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Weekend Winners: How Novak Djokovic took on youth, Barbora Krejcikova edged Iga Swiatek, and Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe backed up breakthroughs
Steve Tignor recaps the weekend that was, from Novak Djokovic's triumph in Astana to Barbora Krejcikova's crowning moment in Ostrava.
Published Oct 10, 2022
WATCH: Barbora Krejcikova charmed the home crowd with her winner's speech in Ostrava.
“You know, 35 is not 25,” Novak Djokovic said after his 6-3, 6-4 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Astana Open final.
Based on the evidence from this week, the more Djokovic’s age changes, the more his game stays the same. The No. 4 seed—yes, he was seeded fourth—dropped one set in five matches, and beat two opponents in the Top 6, Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev, over the course of 24 hours. The result was his 90th ATP title, his fourth of 2022, and his second in as many weeks.
“I couldn’t ask for a better restart of the season,” said Djokovic, who missed the summer hard-court swing and the US Open. “I’m super-pumped and motivated to end the season as well as I have done these past couple of weeks.”
For any long-time Djokovic watcher, there was a strong sense of déjà vu in the way he played this final.
He had been on edge for much of the last two weeks. At one stage during the the tournament in Tel Aviv, he spent so much time complaining to his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, that he forgot the score and sat down in his chair as if it were a changeover, before being told that his opponent was serving at 5-3, and it wasn’t a change of sides. In Astana, after losing a point to Medvedev, Djokovic tossed his racquet straight up into the air, and into the fifth row.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Ivanisevic was nowhere to be seen this week.
Then, on Sunday, as he has so many times before in finals, Djokovic put his frustrations behind him and came out playing positive and precise tennis—“clinical,” we used to call it. He held at love to open the match, and didn’t face a break point all afternoon. He returned Tsitsipas’s toughest first serves. He won with consistency, as always, but he also won with his drop shot and some well-timed serve and volley. And when Tsitsipas came forward in the second set, Djokovic snapped a couple of perfectly measured backhand passes by him.
“I’m just very grateful and blessed to be able to play this well at this stage of my life,” Djokovic said. “I think the experience, probably, in these kinds of matches and big occasions helps as well to approach mentally in the right way.”
Last month, Djokovic said goodbye to Roger Federer, and the Big 4 era, at Laver Cup in London. But the Serb doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. He looked happy to be back in the mix, seeded whatever he was seeded, ranked whatever he was ranked, ready to yell at his coaches and fight it out with guys who are 10 years his junior.
Djokovic says 35 isn’t 25, and that’s true; this weekend, older was better.
“Thank you for bringing out the best in me,” Barbora Krejcikova told Iga Swiatek after beating her in the Agel Open final in Ostrava.
“The best” was an apt description not only for Krejcikova’s play, but for this final as well. The Czech’s 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3 win was among the finest of the WTA season. It lasted three hours and 16 minutes, and there was hardly a dull moment or a let-up from either woman in all that time.
Maybe it had something to do with the raucously even-handed energy in the arena. Ostrava is in Krejcikova’s home country, but it’s also just a two-hour drive from Swiatek’s hometown of Krakow. The two women each received a huge ovation at the start, and remained co-crowd favorites throughout.
“The atmosphere was just very energetic and very unbelievable for both sides,” Krejcikova said. “It’s really one of the top matches that I think I ever played in my life.”
It was also a rare and hard-earned achievement. Swiatek was 10-0, and 20-0 in sets, in her last 10 finals; she hadn’t lost one since 2019. Krejcikova, meanwhile, had struggled with injuries and rust in 2022; No. 2 in the world a year ago, she came into this tournament unseeded and ranked 23rd. She had lost twice to Swiatek this season; in their most recent meeting, in Rome, she had squandered a match point.
For two hours on Sunday, it looked like Krejcikova would face heartbreak again. In the first set, she bounced back from a 2-5 deficit to level at 5-5, before losing 7-5. In the second set, she went up a break, only to see Swiatek even it at 4-4, and pull to within two points of the title at 5-6, 30-30.
