In the bitter aftermath of him narrowly missing the ultimate achievement in tennis two months ago, Novak Djokovic spoke openly in New York about the pressure that came with his grand slam attempt. For weeks, he said, emotions became increasingly intense and difficult to handle, weighing so heavily on his shoulders even though he has already experienced and overcome most things in the sport.
After he was beaten in the US Open final in straight sets by Daniil Medvedev, in the obvious sadness and frustration one of his very first emotions was simple relief.
Difficult losses leave a mark and can linger in any player’s psyche for a while, so there was little surprise Djokovic spent the following weeks away from the court. It would not have been shocking if his efforts during this season had left a small mark on him and his motivations before a full reset in the off-season.
But six weeks after the US Open Djokovic went to Paris and this month won a record 37th Masters 1000 title. That he bounced back so quickly, shaking off the rust through the rounds and remaining supremely motivated at the end of yet another long season as he overcame Medvedev in the final was impressive in itself. The nature of his victory was even more notable.
Djokovic shook their match up by deciding his route to victory was partly in the forecourt. For two hours and 15 minutes he continually flitted to the net, serve and volleying 22 times and winning 19 points on them while approaching the net 36 times.
As Djokovic, Medvedev and the rest of the top eight converged for the first ATP Finals in Turin, they strolled around the city last Friday for promotional photos. Djokovic stood out; not only did the 34-year-old seem ancient in a group where the next oldest players are 25, but a defining feature of the new generation is their height and athleticism. Most of them towered over Djokovic, who stands at 6ft 2in. When Djokovic first broke into the top 10, only one man, the 6ft 4in Ivan Ljubicic, was taller than him.
Performances like the Paris final underline how Djokovic has consistently improved and evolved his game, particularly with the growing dominance of his serve and his ever-present variety, allowing him to adjust and remain on top even in his mid-30s against far younger athletes.
Djokovic opened his tournament in Turin by overcoming a solid first set by Casper Ruud to win 7-6 (4), 6-2. He followed it up with a dominant, succinct 6-3, 6-2 win over Andrey Rublev on Wednesday.
The most memorable moment of the encounter with the No 5-ranked Russian came at 2-2, deuce on Rublev’s serve in the second set. Rublev had Djokovic on the ropes, pounding forehands from side to side from inside the baseline, shots that would have been winners against almost every other player.
Instead, Djokovic dug out a slice forehand at full sprint and splits, before flitting to the other corner and landing a winning angled backhand passing shot. Completely rattled by Djokovic’s defence in his first meeting with the world No 1, Rublev meekly gave away the break point with a backhand unforced error. He did not win another game.
Throughout this season Djokovic has tidily arranged so many of his records in order and his Paris Masters run allowed him to clinch seven seasons as the year-end No 1, breaking his tie with his idol, Pete Sampras. By winning the Paris title, he also passed Rafael Nadal to become the owner of a record 37 Masters 1000 titles.
This is a unique season and it is not over. With his win over Rublev, Djokovic’s record in Turin is now 4-0 in sets and he is already into the semi-finals. He will have the benefit of facing Cameron Norrie on Friday with no stress at all as he waits to see if anyone can meet his level at the top.
Norrie has been handed a significant opportunity as he was drafted into the ATP Finals after the withdrawal of Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 2019 champion, due to an elbow injury. Norrie had travelled to Turin as the second alternate behind Jannik Sinner, who replaced his countryman Matteo Berrettini on Tuesday. Norrie was due to make his ATP Finals debut on Wednesday against Casper Ruud.