Novak Djokovic gets his groove back in Paris
By Christopher Clarey
When Novak Djokovic was 7, the world of elite tennis was a distant place, visible only on the television screen of his parents’ pizzeria in the Serbian mountains or the modest family apartment in Belgrade.
His two young children have a much better view.
On Sunday, as he hustled and pondered his way through his rematch with Daniil Medvedev, Djokovic’s son, Stefan, 7, and daughter, Tara, 4, were in the front row along with friends, family and stuffed animals.
When Djokovic finally prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, to win the Paris Masters for the sixth time, he met Medvedev at the net and then walked, beaming, toward his children to embrace them in the stands.
“A special day for me,” Djokovic said. “It’s the first time both my kids are together to watch a match of mine.”
It is one of the perks of enduring sporting excellence and one of the inspirations: to give your offspring a memory of you in full flow.
“It’s one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing,” Djokovic said. “I always dreamed of having my children in the stands.”
His longtime rival Roger Federer, a father of four, has reveled in the experience. So have many leading athletes, from football’s Tom Brady to women’s soccer’s Christie Pearce, in an era when more superstars have found a way to stay longer at the top.
At 34, Djokovic is riding the same wave and not yet ready to get off. He proved it in Paris, where he rebounded from a demoralizing stretch that could have left him reeling.
After failing again to win a medal at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in August, Djokovic got within one match of achieving a Grand Slam only to lose the U.S. Open final in straight sets to Medvedev. Rod Laver remains the last man to win all four major singles titles in the same year. He completed the Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969, and judging by the steady improvement of Medvedev and the new generation of men’s stars, it is difficult to imagine that Djokovic will have another chance to join Laver’s club.
But after seven weeks away from the tour, Djokovic reminded fans of his resilience, talent and resourcefulness with his performance in Paris.
He bolstered his claim to being the best men’s player of this golden era by securing the year-end No. 1 ranking for a record seventh year, breaking his tie with Pete Sampras. He also broke another tie with Rafael Nadal by winning his 37th Masters 1000 title and became the first man since Andre Agassi in 1999 to win the French Open and Paris Masters in the same season.
Medvedev, the gangly Russian shock absorber, had looked unstoppable as he rolled over a weary Alexander Zverev in Saturday’s semifinals, barely making an unforced error. Meanwhile, Djokovic had only squeaked past an inspired Hubert Hurkacz in a third-set tiebreaker in their semifinal, struggling for consistency off the ground and in his own service games.
But Djokovic found a new level and a new tactic against Medvedev, borrowing a yellowing page from tennis’ traditional playbook by serving and volleying 22 times and winning 19 of the points when he did.
It was an astute attempt to take advantage of Medvedev’s extremely deep return position, but it still required Djokovic to make a series of brilliantly angled volleys and drop volleys to keep the ball out of Medvedev’s long reach. More impressive was that the tactic continued to work throughout the match even after Medvedev had a chance to adjust.
“It won Novak the match for sure,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran coach and analyst. “It’s been a change-up strategy for Novak in the past, a surprise tactic, but Daniil knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop him.”
It helps that Medvedev slaps relatively flat returns and passing shots compared with a player like Nadal, whose dipping topspin can make it harder to hit decisive volleys. New paradigm? Probably not, but it was certainly effective indoors Sunday despite the relatively heavy balls that, in theory, should have made winners more difficult to produce.
“He puts a lot of returns back in play, and he’s just so good at staying in the point and making you suffer and forcing you to do an unforced error,” Djokovic said. “So you have to have in a way controlled aggression against him.”
He added, “I wanted to keep him on his toes, so he doesn’t know what’s coming up next, to be a little bit unpredictable.”
It is surely easier to surprise Medvedev at this early stage of their rivalry than men whom Djokovic has faced for more than a decade, like Nadal and Federer. But though Djokovic and Nadal had a memorable duel this year in Paris, with Djokovic prevailing in a four-set semifinal, Djokovic versus Medvedev has been the most compelling rivalry of the year.
Djokovic beat him in straight sets in the Australian Open final, lost in straight sets in New York and then won their best match yet in Paris. It would be no surprise if they met once more this year at the ATP Finals in Turin, Italy, which will begin Sunday on another indoor hard court.
They have become increasingly comfortable with each other and even trained together recently near their Monte Carlo residences: a rare occasion for a No. 1 and No. 2 player. Their meeting at the net after Sunday’s final was full of warmth despite Medvedev’s disappointment, and Djokovic has perhaps never applauded an opponent’s winners as often as he did for Medvedev’s in Paris. That was in part because the level was so high, particularly when they were locked in baseline exchanges that both were able to extend far beyond the norm with their extraordinary defensive skills.
“He’s probably my biggest rival in tennis at the moment,” Djokovic said.
The question is whether either of them will make the long trip to Melbourne for the Australian Open, where the state government of Victoria has indicated that players will be required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19. According to the ATP Tour, 25% of the top 100 singles players remain unvaccinated. Djokovic, who contracted the coronavirus in 2020, and Medvedev, who tested positive for coronavirus in April, have declined to disclose whether they are vaccinated. Both said in Paris that they would decide whether to play the Australian Open after the tournament made its formal policy clear.
“I don’t want to be part of the stories about the assumptions and what ifs,” Djokovic said. “When the official conditions and requirements to travel to Australia and play in Australia are out, then obviously I will see what I personally do with that, and also the bigger group of the players. Because the situation is obviously different in Australia than most parts of the world.”