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The final chapter of a year that was perplexing for both Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic got underway today. On a Monday evening in Turin, Italy, these two played one another in an opening round-robin match at the Nitto ATP Finals. In a 98-minute showcase of MBA-like efficiency, Djokovic won 6-4, 7-6 (4).

In the first set, Djokovic broke Tsitsipas at 0-1 and never faced a break point. “Well, I started off the match very well,” said Djokovic. “I knew that there's probably going to be a lot of easy-won service games from both him and I because the conditions are such where there's an altitude, it's fast, it's very difficult to return.” In the second set tiebreaker, Tsitsipas served at 1-2, backed Djokovic far into his backhand corner with a superb approach shot, only to see an incredible crosscourt backhand passing shot fly past him. Down 1-3, a dazed Tsitsipas lost the next point, giving Djokovic enough margin to close it out on his first match point. This marked the ninth straight time Djokovic has beaten Tsitsipas and tenth in their 12 matches.

In most years, players of such stature would arrive at this tournament in a near-celebratory mood. After all, to be one of these elite eight is a tribute to sustained excellence, a conclusive validation of elite status.

But for Tsitsipas and Djokovic, this week in Turin is arguably less a matter of validation and more a quest for vindication: one last chance to make the kind of emphatic statement that neither has made as frequently as desired in 2022. Twelve months ago, it was hard to imagine that being the case; more to the contrary. At the end of 2021, Djokovic had completed one of the greatest years in tennis history, falling one US Open final victory short of becoming the first man in 52 years to win all four majors in a calendar year. Tsitsipas, still at the dawn of his possibilities, surely felt encouraged by having reached his first Grand Slam final. At Roland Garros, Tsitsipas had held a two sets to love lead versus Djokovic before succumbing, 6-4 in the fifth. As 2022 began, the compass pointed north for both.

Djokovic has now won nine consecutive matches against Tsitsipas.

Djokovic has now won nine consecutive matches against Tsitsipas.

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Then came a series of events that were not merely odd, but unprecedented. Having declined to be vaccinated, Djokovic was denied entry into the Australian Open. “Well, I can say that this year was different from all the other years that I had on the tour,” said Djokovic. “Very unusual for the circumstances obviously that occurred, particularly in first couple months of the year. It was tough for me to really find a balance that I need to play the best tennis with everything that was happening off the court, you know, post Australia.”

That choice also precluded Djokovic’s presence during two North American swings. In March and April, the Serb missed the "Sunshine Double" tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. In the summer, he was absent from the summer hardcourt circuit that concludes with the US Open. Squeezed in between this, though, was a superb performance at the All England Club, where Djokovic played his usual brand of first-rate, air-tight tennis to capture his seventh Wimbledon singles title. “It was a huge relief,” said Djokovic, “but at the same time also a huge boost of confidence.” Still, upon arrival in Turin, Djokovic had played only 44 matches, far fewer than usual.

Through the early stages of Tsitsipas' career, he has simultaneously had a laser focus on tennis excellence and a broader, philosophical view of how this sport fits into his life. In Australia, though, Tsitsipas had his own peculiar encounter with authority when he was cited for a coaching violation during his semifinal loss to Daniil Medvedev. A signal for increased maturity? Or an omen of woes to come?

Having won five matches Down Under, who'd have imagined Tsitsipas would only win a scant five at the year’s remaining three majors? There it was: the last 16 at Roland Garros, third round of Wimbledon, first round of the US Open. Of more concern was how those defeats had happened. In Paris, Tsitsipas was no longer the young contender when he was ousted by teenager Holger Rune. At Wimbledon, he fell prey to Nick Kyrgios’ mix of swagger and shotmaking. In New York Tsitsipas lost to 94th-ranked Daniel Elahi Galan by the disconcerting score of 6-0, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5. Even apart from his lackluster results at the majors, Tsitsipas has had a confusing 2022. He’s won a tour-leading 60 matches, reached seven singles finals, but only won two of them.

Djokovic is bidding for his sixth career ATP Finals crown this week.

Djokovic is bidding for his sixth career ATP Finals crown this week.

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It’s hard to believe 2023 will be as complicated for these two as 2022 was. Djokovic’s struggles concern COVID 19-related protocols, most of all if he is allowed to enter Australia and North America. As far as the tennis aspect goes, Djokovic remains fit, dedicated, and forceful, a surefire favorite to win anywhere except perhaps at Roland Garros versus Rafael Nadal (and even there, recall that of Nadal’s three career losses in Paris, two have come versus Djokovic). Djokovic will turn 36 next May, but everything from a rigorous training regimen to a highly efficient playing style should keep him in contention for several more years. The oldest player to ever win a singles major was Ken Rosewall, who took the 1972 Australian Open title at the age of 37. Like Rosewall, Djokovic’s exquisite dedication, footwork and balance have helped him build as sustainable a tennis game as the sport has ever seen. It’s easy to imagine Djokovic earning more majors through the end of his 30s and possibly even in his 40s.

Here the two head down different roads. For as Djokovic’s track record reveals a penchant for offering answers, in the case of Tsitsipas, it’s all about questions. Even though coaching is now legal, can Tsitsipas and his father find the proper balance between input and distance? What kind of impact will Mark Philippoussis continue to have? How will Tsitsipas emotionally manage himself when he next plays Kyrgios? How does he feel competing versus younger ascending talents such as Rune and Carlos Alcaraz? And on a more technical basis, can Tsitsipas improve his backhand, the slice most of all?

Amazingly, had Tsitsipas won all five of his matches in Turin, he would have finished 2022 ranked No. 1 in the world. With that possibility now off the table, Tsitsipas is well aware that this one-of-a-kind, year-end tournament gives him a chance to reflect in a big picture way. I am more here for the marathon of all. “I deeply believe that I can reach that spot one day,” he said following today’s match. “I'm not really that much in a rush, to be honest. Of course, it would have been better if it happened this week. I am more here for the marathon of all. I see the bigger picture, the longer run. I have a lot of opportunities next year to play some good tennis. If it comes, I'll be very happy, my country will be very happy, my family will be happy.”

An interesting subplot of today’s match was how Djokovic and Tsitsipas each sought to rally crowd support. Part of what makes these two compelling is the emotion he brings to tennis. Yet lively as this campaigning was, the good news in tennis is that no election officials are required to tally ballots; just racquets.