His two convincing wins over first John Isner and then Alexander Zverev ensured he was into his eighth semi-final at the season finale and still in the frame to win a record-equalling sixth title.
There remained two questions. Who would also qualify from this group? And would Djokovic hold on to the top spot and thus avoid a semi-final showdown with his old adversary Roger Federer? Few in London wanted anything less than a title-bout between the two top seeds, the third meeting in as many months, a 48th career meeting.
It could all be decided before he even took to court. If Zverev beat Isner, the young German would finish second to Djokovic. The complication arose if Isner scored his first win in his first ATP Finals.
Isner, the tallest and oldest man in the tournament, had qualified late after the best season in his 33-year-old life, courtesy of the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal. He had played well against Djokovic, but his form slipped in his second match and with good reason. His close friend from back home, Kyle Morgan, had died unexpectedly, and it hit him hard.
Could Isner find not just the physical but the mental resolve to beat the 21-year-old German, who he had beaten just the once—in the title match of the Miami Open this year?
Indeed could he qualify for the semis himself? There was a slim chance for all three of the remaining players, and Marin Cilic would try his best against Djokovic at the end of the day if Isner could open the door just a crack. If Isner could win in straight sets, the American may even open the door for himself.
But Isner knew the scale of his task:
“He does so much well. He serves very well, his groundstrokes are incredible… This isn’t your everyday tournament. It will be very tough. But I’m going to come out fired up.”
Considering how weary both men had looked in their previous matches, the two of them went hammer and tong in the first set. After seven games, there was nothing between them: both were serving at a high level, and at high speed. Zverev was up to 137mph—though Isner clocked 140 in the next game—and he held with his fifth ace, 4-4.
Isner, for his part was being bold, venturing to the net, stepping in to take the occasional second serve from Zverev, but the German was keeping his error count impressively low, just three by the time he had to serve to stay in the first set, 4-5. No problem: a 139mph ace made it a love hold.
This was seriously good serving from the two big men separated by 12 years in age. But it was a forehand winner from Isner that brought up the first break point, and set-point, of the match—only for Zverev to hammer down a 143 ace.
It was big-time tennis, and would, of course, go to a tie-break. Aces flowed, including on a second serve by Zverev for 3-3. The German then got the first point against serve, only for Isner to fire a return of serve winner to level, 5-5.
Unfortunately, Isner’s next blink came on set point: Zverev blasted a return and the American netted his forehand. Zverev jumped and pumped, and he led, 7-6(5).
That, in effect, had sealed Isner’s fate: He needed to win in straight sets to qualify. Yet he kept up the good fight through half a dozen clean games, with both still serving at an exceptional level.
Something had to give, though, and it was Isner in the eighth game. Zverev got the only break of the match on his first break point, and the young star, already with three Masters titles from five finals to his name, served out in style, 6-3, to reach the semis of the tournament in just his second visit to the O2, the youngest in nine years to reach the knock-out stage.
So Djokovic’s match with Cilic is a ‘dead’ one, though worth more than $200K to the winner. For the semi-finals are set: Djokovic will play Kevin Anderson Saturday night, Federer will play Zverev in the afternoon.
But for Isner, he leaves with a positive view of the tournament, of his season, and of next year, no mean feat after the misfortune that his campaign here.
“It was my best season in a lot of ways. I mean, my year-end ranking is the best. I’m going to finish in the top 10 for the first time in my whole career. At 33, I think that’s a pretty remarkable achievement for me. I’ve been in the top 20 now nine consecutive years. But I broke through that this year, which I’m very proud of.
“Going forward, I’ll be looking to play well in the big events again. There’s still a lot of room for improvement for me. I started the year in 2018 in pretty poor form, so I can improve on that. If I can, I can possibly improve my ranking and give myself more momentum early on in the season.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge