When Djokovic Stayed Focused In Turin, He Was Unbeatable

Novak Djokovic and Jannik Sinner (photo: Giampiero Sposito/FITP)

TURIN/WASHINGTON, November 20, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

What a difference a few days can make. Just ask World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who won a record seventh Nitto ATP Finals singles title following his 6-3, 6-3 victory over Italian favorite Jannik Sinner in Turin, Italy Sunday evening.

Just five days earlier, World No. 4 Sinner handed the Serbian great a crushing, three-hour-plus three-set defeat in group play that threatened to derail Djokovic, 36,  from advancing to the knockout semifinals on Saturday. Instead, Djokovic used his 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2) loss to the 22-year-old South Tyrolean as a motivator for the remainder of the year-end tournament.

Djokovic, who qualified as runner-up to Sinner in the Green Group, advanced to face World No. 2 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, who captured the Red Group. He beat the 20-year-old Spaniard, 6-3, 6-2, to set up a rematch against Sinner, who erased World No. 3 Daniil Medvedev of Russia, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-1, in the other semifinal.

Suddenly, in the words of his coach Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic was switched on. He was a mentally changed player.

“The new Novak Djokovic arrived on the court from Saturday,” Ivanisevic said in a press conference Sunday evening following Djokovic’s title victory. “When [the] real Novak Djokovic arrives on the court, then the moment is nobody that can play with him.”

Djokovic shared the same feeling as his coach. “I think the match against Alcaraz last night and the one tonight, probably two best matches under the circumstances that I’ve played this season against two players that are in fantastic form,” he said. “I mean, obviously the quality of Alcaraz and Sinner we all know.

“Playing Sinner tonight in front of his home crowd, and the way I finished the tournament and finished the season, is amazing. I’m very, very proud of the performance.”

Sinner applauded Djokovic’s performance during his final press conference. “Well, I think today he played really, really good, especially in the back of the court. … For one and a half sets, he served really, really good. It was tough to play. But in the other way, I was enjoying out there, no? It was obviously final. It is something different.

“He deserved to win today, no? He played better in the important moments, and that’s it.”

Sinner also reflected on his own outstanding season, in which he went 61-15, won four titles and reached two other finals.

“Today, I saw that I still have to improve, for sure. I believe that he makes me a better player, like all the other players have done who I lost to. I now have to work on this,” he said. “But I’m happy because I put myself in this position, in this also mental position to go on court trying to give my best. We see what’s coming in the future.”

Looking back, Djokovic admitted that after he clinched the Year-End No. 1 award, after beating Denmark’s Holger Rune 7-6 (4), 6-7 (1), 6-3 on the opening night of the tournament, there was a natural letdown. He had a “kind of half in, half out feeling.

“I was not mentally present I think fully in the tournament,” he added. “That reflected on my level of tennis and my performance and the way I felt on the court.

“Obviously thanks to Sinner for allowing me to be in the semifinals when I was there. I thought now, okay, I’m going to try and step it up. And I did. I played two really high-level matches.

“I started very aggressively tonight against Jannik, which was the different to the group stage match we had against each other. I think that match helped me prepare myself better for the atmosphere, the crowd. Obviously, I analyzed the match and I looked what I could have done better. I think I’ve done it very well for the entire match.”

Djokovic fired 13 aces, placed 70 percent of his first serves in play and won 91 percent (29 of 32) of his first-serve points. He hit 17 winners, made just 10 unforced errors and converted three of eight break points. He outpointed Sinner 72-48 and played a key role in Sinner committing 30 unforced errors. It all added up to his 55th victory of the season against just six losses.

In addition to winning his record seventh Nitto ATP Finals crown, Djokovic earned $4,411,550 in prize money for the week. Sinner will leave Turin with $2,600,500 for finishing runner up to Djokovic. Both are expected to play for their respective countries this week at the Davis Cup Finals in  Malaga, Spain.

When Djokovic was asked to describe the emotions and feelings he felt after securing championship point, after an hour and 43 minutes, before another sellout crowd that filled the Pala Alpitour, he said it was the joy and happiness from winning the title in front of his children, Stefan and Tara, whom he hugged shortly afterward and chatted playfully with before the beginning of the trophy presentation.

“It’s always children, honestly. I mean, obviously winning a match with this importance and significance is always an incredible feeling in the end and also huge relief because there’s a very high tension and pressure that you feel on the court,” he said.

“I was pretty much playing flawless tennis a set and 3-2. Yeah, then I got tight, I must say. Started to miss the first serve. Crowd got into it. I was lucky that he missed an easy put-away forehand at, what was it, 4-3 and deuce. You could say also I was unlucky to hit the net cord on the passing shot for double break. At this level it happens.”

Djokovic admitted the key was to just maintain his focus. “I could feel from the beginning that it was a different vibe, different energy from him and from me comparing to the match we had four, five days ago,” he said. “I felt that maybe he wasn’t as free or as comfortable from the very beginning like he was in the four matches prior to the finals.

“I felt, ‘Okay, my opportunity is now and I have to take it.’ I have to be controlling the rallies and I have to be the one that is going to, so to say, impose himself on the court, he needs to feel my presence, which wasn’t the case in the group stage match. I think that was probably the major tactical difference between the two matches. Obviously, him finishing with a double-fault is not ideal.

“It’s a great reward I think for what my team and I and my family have been through this year, being one of the most successful years in my career that I ever had,” Djokovic added. “Four out of five major tournaments I won, played finals of Wimbledon. I couldn’t ask for more, to be honest. I’m very, very proud of the season.”

When Djokovic was asked at his final Turin press conference what he can do for an encore next season, he replied: “Well, you can win four slams and Olympic gold.” He smiled at the thought.

“Let’s see. I mean, I have always the highest ambitions and goals. That’s not going to be different for the next year, that’s for sure. The drive that I have is still there. My body has been serving me well, listening to me well. I have a great team of people around me,” he said.

“Motivation, especially for the biggest tournaments in sport, is still present. It still inspires me to keep going. In the end of the day, people see you performing in the big tournaments, but they don’t see all the weeks and months of dedicated day-to-day, week-to-week work, trying to build your form so that you can peak where you want to peak. For me, obviously those are Grand Slams and World Tour Finals, and next year hopefully also Olympic Games.

“The mindset is the same. I’ll keep going. I don’t know whether I’m going to have as good of a year next year, but I’m going to keep this kind of, yeah, freshness of mind and in a way motivation to do that.”

Around the Pala Alpitour

By the numbers

Sunday’s Nitto ATP Final title match between Novak Djokovic and Jannik Sinner was the most-watched tennis match ever in Italy, with about 6.6 million viewers tuned in on RAI 1 and Sky Sport. According to reports, it was the second-most watched tennis match on Sky Sport following the 2021 Wimbledon final.

“Quotable …”

“It was amazing to experience this much attention and support and popularity like we had in the last 10 days, all of us players. It was really amazing.

“I played here already two years, but this year was something different. I think it’s credit to Jannik, as well, of course being Italian and being one of the favorites to win the title. The anticipation and I think the excitement of the whole nation to support him and back him was something that produced this incredible energy that I really enjoyed.”

Novak Djokovic of Serbia, during his final press conference Sunday, describing the feeling of participating in the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin.