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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

15 years after Djokovic won his first ATP Finals, he’s still dominant

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his men’s singles quarterfinal match against Taylor Fritz of the U.S. during the U.S. Open tennis tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, Sept. 5, 2023. Djokovic had his breakout year in 2008 and now, at age 36, is still ranked No. 1. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

By Cindy Shmerler

For Novak Djokovic, his 2008 season, just a few years after he turned pro, was great by any measure. It was his breakout year.

He not only won his first of six ATP Finals, but he began 2008 taking the Australian Open, the first of his 10 titles there and what would become 24 major championships overall.

In the semifinals he upset the top seed, Roger Federer, and beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. Djokovic also reached the semifinals at the French Open, where he fell to Rafael Nadal, and the U.S. Open, where he lost to Federer, also in the semifinals. Djokovic was just 21 at the time.

By season’s end, Djokovic had won two other tournaments, including Masters 1000s in Indian Wells, California, and Rome. That year solidified Djokovic as a bona fide member of what was to become known as the Big Three, alongside Federer and Nadal.

“He played like a beast,” Nikolay Davydenko, who lost to Djokovic 6-1, 7-5 in the 2008 final in Shanghai, said by email last month. “He’s a good runner, had good control and the best concentration on the tour. I had no chance.”

Now, 15 years later, Djokovic, 36, is still leading the sport and entered the finals as the top seed. This year has once again been one of his best. For the fourth time in his career he won three of the four majors and headed into the ATP Finals with a 51-5 record. On Nov. 5, he captured his seventh Paris Masters championship and 40th career Masters 1000 title with a straight-sets win over Grigor Dimitrov.

On the opening day of the ATP Finals on Sunday at the Pala Alpitour in Turin, Italy, Djokovic set out to win the event for a record seventh time. The first step toward that accomplishment was a 7-6 (4), 6-7 (1), 6-3 win over No. 8 seed Holger Rune in the second and final match of the day. Djokovic’s chief competition is the second seed, Carlos Alcaraz, who spoiled Djokovic’s chance to become the third man to attain the Grand Slam when Alcaraz beat him in the final at Wimbledon in July.

But Alcaraz, who has not won a tournament since the summer and was forced to pull out of an ATP event in Basel, Switzerland, last month because of foot and lower-back problems, lost his first match on Monday to seventh-seeded Alexander Zverev, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4. Alcaraz was also upset in his opening match at the Paris Masters by qualifier Roman Safiullin.

Besides Rune and Zverev, the other singles players in the round-robin competition are Daniil Medvedev; Jannik Sinner, who plays Djokovic today at 3 p.m. EDT; Andrey Rublev; and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Djokovic is the defending champion, having beaten Casper Ruud in the final in 2022.

“I obviously had a fantastic year so far,” Djokovic said just before the start of the Paris Masters last month. “I couldn’t ask for a better season. One match away from winning all four Slams is something I would sign [up for] right away at the beginning of the season if someone told me that would be the case.”

Djokovic entered the ATP Finals as the all-time leader in weeks ranked No. 1 with 398. He could reach a milestone 400 weeks the day after the event ends. He has ended the year at No. 1 seven times, one more than Pete Sampras, who did it from 1993-98. With Sunday’s win over Rune, he became this year’s No. 1, ahead of Alcaraz.

In three of the six years that Djokovic has won the ATP Finals he ended the year top ranked. The only time his year-end No. 1 ranking came down to the championship match at the ATP Finals was in 2016, when he lost to Andy Murray, who took the year-end No. 1.

These days, Djokovic stays motivated by the majors and by retaining his ranking. Stan Wawrinka, who has played Djokovic almost 30 times, knows the vagaries of competing against Djokovic at the year-end championships.

“For me, it was something special to play Novak in the world tour finals,” Wawrinka said from the Paris Masters. “Playing him indoors, when he’s really focused and motivated, was always a big challenge. His game is amazing on all surfaces, but I would say indoors, that’s where he’s at his best.”

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