finals. It was also no surprise he lost his first two round-robin matches, to Fritz and Auger-Aliassime. Perhaps the feel-good story in Turin was his season-ending 7-5, 7-5 victory over Ruud.

“I can’t ask for more,” said Nadal, both conqueror and survivor. “2022 has had a tough six months, two Grand Slams, and finishing the year in a high spot [No. 2] in the rankings. So, I can’t complain at all. At my age, to be able to achieve and be competitive means a lot for me.”

Who knows how much more or how well the seemingly indestructible Spaniard can play? At a minimum, he’ll likely still thrive on clay next year. A Tennis Channel analyst even quipped, “Nadal will probably win five to seven more French Opens after he retires.”

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