“Very strange” was how Novak Djokovic described the fan-free atmosphere inside the O2 Arena for his first match at the Nitto ATP Finals on Monday. He talked about how blessed he had been to experience so many great “atmospheres” in that building in the past, and told the fans watching on TV how much he missed them. There’s just no getting used to the “new normal” of lockdown life for any of us, is there?
Djokovic missed having fans in the building, but he hardly needed them during his 6-3, 6-2 win over Diego Schwartzman. There was nothing strange or abnormal about the world No. 1’s performance, or the result. Djokovic’s versatility was on display throughout. We know he’s someone who can defuse a big server; in this match, in which he upped his record against Schwartzman to 6-0, he showed that he’s also someone who can out-grind a grinder.
Djokovic won at the net; he was 11 of 14 there. He won from the baseline, including 17 of the 28 rallies that lasted nine shots or longer. Djokovic won with his bending wide serve in the deuce court, and with his deep return down the middle. He hit 26 winners to Schwartzman’s 11, and sent his forehands to both corners with equal ease. After breaking Schwartzman at 4-3 in the first set, he relaxed and never looked back.
“It was a close encounter,” until that 4-3 game, Djokovic said. “Then I started swinging through the ball more in the second set.”
Afterward, Schwartzman summed up the challenge of playing Djokovic at his best: You have to defend the entire court, the entire time.
“Everything is difficult against him,” Schwartzman said. “I think what he’s doing when he’s playing his best, he’s moving the ball from everywhere to everywhere, to every single point on court.”
That can even be true when Djokovic is temporarily missing one of his shots. Early in the match, he tried his drop shot a few times, and put the ball in the net. But that didn’t stop him from trying it again on a break point in the second set. This time the ball went over the net, Schwartzman was sent flying up to the net and back to the baseline, and Djokovic ended up winning the point.
Djokovic is the favorite to win this tournament, and tie Roger Federer with his sixth ATP Finals title. He didn’t do anything today that would change that assessment. He may miss the fans, but he can certainly play well without them. As Schwartzman says, anyone who wants to beat him will have to be moving from everywhere to everywhere, on every single point.