Yet that is precisely what came to pass in the intervening 12 months.
For in May 2018, Djokovic was about to go on a remarkable surge of form to claim almost every big title going: Wimbledon, Cincinnati, the US Open, Shanghai, and then this year’s Australian Open, with runner-up gongs from Queen’s, Paris and London into the bargain. Naturally, he swiftly returned to No1, became the first man to complete the set of Masters, and will attempt to hold all four Majors at the same time when he heads to Roland Garros later this month.
But along the way, his path crossed with the charismatic Greek in Toronto, and Tsitsipas scored his first win over the mighty Serb, along with fellow top-10 players Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem—to reach a first Masters final.
Tsitsipas won his first titles in Stockholm and Milan, made his first Major semi in Australia—this time beating Roger Federer—won more titles in Marseille and Estoril, and made the final in Dubai.
But the stakes were growing higher: This time he beat Rafael Nadal on home clay to reach a second Masters final, in the knowledge that he had now beaten the top five men in the world. Victory over Djokovic for a second time would take him to the verge of the top five himself. And deservedly so: he led the tour with 27 match-wins.
But weighing heavily against the undoubted quality of the Greek’s attacking, flamboyant tennis were two things: the rising form of Djokovic after a slight lapse in results following Australia, and their different progress to this final showdown.
Tsitsipas arrived direct from his title run in Estoril and headlong into the Madrid draw. Unsurprisingly, it took a tough three sets to beat Zverev in the quarters and even longer to put out Nadal—a match that kept the Greek at the Caja Magica into the early hours. It was fortunate in this context, then, that he had lost in the doubles semi-finals, so did not again have to play twice in day
Djokovic, in contrast, had faced only one seed after a walkover from Marin Cilic, and he had beaten Thiem in the semis by late afternoon. And his tactical accuracy, focus and fitness were improving with every round. What is more, there would be no doubting his desire to take back control of the head-to-head against this ambitious challenger.
So could Tsitsipas wrench enough control from the relentless baseline accuracy of Djokovic to impose his forward-moving style on the match?
It soon became clear that it would be an uphill task, with Djokovic looking and playing with more calm assurance than he had all week. It was the Serb who gripped the baseline, weaving his opponent to the extreme margins, wearing out those already-weary legs. Tsitsipas tried drop shots, but Djokovic is fast and elastic enough to track down short plays and make angled winning replies.
Djokovic got the quick break, and consolidated for 3-0. Tsitsipas’s serving was letting him down, which made it that much harder to get to the net, and he was pinned back. Djokovic would hold through the set without offering up a single break chance, and serve it out 6-3.
The second set was a closer affair, though Tsitsipas faced break points in the third game. He was reading the play better now, but the Djokovic defence was so resilient that the Greek had often to take multiple shots at the net to get the point done, and he was yet to make any inroads on the Djokovic serve.
In fact Djokovic did not even face a deuce until after he had broken the will of the Greek in the ninth game. Serving for the match, the Serb would twice face deuce but not a single break point. A final forehand winner broke the Tsitsipas defences, 6-4, after an hour and a half.
So with precision timing, it seems, Djokovic has pulled all the elements of his tennis together like a spider web, controlling the plays, eyeing not just this prize, his 33rd Masters title—equalling Nadal’s record—but the prize a month down the line in Paris.
He admitted afterwards that this first win on clay since his only French Open title to date, in 2016, was an important one.
“I was saying after yesterday’s semi-final win that it was a very, very important win for my confidence. I wasn’t playing my best tennis after Australia, so I was looking to regain the momentum this week. I started off well, didn’t drop a set the entire tournament, so I’m very pleased. I played some of my best tennis here.”
He paid tribute to his opponent, too:
“He is very talented, had a very late night, last night, and I could see he wasn’t as dynamic in the movement as he was then.”
He went on to add: “It is a pleasure to share this court with you.”
Tsitsipas will rise to a new career high of No7 with this run, and could keep rising if he performs as well in Rome and Paris: He has fewer points to defend than some of the players above him.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge