A Win Is A Win, Just Ask Djokovic As He Keeps His Turin Hopes Alive

Novak Djokovic (photo: Giampiero Sposito/FITP)

TURIN/WASHINGTON, November 16, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Six-time Nitto ATP Finals champion Novak Djokovic knew going into his final Green Group match against alternate Hubert Hurkacz Thursday afternoon at the Pala Alpitour that he needed to win in order to be able to have a shot in advancing to Saturday’s knockout semifinal round.

At times, Djokovic didn’t make it easy on himself, surrendering 24 booming aces and 37 winners overall to Hurkacz. He let the second set get away from him, which allowed Italy’s Jannik Sinner (2-0) to qualify for one of the two berths coming out of the group.

But, as the 36-year-old top seed from Serbia suggested to Tennis Channel during a court side interview shortly after he beat No. 9 seed Hurkacz of Poland, 7-6 (1), 4-6, 6-1, in two hours and five minutes, he did what he had to do in order to gain an important victory.

“I think [Hubert] really handed me the first set,” Djokovic said. “He missed a lot of first serves and I got myself in a position to get into the rally. Taking the rally, I had a better chance. I was sluggish in the second set with the break I lost. … But a win is a win. I did my job.”

The eight-time year-end World No. 1 Djokovic had never lost in six previous meetings against the World No. 9 Hurkacz, who was elevated from alternate on Tuesday after Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece withdrew due to a lower back injury. Besides playing for valuable ranking points and money, Hurkacz (0-3 in 2021 group play) was attempting to be the first Polish player to win a match at the Nitto ATP Finals since Wojtek Fibak in 1976.

Meanwhile, Djokovic was attempting to qualify for the semifinals for the 12th time in 16 appearances at the Nitto ATP Finals. The last time he failed to advance from group play was in 2019 when he went 1-2. Before that, one has to go all the way back to 2011. Now, Djokovic is 12-4 in career third round robin matches with a chance to continue his title defense.

With the first set to be decided by a tiebreaker, after both competitors played even for 48 minutes, Djokovic took command as he so often has this season (32-9 in tie-breaks) and dominated it by winning the first six points before surrendering a single point. He won it 7-1. Looking back, Djokovic won 85 percent of his second-serve points and outpointed Hurkacz by 10 points.

Next, Hurkacz won the second set impressively, at one point garnering 13 consecutive points while not dropping any points on his first serve, to even the match and send it to a decider. He broke Djokovic at love to go ahead 3-2, and maintained the break advantage through the remainder of the 40-minute set, striking seven aces and 11 overall winners.

Then, on serve at 2-1 in the third set, Djokovic gained his first break of Hurkacz after the Polish star whacked a third-shot forehand return long. It was one of 16 unforced errors by Hurkacz on the day. He consolidated the break to surge ahead 4-1 and then continued to pressure Hurkacz in his next service game. Djokovic gained a double-break after Hurkacz sailed a forehand out of bounds that halted a 15-shot rally, one of the longest of the match.

Finally, with the match on his racquet, Djokovic served out the win. He outpointing Hurkacz 93-77. The eight-time Year-End No. 1 closed matters with a flourish, like a champion. Djokovic (2-1) bounced back well after losing to Sinner on Tuesday. However, his place in the semifinals is still to be decided.

Djokovic will have to sit and wait for the outcome of Thursday evening’s final group match between Sinner (2-0) and Denmark’s Holger Rune (1-1). If Sinner wins, Djokovic advances. If Rune wins, then he and Sinner are into the semifinals and Djokovic’s season is over.

“Let’s see what happens,” Djokovic said.

Around the Pala Alpitour

There was plenty of high drama in the Nitto ATP Finals doubles competition at high noon at the Pala Alpitour as fourth-seeded Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico and Edouard Roger-Vaseline of France faced off against No. 1 seeds Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Austin Krajicek of the United States in the Green Group, both teams entering play 1-1, with a berth in Saturday’s semifinals riding on the outcome.

After splitting the first two sets, it all came down to a match tie-break that took 28 points to decide and lasted 26 minutes. When it was all done, Gonzalez and Roger-Vasselin emerged victorious, winning 6-4, 3-6, 15-13 in an hour and 41 minutes. There was plenty of elation exuded from the Mexican/French duo on one side of the net afterthe6 came up clutch, and plenty of heartbreak was shown by the Croatian/American pair on the other side.

After Gonzalez and Roger-Vasselin were unsuccessful in converting match point chances at 9-8, 10-9 and 11-10, they saved one match point at 11-12. Finally, they put away the victory on their fifth match point. They will advance to the semifinal round with a 2-1 win-loss record in group play. No. 5 seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina, who are 2-0 and play their last group match this evening against seventh seeds Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni of Argentina (0-2), have already qualified for the semifinals.

Gonzalez and Roger-Vasselin, who have won five tour-level trophies this season – including two crowns in Masters 1000 play at Miami and Paris – are appearing in Turin for the first time as a team. Gonzalez becomes just the third Mexican to qualify for the semifinals in tournament history. Meanwhile, the season ends for Dodig and Krajicek, who were making their second appearance together at the year-end event after winning five titles, including Roland Garros.

By the numbers

Jannik Sinner is looking to become the first Italian to advance to the Nitto ATP Finals single semifinals in the 54-year tournament history. This season, he has compiled a 59-14 record (most wins by an Italian man in the Open Era) and a career-best four ATP Tour titles, including his first ATP Masters 1000 crown in Toronto. Also, Sinner has a 15-1 indoor win-loss record and 10-5 record against Top 10 opponents.

“Quotable …”

“I like when there is space. As I said, there are tournaments during the year, even Masters 1000, Madrid, Cincinnati, where I kind of don’t have, let’s say, the ability to be where I want. I can still play well in these tournaments. Cincinnati this year, I didn’t do well, but I won it one time. Same Madrid. I was playing quite well.

“I think if you want the best game possible, we need to give this opportunity to all the players. For sure there are some players that stay on the baseline. They don’t care. They can have a very small court and they don’t care. Me, I like when there is space. I’m very happy when there are tournaments that give me space and I can do my job.”

– Daniil Medvedev of Russia, during his post-match press conference Wednesday night, commenting on the Amount of space behind the baseline at the Pala Alpitour.