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Novak Djokovic hasn’t been knocked off the ATP throne just yet
“In my mind I always see myself as the best player in the world,” said the Serbian, who beat opponents ranked No. 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 in the world, with the loss of just one set.
Published Nov 21, 2022
PRESS CONFERENCE: Novak Djokovic, ATP Finals champion
“It doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s that you get there,” Tennis Channel commentator Jim Courier said as Novak Djokovic reached set point in the first set of his final against Casper Ruud on Sunday.
Courier could have been referring to Djokovic’s entire final weekend in Turin. In his matches against Daniil Medvedev, Taylor Fritz and Ruud, the Serb looked dizzy, winded and exhausted. He bent over after long points, steadied himself by resting his head on the top of his sideline bench, and couldn’t get his hand to stop shaking during one changeover. On Friday, Medvedev watched him to see if he might default in their round-robin match. On Sunday, Ruud looked over just to make sure he was OK.
Djokovic was more than OK. By Sunday afternoon, he was 5-0 at the ATP Finals, and holding up the year-end trophy for the first time since 2015. His sixth title at the event tied him with Roger Federer for the most ever. Over the course of the week, he beat opponents ranked No. 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 in the world, with the loss of just one set.
“What can I say? I have a great physio,” Djokovic said when he was asked about his physical issues. “I have a great team. I have routines that work for me very well, I feel like, in terms of recovery.”
According to Djokovic, he has a mental routine as well.
“It’s an internal battle with myself because there’s one voice that’s always telling you [that] you can’t do it, you’re too tired, this and that, right?” he said. “The bad guy and the good guy. You try to feed the good guy so he can become louder and stronger than the bad guy. It’s as simple as that.”
Djokovic’s inner “good guy” usually gains the upper hand just in time. By the 12th game of the first set against Ruud, the signs of physical struggle were gone, and the brilliant shot-making had arrived. Djokovic upped the velocity on his groundstrokes, and increased the level of risk he was willing to take. The combination resulted in his signature shot of the day, an all-or-nothing forehand that caught the sideline for a blazing winner, and seemed to launch Djokovic into a new stratosphere, confidence-wise, for the rest of the match. His willingness to go down the line, and his ability to find the corners, only grew in the second set.
You try to feed the good guy so he can become louder and stronger than the bad guy. It’s as simple as that. Novak Djokovic
Not surprisingly, much of the talk around Djokovic’s victory this week has centered on his physical condition. But by the end of this final, it seemed to me that what elevates him above the rest is what has always elevated him: His superior ball-striking, and his lack of weaknesses. All the elements that made him a Top 5 player at 19 are still there are 35: The big trunk rotation on the backhand; the deceptively heavy but safe crosscourt forehand; the ability to change direction and go down the line whenever he wants. At one stage in the first set, when Djokovic seemed to be faltering, Ruud hit a powerful backhand down the middle of the court. Djokovic’s response? He smacked the ball away with a dismissive crosscourt forehand, which landed on the sideline for a cold winner.
“In my mind I always see myself as the best player in the world, of course,” said Djokovic, who will finish 2022 ranked fifth. “I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach. 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.”
Djokovic said this title was “deeply satisfying” and a “huge relief” because “of the circumstances I’ve been through this year.”
It’s harder to think of a wider difference between how an athlete began and ended a season: Djokovic was deported from Australia to start the year, and unable to enter the United States for the US Open and the three other Masters 1000 events that are held there. Yet he still won Wimbledon and the ATP Finals, finished No. 5, and went 42-7.
At the same time, Djokovic’s problems were self-imposed. He could have played in Australia and the States if he had been willing to be vaccinated for Covid. The tension surrounding vaccination has lessened considerably over the last 11 months, as the pandemic has (somewhat) receded; and Australia has agreed to let Djokovic back in the country in January. We’ll see how fans react to him Down Under. Either way, would you bet against him winning his 22nd Slam title in Melbourne?
Djokovic’s 2022 should be celebrated. Not because he overcame obstacles or returned from exile, but because he did what he has always done so well. He put his setbacks behind him, and moved on. He focused on winning the one major he was the favorite to win, and on reestablishing himself as the man to beat in the fall. Most of all, he kept hitting the best shots, and showing off the most complete and weakness-free game, in men’s tennis. A year after he swore off his pursuit of being No. 1, he looks…well, like a No. 1 again.
“It’s love for the game, no doubt. Passion. I love the game,” Djokovic said. “Why not try it? Why not dream about it?”