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Novak Djokovic vs. Jannik Sinner: 2023 ATP Finals Championship preview
The final match of the ATP season comes down to a rematch of Turin's most intriguing round-robin clash: can Sinner stun the world No. 1 for a second time this week?
Published Nov 19, 2023
You might think that, at his point in his long career, Novak Djokovic wouldn’t be able to prove his regular observers wrong. By now, who would dare to doubt that he can do anything on a tennis court, no matter what age he happens to be?
But Djokovic proved me wrong in a couple of ways with his victory over Carlos Alcaraz in Turin on Saturday. I picked Alcaraz to win the match because (a) I thought Djokovic had looked slightly flat in his three round-robin matches (even though he almost won all of them), and (b) Alcaraz seemed to have found his forehand range again over the course of the week. If that shot was clicking in the semis, I didn’t think Djokovic would be able to match it.
I was wrong on both counts. It was Alcaraz who looked flat, and Djokovic who used the challenge of playing him as a way to fire himself up and find a higher gear. When they went toe-to-toe from the baseline, it was Djokovic who was the stronger hitter. On the match’s defining point, he took an Alcaraz forehand approach and slapped a better forehand past him.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying we shouldn’t underestimate Djokovic when he faces the man of the moment, Jannik Sinner, in Sunday’s final. Yes, Sinner beat Djokovic earlier in the week. Yes, the Italian is playing the tennis of his life. And yes, the crowd will be deliriously in his favor again. But Djokovic definitely isn’t flat anymore. Considering that he beat Alcaraz in straight sets, while Sinner took three to close out Daniil Medvedev, the 36-year-old may be fresher than the 22-year-old.
I've been in these situations before. Hopefully experience can help a bit. But I don't think it's going to prevail because he's been playing well, he's going to have crowd on his side. I know what I expect. I think having already a match against him in this kind of atmosphere helps me prepare better. Novak Djokovic
At the start of this event, most of us thought that Djokovic vs. Alcaraz, No. 1 vs. No. 2, would be the dream final. But as the week has progressed, the Italian has made himself the talk of the tournament, and provided its signature moments. One of those moments was his dramatic round-robin win over Djokovic. Right now, Sinner vs. Djokovic is the generational battle we want to see, and that may mean the most heading into 2024.
In their first meeting in Turin, very little separated the two. Both committed to attacking as early as possible in rallies, and moving forward when they could. Djokovic hit more winners, and was better at the net, but he made crucial mistakes at the end of the first and third sets. In the first, he was a little too casual, and little too aggressive, at 5-5 in the first set; up 40-0, he failed on two straight serve-and-volley attempts and was broken. Late in the third set, Djokovic had the opposite problem: With a chance to break at 5-5, he played conservatively and gave Sinner a chance to take over a rally, which he did.
“In the important points, he was going for it, he was more courageous,” Djokovic said after that match. “I wasn’t aggressive enough, I wasn’t decisive enough. I gave him the opportunity to take the control over the points.”
Sinner was happy to agree.
“I feel that I’m a little bit more confident in certain moments in a match,” Sinner said. “I think I was really brave and intelligent in important moments, especially in the third set.”
Sinner has achieved a series of firsts in 2023: first Grand Slam semifinal, first Masters 1000 title, first win over Medvedev, first appearance in the Top 5, first win over Djokovic. Can he close out this season with his first ATP Finals title, at home? Sinner hasn’t been free of nerves this week; three times he’s lost a close second set when he had a chance to win the match. But on all three occasions, he put it behind him and came back to win the third.
At the same time, Djokovic will learn from his loss to Sinner, the same way he learned from his loss to Alcaraz at Wimbledon. If he has a good look at a ball at a crucial stage, I think we can be confident that he won’t play it too safely this time. As I wrote above, we know he can still do anything on a tennis court. In this case, he’ll have to stop a very hot opponent, and defy a very loud crowd. Sounds right up his alley.