'Game manager' Djokovic rises when needed to beat Zverev at ATP Finals

'Game manager' Djokovic rises when needed to beat Zverev at ATP Finals

The world No. 1 is now two victories away from winning a record-tying sixth event title after defeating the 2018 titlist, 6-3, 7-6 (4).

“I managed to serve well in the important moments,” Novak Djokovic said after his 6-3, 7-6 (4) win over Alexander Zverev at the Nitto ATP Finals on Friday. “Contrary to the previous match against Daniil [Medvedev], I just managed to find the right shots at the right times.”

What did Djokovic’s two assertions have in common? The word “managed.” And that’s the word that came to my mind as the world No. 1 threaded—carefully, gingerly, cautiously—his way past Zverev down the stretch of their round-robin meeting. In the second set, Zverev hit far more winners; at one point, the count was 22 to three. He controlled most of the rallies. He pushed Djokovic to 30-30 on his serve four times. He had an early mini-break in the tiebreaker. He seemed to be all over Djokovic for most of the set. Yet he ended up losing it.

“Game manager” is a term used in American football to describe a quarterback who doesn’t do anything spectacular, but who knows how to control the flow of play just enough to get his team off the field with a victory. The phrase is generally considered an insult, one reserved for steady, unathletic QBs. In tennis, though, being a game manager means doing something that every champion must know how to do: Win without your best.

Djokovic didn’t start this match in management mode. After failing to find his A-game in his straight-set defeat to Medvedev on Wednesday, he came out hitting crisply and with purpose today, and won 12 of the first 14 points to go up 3-0. This was a win-or-go-home match, with a berth in the semifinals on the line, and Djokovic looked up to that task. But as Zverev settled in, and began to mount a counterattack in the second set, Djokovic retreated. Some of the crispness and pace went out of his shots, and he spent much of the second set on the defensive.

Yet Djokovic always had something extra up his sleeve, some way to stave off a service break. Whenever Zverev got to 30-30 on Djokovic’s serve, Djokovic invariably came up with a service winner, or a strong forehand, or a smart drop shot. It was just enough to keep Zverev, who looked ready to take over the match at any moment, in check.

And then, in the tiebreaker, Djokovic went one better. Down 0-2, and with Zverev charging forward to try to make it 3-0, Djokovic curled a backhand passing shot just out of the German’s reach. Up 4-3 a few minutes later, Djokovic hit an even sharper backhand pass for a winner, and then closed it out on his first match point with one of his best inside-in forehands of the day.

“I read his approach,” Djokovic said of the winning pass at 4-3, “and served well when I needed to.”

With the win, Djokovic advances to the semifinals, where he’ll try to avenge his close defeat to Dominic Thiem in last year's round-robin stage, and try to tie Roger Federer with his sixth ATP Finals title. After an up-and-down 2020, Djokovic has managed to put himself in position to finish it on a high note.