ATP Finals 2021: Novak Djokovic subdues debutant Casper Ruud for opening Turin win

Ruud, the youngest in the draw, still seeks first top-10 win, but tested Djokovic in fine opening tie-break

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Few following the tennis season could miss the fact that Novak Djokovic’s records during 2021 have been many and significant.

As he began his campaign to equal another momentous record, that of Roger Federer’s six ATP Finals titles, the world No1 had already established the most weeks at the top (347 and counting) and most years ended at No1, seven—and incidentally the oldest to do so, age 34.

He had matched his great rivals Federer and Rafael Nadal with his 20th Major victory at Wimbledon, and became the only one of the three superstars to win at least twice at all four Majors.

He also went to the top of the Masters league table with his victory at the Paris Masters, 37 titles to Nadal’s 36.

Now making his 14th appearance in the tournament, he had not won the trophy since 2015, but he was favoured to claim it again, along with that last record, come next Sunday.

Drawn in a group of men all more than a decade his junior, he first played the youngest man in the tournament, debutant Casper Ruud, age 22. The Norwegian, the first from that country to play at the season’s finale, was down at 27 this time last year, but the No8 seed had surged up the ranks via his prowess on clay with three consecutive titles during the summer in Bastad, Gstaad, and Kitzbuhel, having made the semis at both the Monte-Carlo and Madrid Masters.

But before Turin, Ruud showed his ever-improving all-round ability on hard courts, too, with the title in San Diego. He cause has been helped by a huge and flexible forehand, a varied and pacey serve, and a willingness to close out the net if necessary. And with quarter-finals at the Masters in Toronto, Cincinnati and Paris, he had this year put together a 23-8 record on hard-courts.

But in facing Djokovic, one of the sport’s outstanding performers on hard-courts, he was attempting to score his first win over a top-10 player, and in the knowledge that he had lost his only previous match against the Serb last year on Rome’s clay.

To make matters even more formidable, Djokovic had a 12-1 record in opening round-robin matches, with his only loss coming to David Ferrer in the first match of his 2007 tournament debut.

In the first set, though, Ruud was soon displaying his many talents on a tennis court to the fans and to Djokovic, as three big forehands opened the court for break point. In a dramatic final point, Ruud wrong-footed Djokovic who slipped over, recovered to continue the rally, but ultimately netted the ball. Ruud had the break, and held for a 2-0 lead.

But by the sixth game, Djokovic was able to get traction against too many second serves from the Norwegian, and on break point, Ruud double faulted: 3-3.

Djokovic was now beginning to hold his own serve with more ease than his opponent, but Ruud held off a challenge in the eighth game with three aces to hold.

In the 10th game, Ruud was again under pressure, but responded with big strikes to the lines. Even so, he faced one, then a second break point for the set, but found a couple of timely aces to get back to deuce, and held for 5-5 after 10 minutes.

Come the tie-break, it was nip and tuck to 4-4, but Djokovic got a valuable point against the Ruud serve for 6-4, and sealed the set on the next point with a searing forehand winner after an hour and a half of play: 7-6(4).

And with the wind in his sails, and confidence growing with every point, Djokovic as quickly in control in the second set, breaking in the first game, and forcing Ruud to rush and overhit in his attempt to live with the growing accuracy—and confidence—of the Serb.

Djokovic held to love for 3-1, broke again, and ultimately served out the win, his 39th in the tournament, 6-2, after an hour and a half.

He then took to court to receive one of the biggest trophies in tennis, for the year-end No1. In accepting it for the seventh time—breaking the his tie with Pete Sampras—he said:

“I was four or five when I saw Sampras play at Wimbledon for the first time. I asked for a racket and fell in love with tennis. To know that I hold this record now, after Pete, it’s incredible.”

The other two men in the Green Group play the night session: Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev.

Djokovic has a 6-2 winning record over the former, though the 2019 champion was forced to retire in his last tournament, the Paris Masters, with an ongoing arm injury. Djokovic has never played Rublev, but the Russian has won just two matches in his last four tournaments.

In any case, after his performance against Ruud, who played some fine tennis in the first set in particular, the world No1 will certainly be feeling confident about whoever stands across the net this week.

It looks unlikely that one those opponents will be Matteo Berrettini, the poster-boy for this first residency in Turin for the tournament.

For the opening day was marred by the first mid-match retirement in the tournament since 1998, and it came in the shape of Italian star, world No7 Berrettini. He suffered an abdominal injury at the start of the second set after losing a thrilling 80-minute first set, 7-6(7), to Alexander Zverev, and was forced to stop after the first game.

In the other Red Group match, No2 seed Daniil Medvedev came back from a set down to beat Hubert Hurkacz, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4, after two hours.

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