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New Era, Same Emperor: Novak Djokovic reigns supreme in Turin
Djokovic finished a stellar 2023—and fired a warning shot for 2024—by dismantling two young rivals, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, to win the ATP Finals.
Published Nov 19, 2023
Midway through last week, Novak Djokovic was asked to assess the three “kids”—Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Holger Rune—who qualified for this year’s ATP Finals in Turin.
Djokovic began by raising an objection.
“It’s not nice to call them kids; they’re above 18, so you’re officially not a kid anymore,” the world No. 1, who must have been in a literal-minded mood that day, informed his questioner.
That semantic protest out of the way, Djokovic proceeded to sing the praises of those three players.
“The generation of Alcaraz, Rune, Sinner is very strong,” Djokovic said. “Of course it’s expected for young players to be hungry, to be motivated, and to constantly look for ways to improve, get stronger, faster, better, so they can clinch the biggest trophies in the game.”
By the tournament’s end, as Djokovic lifted a record seventh Finals trophy over his head, his words sounded as much like a description of himself at 36 as they did any of his whippersnapper rivals. Djokovic beat the 20-year-old Rune during the round-robin stage, and then, over the course of 24 hours this weekend, he dismantled Alcaraz, 20, and Sinner, 22. The Spaniard had beaten him at Wimbledon in July; this time Djokovic handled him 6-3, 6-2. The Italian had beaten him in the round-robin stage in Turin; this time, in the championship match, Djokovic won 6-3, 6-3.
It’s one of the best seasons I’ve had in my life, no doubt. Novak Djokovic
Djokovic was the one who looked hungrier and more motivated, who tried to find ways to improve over recent past performances, who blended raw athleticism with attention to detail in a way that none of his younger opponents could match. When a new generation of players takes over from an old one, they often do it with superior power, and Alcaraz and Sinner hit the ball as hard from the baseline as anyone ever has. But in Turin, Djokovic absorbed their pace and sent the ball back with more.
“I’m very proud of the performances these past two days against Alcaraz and Sinner,” he said. “The way they have been playing, I had to step it up.”
“I had to win the matches and not wait for them to hand me the victory.”
Djokovic stepped up in the logical places: With his serve and forehand. Against Sinner, he hit 13 aces and won an absurd 91 percent of his first-serve points. In his opening service game, he uncorked a huge down-the-line forehand that felt like warning shot. From there, he used perhaps his most underrated weapon, his heavy crosscourt forehand, to break down Sinner’s own forehand, which had been reliable all week.
“I think today he played really, really good, especially in the back of the court,” Sinner said of Djokovic. “For one and a half set, he served really, really good. It was tough to play.”
Djokovic pulled off the neat trick of upping the pace and risk on his ground strokes, without sacrificing any accuracy. Against Alcaraz, he made just three errors; against Sinner he made five. If there’s one big difference between the Serb and the “kids” chasing him, it’s their penchant for making a series of errors that changes the trajectory of a match. Sinner made three on his forehand side and was broken in the first set, and he did the same and was broken early in the second as well. At this stage of his career, Djokovic seems to pulled off another neat trick: He has eliminated bad days, and only rarely—like two times a season—does he have a stretch of poor play that costs him an important contest.
“It’s one of the best seasons I’ve had in my life, no doubt,” Djokovic said.
A 55-6 record; three of four majors; a seventh year-end championship and eighth year-end No. 1, both records; a 3-1 record against Alcaraz, who was supposed to pass him by this season. When you factor in Djokovic’s age, and the number of years he’s been on tour, you could reasonably call this his most impressive—preposterous, really—campaign yet.
“He’s No. 1, [but] he always wants more,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said of his mindset. “He wants something better all the time.”
By his own definition, Djokovic at 36 remains an up-and-comer—hungry, motivated, looking for more—at heart. And the kids know it.
“His body is incredible shape,” Sinner said of Djokovic on Sunday. “We’re going to see him around for I don’t know how many years still.”