HIGHLIGHTS: Djokovic breaks away from Ruud

Advertising

In a first-set tiebreaker at the Nitto ATP Finals, Novak Djokovic served to Casper Ruud at 4-all. It had been a lively set, flavored by crisp ball-striking and many engaging rallies, but also some rare Djokovic moments of disarray. Down break point in the opening game, Djokovic charged forward and fell to the ground. Said Djokovic, “it was really a terrible start, but also funny that I'm still trying to figure out what happened.” Later in the set, he looked out of sorts, less certain of his movements and momentarily less focused than usual.

Prior to the tiebreaker, Ruud had erased two set points. On the first, Ruud serving at 4-5, ad out, Djokovic netted a backhand return of a second serve. Two points later, Ruud fought off the second with a sharply angled crosscourt forehand passing shot.

The historic tidbit was that Djokovic’s 2021 tiebreak record was an underwhelming 11-11. So it was easy at this stage to imagine Ruud taking the lead. “Anything can happen if you lose or drop the first set,” said Djokovic.

Djokovic improved to 2-0 against Ruud with Monday's win.

Djokovic improved to 2-0 against Ruud with Monday's win.

Though it was the first time the 22-year-old Norwegian had ever played this high-stakes event, and only his second match versus Djokovic, Ruud had revealed nary a trace of jitters. He’d broken Djokovic in the opening game of the match and played superbly to take the set into a tiebreaker. Said Ruud, “I think it was a very fun and exciting first set. Was some fun rallies and some good rallies. Honestly I think I have seen Novak play better than he did in the first set, and I have also felt better on the court than the first set, but we still managed to produce some good tennis.”

But a pair of long backhands put Ruud down 4-6. Perhaps on those points from 4-all on he was far too aware of the opportunity. Or perhaps the simple presence of Djokovic triggered the need to try for too much. Yet tranquil as Ruud appeared for much of the first set, he later admitted that entering the court for this occasion was not easy. “Just the fact you're coming in a tunnel, you have the fancy light, you have the music, you feel like everyone is watching you,” he said. “It can get a bit, so to say, intimidating in a way. . . . I think what it does is that it, in a way, stresses you but also makes you a bit more stiff like in your footwork. It doesn't flow as easy as it maybe usually does or in practice. You start doubting a little bit sometimes the shots here and there. So you do more mistakes than I think in practice when you're not feeling too many nerves.”

Facing set point yet again, Ruud cracked a crosscourt forehand. But it was too short. Djokovic moved up to it efficiently and lined an untouchable down-the-line forehand. Set point three morphed into match point one, Djokovic easily going on to take the second set and win the match, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

Advertising

The Serbian has finished on top of the ATP rankings in three of the past four seasons.

The Serbian has finished on top of the ATP rankings in three of the past four seasons.

Djokovic today borrowed a page from the book of his tennis idol, Pete Sampras: Snap open a tight first set, then take advantage of a dazed opponent to break early in the second set and pull away. Though in most cases, Djokovic’s groundstrokes form the bedrock of his victories, versus Ruud he also served with a proficiency worthy of Sampras. Djokovic got in 75 percent of his first serves and won 90 percent of those points (36 of 40). How do you beat a master of the return who also serves that well? No wonder Ruud grew increasingly discouraged in the second set.

Besides his great serving, Djokovic made subtle shifts in tactics. Early on, he sought to attack Ruud’s stronger forehand, not just to open up the backhand, but also to see just how much pressure that wing could withstand. But throughout the first set, the Ruud forehand held up well. As Djokovic noticed this, he also began to pepper the Ruud backhand. Added to this, per usual, was Djokovic’s superb movement, an oppressive brand of footwork, balance and speed that smothers opponents—subtly, gradually, eventually. By early in the second set, Ruud’s technique was starting to decay just enough to let Djokovic command the tempo of more rallies. The balance on the seesaw had tilted. Big as Ruud’s forehand is, it’s difficult to imagine him hitting enough winners with it to severely dent a player as technically organized as Djokovic.

“The second set was not as exciting as the first,” said Ruud, “but still, I think it was a good first match for me to get a feeling of the court, the environment, and the next two matches will be interesting I think for me.” Heck, fourteen years ago, Djokovic lost his first match at this event, beaten in straight sets by David Ferrer. He’d done OK since, taking the title five times and today upping his record in the ATP Finals to 39-16.