Can Novak Djokovic hold off the charge of the ‘Next Gen’?

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The first racket in the world has successfully recovered from the final defeat of the US Open and won the title at the Paris Masters. But the challenge from Medvedev, Zverev, Berrettini and Tsitsipas is quite real. How long can a Serb fly the Big Three flag high?

Daniil Medvedev’s stunning victory over Novak Djokovic in the US Open final is an important indicator in the modern history of men’s tennis. This was the first time that a member of a Next Gen tennis player lost his nerve in a big match and ruthlessly surpassed the true legend of the sport.

Dominic Thiem, when he won the 2020 US Open, may have been the first to break through, and deservedly so. But he didn’t have to beat anyone from the Big Three – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Djokovic.

More than anything else, the inner excitement of a young, freshman athlete putting himself on a grand performance has a charm of its own, and it is for this reason that Juan Martin del Potro defeated both Nadal and Federer en route to the 2009 US Open title. still awe-inspiring.

When the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals kick off at the Pala Alpitour in Turin on Sunday, an annual event featuring the world’s top eight singles players, Medvedev and company will have another chance. in promoting their reputation as the next set of torchbearers in the sport.

Perhaps the absence of Federer and Nadal helps, and the upstarts can focus solely on Djokovic. But it is also true that over the past two years, Djokovic, the number 1 in the world, has successfully thwarted almost all attempts by “new generation” stars to crack the door, despite the US Open final.

Last week’s victory at the Paris Masters, where he knocked down Medvedev, appears to have put Djokovic back on track after a disruptive and depressing defeat in New York. He rested well; Paris was his first tournament in two months, and at 34, almost nine years older than Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini, the oldest players in the race, every little advantage counts.

In terms of tactics, Djokovic has evolved in 2021. The Serb remains the top all-rounder on hard courts, and his speed and recovery abilities seem to have barely diminished. His approach to the “big game” players – Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Berrettini – indicates his brilliant problem-solving ability.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic during his quarterfinal match against US Taylor Fritz | Photo: Reuters

Tennis in this era is more powerful than ever before. Earlier this year, journalist Matthew Willis pointed out that the average height of the ATP top 10 in 2021 was almost 5cm more than in 2011. This resulted in an increase in first serve percentage, innings won and aces per match.

Proving adept

The styles of Medvedev, Zverev and Berrettini are built around this edge, but Djokovic, tiny in relative terms, seems to have a measure. Medvedev played an almost perfect match at Flushing Meadows, standing out for his killer serve. But on Sunday in Paris, Djokovic changed tactics, serving and making his way to the trophy. He approached the net 36 times and scored 75% of the points. Twenty-two of them were points per serve and volley, of which he won 19.

In the match with Berrettini in the Wimbledon final, he deliberately denied the Italian in speed, forcing the latter to grab his shots and make mistakes. In the match against Zverev at the US Open, he tossed, chopped and threw forward his way to victory in a five-set thriller, despite the fact that the German scored more winners and aces than the Serb.

In all this, what distinguishes Djokovic from even Nadal and Federer is his recovery with his back to the center line after a shot from one of the corners. This ability helps him deal with players who would otherwise appear to be pulling the racket out of their opponents’ hands thanks to their brute strength, such as Berrettini and Zverev.

Long and short

Nonetheless, the “up to three sets” format is still the best chance for the “new generation” players to cause frustration. Djokovic is no doubt a master of protracted attrition, as evidenced by his 11-0 cumulative record against Zverev, Medvedev, Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas in best of five sets ahead of the US Open final.

But in the best of three he is 12-8. The 20-time winner of the Major is no different from Medvedev with a score of 3: 3 and is only slightly ahead of Zverev (4: 3). In fact, the duo have a past experience of beating him at the end of the year. Zverev beat Djokovic in the 2018 final and Medvedev in the 2020 round-robin tournament, both in sets in a row.

The ATP Final is also a title that Djokovic has not won since 2015, after winning it four times in a row since 2012. Year-Ender has seen four different winners, none of them from the Big Three.

Serbian player Novak Djokovic wins the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup after defeating Russian Daniil Medvedev in the men's singles final at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia on February 21, 2021.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic wins the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup after defeating Russian Daniil Medvedev in the men’s singles final at the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia on February 21, 2021. File | Photo: AP

The relentlessness of this format – five matches in eight days against the world’s top eight – can also tire players. At the US Open, one of the reasons why Djokovic

seemed jaded in the final due to the nine tense sets he played against Berrettini and Zverev in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

Shot into history

However, if there is anything that endlessly motivates Djokovic, this is a chance to make history. Medvedev fared his best after the Paris final, which was Djokovic’s 37th trophy in the ATP Masters 1000, as he singlehandedly claimed Nadal’s record.

“He continues to break records,” the Russian said. “New people will come to tennis. [in the future] who are just going to read on Wikipedia or whatever, what were the results, who was # 1 in the world for weeks, in most cases in the end, and they will see Novak everywhere. “

A sixth crown in the ATP final could lift Djokovic on par with Federer, and it would be a fitting end to an almost perfect year in which he won three Majors, eclipsing Federer’s lead for most weeks in first place and securing a record seventh place. Ranked # 1 at the end of the year, overtaking Pete Sampras.

“I’ve always been honest enough to say that the history of our sport is a great motivation,” Djokovic said after his victory in Paris. “Yes, this is the goal – to prove that I can break all the records with all the results that I can get on the tour professionally. So I love to break records. I am very motivated to continue. “



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