Flawless Djokovic off to flying start with Schwartzman win
Zverev seeks revenge for loss to Medvedev in Paris Masters final in key group showdown
Time, then, for Mr No1 himself, Novak Djokovic, to begin what could be another ground-breaking tournament.
The six-time end-of-year No1 and five-time champion at the Nitto ATP Finals—which is playing for the 12th and last time at the iconic London O2 arena—was about to launch his assault on a record-equalling sixth title at the end-of-season finale.
And an assessment of the Serb’s form both before the pandemic lock-down and after it, both his ATP Cup/Australian Open/Dubai runs, and then his Cincinnati/Rome Masters double plus Roland Garros final, suggested that victory was his to lose.
That he arrived, like his seven fellow qualifiers, with plenty left in the tank from this shortened season, and 39-3 on his resume for 2020, only added to his favourite status.
And reading between the lines of his press conference on Friday afternoon, he knew it, too.
“Obviously, coming here and knowing I have clinched the year-end No1 releases some of the pressure, but it doesn’t change what I hope to achieve and why I am here. I really want to win every single match I play, and I want this trophy as much as anybody in this tournament. Hoping I can end my season in the best possible way.”
As if that was not enough, his first opponent, the last man to qualify, No8 Diego Schwartzman, had lost all five previous meetings. And while the Argentine had taken sets off Djokovic on clay, he lost their last meeting on the red stuff in straight sets, in the Rome final in September.
They had never met indoors, but there was still no reason to think the odds would change in Schwartzman’s favour. Djokovic has won 13 indoor titles, four of them on this spectacular court, while the Argentine, making his debut appearance on an echoing Monday afternoon, had none.
The pugnacious, fleet-footed Schwartzman, though, proved in 2020 that he continues to be a man with ambitions greater than his modest stature. He reached London by breaking the top 10 for the first time, having made his first Masters final in Rome—beating Rafael Nadal into the bargain—and his first Major semi at Roland Garros—where he beat Dominic Thiem.
But no matter the size of the Argentine’s heart, this looked a step too far.
As if to press home the point, Djokovic opened with four first serves, two of them aces, for a love hold. But he was perhaps not prepared for how quickly Schwartzman settled in. The Argentine worked break points in the third game and converted the second with a wrong-footing pass, 2-1.
The Serb righted the ship immediately, though, and broke back, striking angles wide to both wings, and Schwartzman could not keep up the chase. Order was restored with a love hold, 3-2, and he went on to punish the Argentine through some hypnotic exchanges. A 28-shot rally in the eighth game rang alarm bells, and sure enough Schwartzman faced break points again, and the Serb sealed it with a big, looping forehand winner. Djokovic served for the set, taking it, 6-3.
Schwartzman seemed unable to break his opponent’s rhythm, drawn into metronomic exchanges that were simply flawless from the Djokovic side. On break point, the Serb threw in a drop/lob/smash combo to drain the legs and spirit of a hapless opponent, broke for an immediate lead, then aced a love hold, 2-0.
The Argentine stemmed the flow with an ace to hold, but this was increasingly one-way traffic, and Djokovic broke again for 4-1. Schwartzman’s body language, a shrug of the shoulders to his team as he took the baseline to receive, spoke volumes.
Djokovic held the centre-point of his baseline, directing balls to each corner for a swift hold, and Schwartzman found himself serving to save the match after an hour and a quarter. He did so, but Djokovic was eager to get this done, headed to the mark before time was up, and served it out, 6-1.
Ever the perfectionist, Djokovic afterwards said:
“I think the beginning of the match wasn’t that great for me. He broke me in the third game—close encounter until I broke his serve at 4-3. Second set, I started swinging through the ball a bit more and had a little less hesitation from both corners. I was very pleased with how I played in the second set especially.”
Arguably the most important match of this group was the evening contest between two of the biggest, and biggest hitting, young players on the tour.
Both standing at 6ft 6ins, No4 Daniil Medvedev and No5 Alexander Zverev each had a semi-place in their sights. And while Zverev was a former champion at this event, in 2018, and brought a 5-2 advantage over his contemporary, Medvedev’s two wins were very significant, both earning him Masters titles. The last, indeed, was just last week to claim the Paris-Bercy title.
So while Zverev was back to hot form since the coronavirus lockdown, making his first Major final at the US Open and then a 12-win run through two Cologne events and the Paris Masters, Medvedev had seized the momentum. One of them, by the end of Monday night, would join Djokovic at the top of the group leader-board.
Medvedev beats Zverev again…
The first set was a very long, very gruelling 50 or so minutes comprising long arduous rallies through a staggering 73 points, 6-3 to Medvedev—that is more than eight points per game. They exchanged breaks right at the start, but the Russian got another, 4-2, to edge the set.
Both looked exhausted, for neither man wastes any time between points, and that, together with considerable tension, brought errors on both sides. Medvedev summed it up afterwards: “To be honest, the intensity of the match was one of the most in my career!”
It was a fascinating contest, and in the second set both seemed more settled and focused, but it was Medvedev, with the confidence of a lead, who began to mix it up a little more. He broke in the seventh game, held for 5-3 via an underarm serve, and served out the win, 6-4.
It moved Medvedev to second in the group, trailing Djokovic only by a two-game difference.