This time, for the first time all year, the world No. 1 would be denied those final two points. Krejcikova held serve to force a tiebreaker, and then Swiatek suffered a surprising spasm of inconsistency. She started the breaker by missing two forehands wide, and Krejcikova took over from there, closing with a forehand winner.
By the third set, Krejcikova had her vast, doubles-honed repertoire of shots working for her. With Swiatek serving at 3-4, 0-15, Krejcikova sliced a forehand return low, then drove a forehand pass down the line for a winner. At 0-30, she did it again.
Serving for the match at 5-3, Krejcikova had to survive Swiatek’s final, desperate, brilliant stand. The Pole saved five match points; after the fifth, she smiled and raised her arms to try to bring her supporters to life. But this was Krejcikova’s day, and she finally closed it out, on her sixth match point, in the only way she could: With an ace.
“I was just like, ‘OK, keep going,’” Krejcikova said of her mindset in the long last game. “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to get your chance. You’re going to make it.’ So that was my inner voice.”
Krejcikova did make it, and she looks sure to make it back into the Top 10 soon. Tennis can use her mix of racquet skills, athleticism, creative shot-making, rolling topspin ground strokes, and good instincts at net.
Swiatek shed a tear or two in defeat, but she also recognized what her opponent brings to the court, and to the game.
“We need players like you in the WTA for sure,” Swiatek said of Krejcikova.
Players, in other words, who can challenge Swiatek, and team with her to produce matches like this.
Male players from the U.S. don’t traditionally thrive away from home. Andre Agassi missed Taco Bell in France. John Isner has won 14 of his 16 titles in the States. For years, young up-and-comers like Donald Young and Ryan Harrison would make a splash at the US Open, only to vanish again until the tour came back to New York.
Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe also made their biggest breakthroughs of 2022 on home soil. Fritz’s came in Indian Wells, where he beat Rafael Nadal for his first Masters 1000 title. Tiafoe’s came at the Open, where he made his first Grand Slam semifinal. So it was something of a pleasant surprise to see the Californian and the Marylander meet each other in the Rakuten Japan Open final. No American man had won this event since Pete Sampras did it in 1996. And speaking of not thriving on the road, Fritz had spent the previous week in quarantine, after testing positive for COVID-19 in Seoul.
But here Fritz and Tiafoe were in the final, showing that they could back up their breakthroughs and continue to play top-tier tennis far away from home. Tiafoe had edged Soon-woo Kwon in three sets in the semifinals, and Fritz had done the same to Denis Shapovalov.
There wasn’t much between the two Americans on Sunday. Each pounded out 11 service holds, and each broke once. Each fired 12 aces, and each won more than 70 percent of his first-serve points. Each used his forehand as his primary weapon, and each let it rip at the earliest opportunity.
Not surprisingly, both sets went to tiebreakers, and that’s where the match was decided. Fritz was the cleaner player both times. Tiafoe had won 13 straight breakers coming in, but this time he leaked errors—a backhand wide here, a return long there—at the wrong moments. That was enough to give Fritz a 7-6(3), 7-6(2) win, in a little under two hours.
“It’s so crazy, and I couldn’t have written it any better,” Fritz said of his whirlwind week through Seoul and Tokyo. “It’s exactly what I needed for the race, for my ranking, to kind of put me in a good position for the end of the year, so it’s amazing.”
Fritz’s win made him a Top 10 player for the first time. Just as important, he showed that his game is evolving. As he said at Wimbledon this year, Fritz could slug with anyone from the baseline, but he still lacked that something extra, something that could throw his opponents off or move them out of position. On Sunday he found it. He used crosscourt angles to get Tiafoe on the run; he injected pace into the rallies at surprising moments; and he made defensive gets that, once upon a time, he wouldn’t have made.
“I felt extremely calm and I felt like I had a lot of clarity in making decisions on the court,” Fritz said. “For playing such a big match in a final, that’s huge to not be nervous and feel very calm and locked in.”
Fritz’s biggest victory of 2022 will continue to be Indian Wells. But it’s wins like these—on the road, dealing with adversity, finding your best tennis with no home fans to help—that take you to the Top 10, and possibly beyond.