PRESS CONFERENCE: Novak Djokovic, runner-up at the ATP Finals
LONDON—The lights started flashing in Paris, but louder alarm bells were ringing here at the vast O2 Arena in London’s Docklands when Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, fell for the second time in three weeks to a member of the coming generation—the 22-and-under brigade who are going to storm into the world’s Top 10 in the coming months.
In Paris, it was Russia’s strapping Karen Khachanov who upset and out hit Djokovic. Here, in front of another giant crowd, it was Alexander Zverev who grabbed the biggest title of his career, using all-out aggression to subdue the great Serb, 6-4, 6-3.
Heeding the advice of his new coach, Ivan Lendl, who told him to take the ball earlier and be more assertive, the 21-year-old German was unrecognizable from the player who had succumbed to Djokovic 6-4, 6-1 in round-robin play just four days before.
Although, in a lengthy acceptance speech—we will be getting used to those from this articulate linguist—Zverev made a point of saying that it was his father who laid the base and taught him the game of tennis from day one. But Lendl was not hired to decorate the bench with that stony stare. This is a man who played in no less than nine consecutive finals of this tournament when it was played at New York’s Madison Square Garden, winning four titles. As Andy Murray found out, Ivan knows what he is talking about. And like Murray, Zverev listened.
The result on this particular occasion was that Zverev hit 17 winners to his opponent’s three and won nine of his twelve sorties to the net. And, as if to prove how effective his backhand was, he finished the match with a wonderful strike on the run off that flank.
This triumph may act as the bridge between Zverev’s success at ATP Masters 1000 level, where he has already won three titles, and the Grand Slams, where only once has he managed to get as far as the quarterfinals. Every match the German plays now is a stepping stone, both physically (another Murray connection again is Jez Green as his fitness trainer) and mentally—which, on this occasion, was particularly pertinent.
A bizarre incident had erupted at the end of Zverev's semifinal victory over Roger Federer, when he stopped play in the middle of a rally in the second-set tiebreak because a ball boy let a ball roll forward towards the court in his line of vision. Federer hadn’t seen it because it was behind his back, and the umpire had missed it, too. Inevitably, boos broke out because the arena was packed with Federer fans, a percentage of whom simply cannot abide anything going against the man they worship.
Zverev did not help the situation by hitting an ace on the replayed point and, after he had won, there was still plenty of booing when Zverev stepped forward to be interviewed by Annabel Croft, the former British No. 1 who works for Sky Sports. Annabel wasn’t having it.
“I am not sure why you are booing,” Annabel admonished the crowd in her best British Headmistress tones. “I think you have to be a little more respectful.”
Zverev was thankful for that because it was clear he had been badly affected by the crowd’s reaction to something totally lawful and, needlessly, he apologized to Federer who, despite having asked the umpire and ball boy for clarification, told us in press conference that he was not questioning Zverev’s sportsmanship.
Zverev referred back to it after winning the title.
“Going on court today, I didn’t know what to expect,” Zverev said. “The crowd reaction hadn’t been too good to me. I was a little sad because, as tennis players, we take it very personal, this kind of stuff. It’s a one-on-one sport so we take it more personal than other sports.”
The fact that Zverev promptly played such a dominating match against such a great player in a big final spoke volumes for his maturing attitude. It is inconceivable that he will not proceed to climb that Grand Slam hurdle and start adding major titles from this launchpad in London.
For Djokovic, a year that could have ended in a blaze of unprecedented glory left a few questions to be answered. While he never tried to offer it as an excuse, it was clear that he had been suffering from a cold through Paris and London, but the fact remains that he was a conclusively outplayed by two hugely talented young rivals. The manner in which he deals with this army of young talent, which stretches beyond Zverev and Khachanov to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Borna Coric, Alex de Minaur, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rubelev, Frances Tiafoe and others will set the scene for the new campaign in January.
Having achieved the remarkable feat of climbing back from No. 22 to No. 1 in just eight months, winning Wimbledon and the US Open along the way, Djokovic will be determined to cling to his re-claimed position as top dog and ward off any signs of falling back to the mood of despair and near desperation he suffered after his losses at Indian Wells and Miami in March. With the trusted Marian Vajda back as the dominant force in his camp, there seems little chance of that happening, but the challenges he faces in 2019 go beyond the threat of youth.
Will Rafa Nadal take charge of the clay court season again? Will Andy Murray be able to regain form and fitness to the extent that he can re-join the Top 10? How long can Federer continue to play his exquisite brand of tennis?
If we thought Zverev and his friends were still a year or more away from making serious inroads into the game’s hierarchy, that can no longer be taken for granted. Yes, the best-of-five set format at the Grand Slam level will offer sterner tests, but just in the last three weeks, the ATP tour has been handed a jolting dose of reality. Tomorrow may come quicker than we think.