By Matt Roberts
The men’s tennis tour came to a close on Sunday with Novak Djokovic doing what he’s been doing all year – winning. The runaway world number one capped his annus mirabilis by beating Roger Federer in straight sets to win the World Tour Finals at London’s O2 arena. The Serb has made a habit of breaking records in 2015 and with victory inside the dome on the Greenwich peninsula he became the first man ever to win four consecutive year end championships.
We had waited 12 months for this match. Last year, Federer was forced to withdraw on the afternoon of the showpiece event with a back injury. This time, however, he was moving across the court with a flow and ease not befitting his 34 years. Instead, his only concern was his opponent.
All players must be sick of Djokovic’s hegemony, but none more so than Federer. The Swiss maestro has had an excellent year, capturing titles with regularity and reinventing his game by adding new attacking layers (the SABR – the Sneak Attack by Roger – was the talk of the tennis tour in autumn). And yet, had it not been for Djokovic, he could have had an historic year. Prior to this event, Djokovic had already denied him in four finals – including at Wimbledon and the US Open. He was about to make it five.
The Serb’s 6/3 6/4 victory over the Swiss was as convincing as it sounds. Federer had his moments, he always does; there was a scorching backhand up the line early on, a series of successful net approaches in the second set and some trademark flicks of genius. But still he couldn’t stop Djokovic.
The encounter lasted little over an hour. While it failed to live up to expectations as a contest, it was the purest of demonstrations as to what Djokovic has become.
Out of the shadows of Roger and Rafa, ‘Nole’ has emerged as a relentless winner. For many, his brilliance is less obvious than Federer’s purity and Nadal’s power. A peerless defender and mover, he presses opponents into playing the whole match one or two levels above where they feel comfortable – Federer was having to produce Hall of Fame-worthy shots just to win points on Sunday.
But while his defence is the most gasp-inducing aspect of his game, it’s Djokovic’s offence which is most improved. He’s perhaps the most accurate server on tour (staggeringly, Federer won just three points off Djokovic’s second serve) and from the baseline he spreads the play with angular strokes and keeps opponents at bay with shots struck to a maddeningly perfect length.
Moreover, whereas you once felt that Djokovic could be a little fragile mentally, he’s become unflappable in the biggest moments. Every year the trip to the O2 is like a pilgrimage tour for the Swiss as they flock to east London to cheer on Roger and, more recently, Stan Wawrinka. But Djokovic made the crowd a non-factor in the final, silencing them with a break of serve in the third game of the match and never once relinquishing the lead from there.
The win was Djokovic’s 81st of a remarkable year which has seen him turn the long-standing Big Four into a Big One. He won three of the four slams (thwarted only by the bone-crunching power of Wawrinka in Paris); became the first man to win six Masters 1000 events in a single season; notched up a ridiculously dominant 31-5 record against his Top 10 rivals, and earned a staggering 16,585 ranking points. That’s the most points ever accumulated and the gap between first and second is a big as it has ever been.
But perhaps the most absurd statistic of all is that he played 17 events and reached the final at 16 of them. The only one where he didn’t? In the very first tournament he played, in Doha.
Djokovic’s 2015 sits right alongside Rod Laver’s 1969, John McEnroe’s 1984 and Roger Federer’s 2006 as one of the greatest years ever seen in the men’s game. He said earlier this month that “nobody can be perfect, but if you go for perfection, you might reach excellence.” He’s certainly done that.
Where does he go from here? His main goals next year will surely be Olympic gold in Rio, the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati to complete his set of Masters 1000 titles and, above all, the French Open. He’s already one of the all-time greats but getting his hands on the Coupe des Mousquetaires and completing the career Grand Slam will propel him into echelons occupied by a very select few.
At the moment, it’s hard to see who is going to end Djokovic’s control. Even Federer in his glory days always had Nadal as his clay court Kryptonite. Right now, Djokovic is the best player on every single surface.
What the ATP World Tour really needs is new blood. All 8 players at this year’s season-ending finale had competed at the event before, most on multiple occasions. The youngest competitor was Kei Nishikori at 25. Even more shockingly, no player younger than Djokovic has won a Masters 1000 title. There is a whole generation of players who should be entering their prime – including Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic – who aren’t registering any noteworthy results. Tennis needs its young guns – among them Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem – all brimming with talent, to develop at breakneck speed.
It’s a scary thought but, as unwaveringly professional as he is, Djokovic will seek areas to improve over the off season. It’s up to the rest of the tour to match him.
Photograph: Marianne Bevis via Flickr