Challengers amassing behind Djokovic and Nadal

If Novak Djokovic wins the Masters final on Sunday (7pm in Turin), the 2022 season will end with two leaders. A world No. 1, Carlos Alcaraz, the ATP leader. And an unchallenged de facto boss, Djokovic, who, if he had been awarded his theoretical 2,000 points won at Wimbledon, would have the same number of points as the young Spaniard.

The 35-year-old Serb is determined to prove once again that he is the boss, a crown that Taylor Fritz unreservedly awarded him after being beaten in two tiebreaks in the semi-finals.

“When Djokovic was able to play this season, he was the best on tour,” the American said, referring to the Serb’s bans in Australia and the US. “If you take him out of the equation, I think all the other players are extremely close, and when they play each other, it’s all about who’s playing better that week, what the court conditions are, who’s playing better. There must be 15, 20 players capable of beating each other depending on the circumstances.”

Fritz has the merit of offering a clear perspective on the 11 crazy months that have just ended in men’s tennis. But it goes a bit too quickly. It omits the fact that Djokovic has not been the best player of the season on clay, where he had a direct opportunity to deny Rafael Nadal a 22nd Grand Slam and a perfect start to the season after winning the Australian Open, despite his victory in Rome.

Djokovic was incredibly strong at Wimbledon again, but his indoor season will be unfinished if he fails to win the ATP Finals, having failed to beat Holger Rune in the Rolex Paris Masters final. The titles in Tel Aviv and Astana, however brilliantly won, will not be enough.

No Alcaraz against Djokovic or Nadal in a Grand Slam

The reading of the tennis season will remain unfinished in any case due to the absence of a direct confrontation in a Grand Slam tournament between Djokovic and/or Nadal and Alcaraz.

Juan Carlos Ferrero’s protégé achieved a masterpiece that put him on the level of the greats by eliminating Nadal and Djokovic in quick succession at the Masters 1000 in Madrid, and then pulverizing Alexander Zverev in the final, the defending ATP Finals champion and proclaimed candidate for the world number one spot this winter. But his loss to Zverev at Roland Garros (before Nadal) and then to Jannik Sinner at Wimbledon (before Djokovic) robbed us of those moments of truth.

Alcaraz finally reaped the rewards of his exceptional progress by becoming world No. 1 at the US Open after defeating Marin Cilic, Sinner and Frances Tiafoe. His final against Casper Ruud, with the world number one spot at stake, may have seemed baroque at the time. It was in fact the first manifestation of a final third of the season, which ends with the ATP Finals, where the number of contenders to challenge the Big Two has increased dramatically.

This was further evidenced by Holger Rune’s victory at the Rolex Paris Masters, thanks to which two teenagers are now in the top 10. Rune is the only player in history to win a Masters 1000 after beating five top 10s and he dominated Djokovic in straight sets after being down a break in the third set. He has very few points to defend before the Munich tournament in May 2023 and can reach the French Open as a top 5 player.

In front of Rune, the field has become extraordinarily tight. It is dizzying that the man who was world No. 1 10 weeks ago, Daniil Medvedev, will be seventh on Monday after exiting the ATP Finals in three deciding-set tiebreaks; he had a match point against Andrey Rublevhe served for match against Stefanos Tsitsipas and he served for the match against Djokovic.

The list of losers in the group stage does not lie about the fragility of the hierarchies. It includes Nadal, the only player with two Grand Slams this year, Medvedev, the player who spent more time at No. 1 in 2022, Tsitsipas, who was still in the hunt to be world No. 1 five days earlier, and Felix Auger-Aliassimethe best player in the seven weeks prior to the Rolex Paris Masters.

It’s not just his three ATP titles back-to-back, but also his wins over Alcaraz and Djokovic within two weeks of each other in the Davis Cup and Laver Cup. Only Nadal and Rune have done that.

Ruud well-placed to close the gap

The qualification of Rublev, Fritz and Ruud for the last four in Turin is, from this point of view, only the ultimate manifestation of a tightening of the pack towards the two 30+-year-old legends who have, until proven otherwise, no lasting competitor to challenge them for the major titles.

Ruud, the only player to have played three finals in the five biggest tournaments of the year, is in a way the standard-bearer for these players who belong neither to the pre-stardom Next Gen for nearly five years (Zverev, Tsitsipas, Medvedev ), nor to the teenagers to whom even the young retiree Federer lends the potential to take tennis elsewhere (Alcaraz, Rune, Sinner).

The Norwegian is also the best placed to measure the gap that Djokovic and Nadal have maintained with the others. He has not beaten either of them. Never even took a set from them: 0-2 against Nadal, including a loss in these ATP Finals, and 0-3 against Djokovic.

“We saw Alcaraz and Medvedev in this situation”

Asked on Saturday about his impending return to world No. 2 and the natural temptation of No. 1, Ruud struggled to move beyond the conventional answer he was obliged to give, aware that the balance of power is unstable.

“I came very close and I will work in the future to try to reach it, but I don’t know what else to say. There are so many players who are contenders for the big titles at the moment that the top spot will be more open than ever, maybe for profiles who will make a run at it once. I hope to be there. On paper, my chances don’t look great, but I’ll give it my all. We saw Alcaraz and Medvedev in this situation.

More than 2,700 points will separate the two players on Monday and they have not faced each other this year. In a sign that the top spot is open, but perhaps not to all, they are also the two players Djokovic has praised most this week in his public statements.

Leave a Comment