Novak Djokovic arose a worthy champion from Tour Finals’ ashes
Novak Djokovic was a worthy champion of the season-ending tournament in London, writes Marianne Bevis
It all ends here: So the banners for the 2014 playing of the season finale at The O2 proclaimed. And true to form, ranking, and the hopes of the tennis fans who had packed out the arena day after day, it ended with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
But it ended not with a bang but a whimper.
The two biggest stars in the tournament had made the standout runs through a week of lop-sided, unpredictable and error-strewn matches to emerge as the kings of the court. Djokovic and Federer had, after all, won nine of the last 11 year-end titles, were already assured of ending the year ranked Nos 1 and 2, and had topped 2014 in title wins and match wins.
But all the facts and figures in the world could not do justice to the nature of the rivalry that had unfolded through 36 previous matches dating back more than eight years.
What began as a slightly prickly relationship blossomed through the years into one of mutual respect, and one that has produced arguably some of the most flamboyant, intense matches of the decade.
Federer’s all court fluency, attack and tactical guile pitched against the super-fit, super-flexible body and intellect of one of the greatest defenders in the game has always brought out the best in each other. But ahead of their sixth meeting this year, there were two questions.
Djokovic admitted after his semi-final that he was ‘mentally exhausted’, but went on: “Knowing that tomorrow is the last match of the season, I’m sure that I will find any necessary drop of strength, mental and physical, to give it on the court.”
Federer then played an emotionally and physically demanding two and three-quarter hours to beat Stan Wawrinka in the other semi, and did not even reach his press conference—bundled up in coat and scarves—until 1am, and that before the journey home, food, physio and more. Could the Swiss recover in time to challenge the Serb?
Well in an ironic twist of that same strapline, it really did all end here.
While Djokovic was warming up on Centre Court, Federer was nowhere to be seen on his practice court. Rumours quickly took hold that he was unfit and, sure enough, half an hour before the scheduled final, he walked onto court to announce his withdrawal. It was, he later revealed in a private interview, a return of the back problem that had affected so much of his 2013 season: a spasm he picked up in the final stages of his Wawrinka semi.
This trophy is definitely the crown for all the achievements that I had this year
To its credit, the tournament hastily put on a brief show featuring Djokovic and home favourite Andy Murray, who had been so ignominiously beaten by Federer days before, 6-0, 6-1.
But between the shock of Federer’s departure and the arrival of the generous Murray, one important event got rather less attention than it deserved.
Djokovic, the man who had already picked up the end-of-year No1 trophy two days earlier after the astonishing defence of his Paris Masters title days after becoming a father, was presented with the ATP World Tour Finals trophy.
Sadly, many missed the moment when the Serb collected this most prestigious of awards for a fourth time, and the third time in a row—a feat not achieved for almost 30 years, and never even by Federer.
It was certainly a less pulsating award ceremony than the O2 has become used to. Djokovic reflected the mood: “I’m not one of those players that celebrates these particular wins, but I have to reflect on the whole season.
“This trophy is definitely the crown for all the achievements that I had this year. I owe credit to my team, to all the people who supported me all the way through. And plenty of joy. I’m very happy to be able to stand here and finish with this trophy.”
He added, about Federer: “We always give 100 per cent. I’m sure that if he could’ve played, he would’ve done. So I wish him the best in his recovery.”
It must have been a difficult balance to get right, a tough tone to strike: a celebration in the midst of a decidedly muted mood. Djokovic admitted that he had heard of Federer’s decision during the doubles final that preceded the singles face-off:
“I did my warm-up, obviously prepared for the battle, prepared for a great match, as the people expected it to be. It was the last match of the season. I was ready to give it all. I’m sure he was ready, too, to give it all if he could. I spoke to him: As I understand, he retired from a match maybe three times in his career in over a 1,000 matches. You cannot blame him. I’m sure he would play World Tour Finals if he could.
“It’s a very awkward situation to talk about it, to be honest. You never like to win, especially these big matches against big rivals, with the retirement.
“Of course, I know that I’ve had a great season and I’m very proud to be holding the trophy, but the way things happened today was definitely awkward.”
He later explained about the decision to put on a short friendly match as some kind of compensation for the crowds.
“Look, I was as surprised as probably you guys were when you heard the news. I was in my locker room, I was doing the routine that I do always before my matches.
“Then we started talking about possibilities, what we can do in order to save this day in some way, because the people were already there watching. The stadium was already full. Luckily Andy was in London. I want to thank him, for coming out and making an effort. It really is an effort.
“I know how it feels when you finish the season, as he did on Thursday. Probably the last thing he’s thinking about is tennis now. He receives a call, comes out and plays an hour, now he’s still playing doubles. It’s very genuine from him. Hope the crowd enjoyed because there was not much you could do really.”
But of course, it was very genuine from Djokovic, too. A relieved champion who did not have to dig deep one last time, could have taken the trophy, the plaudits—and the champagne—and headed back to the wife and baby son he left almost three weeks ago.
Instead, he kitted up, plied his trade, and afterwards treated the media to the now customary chocolates before leaving London. Even then, he joked about his return home: “I’m glad during the stay in London for these 10 days I got a lot of sleep, because that will not be the case from now.
“[But] I’m looking forward to it. It’s the most beautiful feeling holding a baby in your arms. There will be a lot of that without the racket in the next couple weeks!”
Not that he isn’t already looking ahead to new highs: “Right now I’m at the pinnacle in my career, physically feel very fit. I’m very motivated to keep on playing on a very high level. As long as it’s like that, I’m going to try to use these years to fight for No1 and for the biggest titles in the sport.”
And even a fully-fit Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray will find it tough to dethrone him.