No­vak’s arc to come a full swing in Lon­don

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It’s per­haps worked out well for the yearend­ing Nitto ATP fi­nals (11-18 No­vem­ber) in Lon­don that the tour­na­ment was pre­ceded by three sig­nif­i­cant and rea­son­ably dra­matic events to build up tempo. Not sur­pris­ingly, all of them in­volved No­vak Djokovic, who is ten­nis’ flavour of the sea­son once again af­ter a pro­longed break from the lime­light.

In chrono­log­i­cal or­der, first came Rafael Nadal’s in­abil­ity to re­cover fully from in­jury and sub­se­quent with­drawal from the Rolex Paris Mas­ters last week (and later the ATP Fi­nals as well). His pull­out gave Djokovic a push up in the rank­ings. The Ser­bian be­came the world No. 1 ear­lier this week, for the first time since 2016, al­most ex­actly two years af­ter los­ing that rank to Andy Mur­ray at the same tour­na­ment.

A week ago, Djokovic played old ri­val Roger Fed­erer, their 47th meet­ing, this time in the semi-fi­nals. The three-set roller-coaster of a match lasted 3 hours, with Djokovic emerg­ing as the ex­pected win­ner, but not with­out a bit of a scare.

As Fed­erer sought the old magic—which comes in bits and pieces th­ese days be­cause the body can­not achieve what the mind be­lieves it can at age 37—Djokovic played the game he knows best, one of neg­li­gi­ble er­rors.

As he slammed back re­turns from ev­ery cor­ner of the court, stretch­ing like a band and fo­cused like a monk, the Swiss had just one wow mo­ment. As a shot from Djokovic ric­o­cheted off the net cord straight on to Fed­erer’s face just a few me­tres away, the Swiss showed re­flexes of The Flash and touch of class to vol­ley it away.

Djokovic smiled rue­fully from across the court, but roughly 2 hours later, he would have the last laugh.

Then the next day, play­ing in the fi­nal against 22-year-old ris­ing star Karen Khachanov, Djokovic was ex­pected to wrap-up a 23rd straight match win and, in the process, bag­ging his fifth Paris ti­tle and a record 33rd Mas­ters 1000 ti­tle. But the bighit­ting Rus­sian scored the big­gest win of his ca­reer to slap Djokovic with the law of av­er­ages. Be­fore this fi­nal, Djokovic had lost just one in 32 matches since the first match at Wim­ble­don in July.

The world’s cur­rent best male player, in the space of just a few months since Wim­ble­don, has turned his ca­reer around from a pos­si­ble has-been to the man to beat in any tour­na­ment. His slump, fol­low­ing in­juries and per­sonal is­sues, is now a thing of the past and his come­back has the flavour of a fairy­tale.

“There was never a doubt that he is strate­gi­cally and tech­ni­cally the most dom­i­nant player in the world in re­cent times,” said Cliff Drys­dale, a for­mer Wim­ble­don semi-fi­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor with ESPN, over the phone a few months ago. “He didn’t need any changes in tech­nique, though he may have made some. All he needed was to get men­tally and phys­i­cally ready.”

While Djokovic’s un­ex­pected and sen­sa­tional win at Wim­ble­don was over­shad­owed by the Fifa World Cup fi­nal on the same day, his as­cent to No.1 and a pos­si­ble vic­tory at the ATP Fi­nals should put him back firmly in the spot­light.

“I’m sat­is­fied, of course (with this week),” said Djokovic in the post-match press con­fer­ence in Paris last Sun­day. “I’m go­ing to be No.1 to­mor­row of­fi­cially. What more can I ask for? I won 20-plus matches in a row and had the most amaz­ing last five months of the year. I’m go­ing into the sea­son fi­nale (in Lon­don) with a lot of con­fi­dence and feel­ing good about my game.”

This year’s ATP Fi­nals at the O2, Lon­don, which pits the world’s top 8 play­ers against each other, also marks the re­turn of Kei Nishikori af­ter a long in­jury-in­duced break and a lucky break—he made it into the top 8 af­ter Juan Mar­tin Del Potro, the world No.4, with­drew from the event. No.6 South African Kevin An­der­son, en­joy­ing the best phase of his ca­reer at age 32, makes his de­but in the tour­na­ment and re­mains its most dan­ger­ous floater, while the pres­ence of No.10 John Is­ner, Nadal’s re­place­ment, will in­crease the chances of at least one marathon match next week.

The sea­son-end­ing event is cru­cial for the num­ber of points the win­ner can make (1,500), and its im­por­tance in the ATP cal­en­dar is sec­ond only to the Grand Slams.

Ac­count­ing for Nadal and Andy Mur­ray’s ab­sence and third-ranked Fed­erer’s age­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity, 18 No­vem­ber could see Djokovic lift the ti­tle to com­plete his “re­turn” to the top of the game in a year in which he won two Grand Slam ti­tles as well.

The con­tin­ued dom­i­nance of the Big Three tells a lay­ered story about men’s ten­nis. Fans can con­tinue rel­ish­ing the ri­valry among the three men who could each lay claim for be­ing the great­est of all time. This year, Fed­erer won the Aus­tralian Open, Nadal won the French Open, while Djokovic won Wim­ble­don and the US Open.

While Alexan­der Zverev, Marin Čilić and Do­minic Thiem, the other par­tic­i­pants in Lon­don, will score those odd wins over th­ese cham­pi­ons, they still don’t have the men­tal strength to con­sis­tently rule the world of ten­nis.

Djokovic, for ex­am­ple, en­joys a bet­ter head-to-head win ra­tio against al­most all th­ese play­ers—25-22 against Fed­erer, 1-1 against Zverev, 7-1 against An­der­son, 16-2 against Čilić, 5-2 against Thiem, 15-2 against Nishikori and 8-2 ver­sus Is­ner—which puts him in a rare­fied zone.

“He knows it, and be­lieve me, what’s more im­por­tant is that the guys on the other side of the net know it,” Paul An­na­cone, for­mer coach to Fed­erer, told The New York Times. “They know that if they miss a tar­get with a serve by 4 inches, they in all like­li­hood will be in a de­fen­sive po­si­tion in one or two shots. It’s just re­lent­less pres­sure.”

The pres­sure now is on the top 7 to try and end the year with a ti­tle. If sur­prise suc­cesses in men’s ten­nis are few and far be­tween, Lon­don, host­ing its 10th edi­tion of the ATP Fi­nals, may not pro­vide one ei­ther, be­cause Djokovic has moved on from a will-he-won’t-he at the be­gin­ning of the year to be­com­ing the man to beat at the end of it.

In the space of five months, the Serb has turned his ca­reer around from a pos­si­ble has­been to the man to beat. He looks good to fin­ish the year with an ATP Fi­nals win

Djokovic re­turns the ball to Rus­sia’s Karen Khachanov dur­ing the men’s sin­gles fi­nal ten­nis match of the Rolex Paris Mas­ters on 4 No­vem­ber.

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