LONDON—It’s a strange ending to an incredible year, but in a twist not atypical of the round-robin format, Novak Djokovic must now wait some hours to find out if he is through to the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals or not after losing to Janko Tipsarevic, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. The final match, between David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych, would always have had some impact upon Djokovic’s fate, but he could have given himself the best possible chance by defeating Tipsarevic in straight sets (meaning Berdych would have needed to beat Ferrer in straight sets to keep Djokovic out of the semi-finals).
Towards the beginning of the match, it looked simple for Djokovic. The first set was the best he has played in these championships so far. He went on the attack on Tipsarevic’s serve at 1-2, hitting a gorgeous combination of forehands for 15-30, then earning two break points and breaking when Tipsarevic tried and failed to change direction with a down-the-line backhand, a shot that never worked for him all match. Moving well and serving at an excellent 71 percent, Djokovic held serve for the set before sealing it with a cross-court forehand winner.
It’s easy to forget that Tipsarevic, although he has never beaten Djokovic, has never failed to take a set off him in any of their encounters (except for one walkover). It’s also easy to forget that the Serb qualified for his alternate position here on the back of his own career-best year. In a 10-minute, six-deuce game, the smaller Serb gamely and grimly clung on to his serve to open the second set. Then, as Djokovic began to fall apart in the second set, his groundstrokes losing their bite, his feet growing sluggish, and making increasing numbers of wholly unforced errors from the baseline, Tipsarevic was there to take advantage. Taking his first break point for 4-2 as Djokovic put an out-of-ideas dropshot into the net, Tipsarevic snatched at a short ball to give the break back, but regrouped when a double-fault and another Djokovic groundstroke error gave him the chance to serve out the set.
Having ensured with the loss of the second set that, win or lose, his chances would depend entirely upon the Ferrer-Berdych result, Djokovic never succeeded in pulling himself together again. Tipsarevic broke with a finely-played point resting on a brilliant backhand return and never looked back, breaking again at 3-5 and taking the match as Djokovic buried a forehand in the net. Tipsarevic looked slightly shame-faced as he acknowledged the crowd, as if he had committed an unforgivable social solecism. But he was the livelier and better player, sharp, aggressive and consistent, and although he cannot progress to the semifinals, a win over the world No. 1 is an excellent way to round out his season.
Djokovic, on the other hand, must wait and see whether he has to pack his bags or if he still has a chance to salvage a great ending to his own remarkable year.