I was ready for this all to be about Novak Djokovic. Novak Djokovic, having reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, was ready for this to be all about Novak Djokovic. His level of play over the last half of the season, and specifically over the last week, is a psychoactive substance. Sunday marked the end of the ATP Finals, the year-end event that pits the season’s eight most successful players against each other. It’s just a tick below a major in prestige and ranking points. Djokovic came to London having won 31 of his last 33 matches, having re-established a familiar distance between his level of play and the rest of the tour’s, and so the Finals kind of had the air of a season-end coronation. He was untouchable, and ready to prove not just weekly second-round cannon fodder, but against a tiny ring of his fellow elite.
In the round robin stage of the ATP Finals, he cruised through Sascha Zverev, John Isner, Marin Cilic—all huge men with huge serves, all neutered by Djokovic’s knack for tracking down and smacking back a serve. Isner, who stands 6-foot-8 and won a tour-best 94 percent of his service games in 2018, didn’t even get close to the tiebreaks that are typically his birthright; after losing in straight sets, he told the press that Djokovic was the first, second, and third best returner he’d ever faced.
Not that there is much chance of having with Djokovic after you’ve survived the first two shots of the exchange, either. The defense of old is back, and points must be won five or six times over. Just ask Marin Cilic what he thinks about it:
Undefeated in the round robin stage, Djokovic then faced semifinal opponent Kevin Anderson, yet another player in the 6-foot-6-and-up, big-hitting mold, and the runner-up to the Serb at Wimbledon. What resulted was one of the most overpowering performance of Djokovic’s season. Just watch agog at 0:18, where Djokovic rips a 117 mph serve almost just as hard in reply, and then spans the full width of the court to lash an untouchable backhand down the line. For my money, it is one of the most demented points of 2018.
This also bears mentioning: In addition to his success on return, Djokovic still hadn’t lost a service game through these four matches. Nobody can make a dent on Novak Djokovic without sinking their teeth into his service games, and when he’s serving that well, there is absolutely nowhere to get traction on him. You’d have better luck trying to find footholds on a perfectly smooth, 50-yard steel wall.
Djokovic would play the final against Sascha Zverev, who he’d already beaten 6-4, 6-1 in the group stage, and humiliated 6-2, 6-1 in Shanghai a few weeks earlier, so going into this match, expectations were clear. Barring illness or a sudden onset of gluten, Djokovic was going to cap off his late-season in the appropriate fashion, taking a title here over all the other players who were, only on paper, his peers. Zverev is No. 4 in the world and the anointed boy prince of the men’s game, a player lab-grown for this era: rangy, smooth-moving, free points off his serve and formally perfect in his groundstrokes. The 21-year-old had just taken Roger Federer down in the semifinal, but had yet to perform in a match of this magnitude. Despite his precocious haul of three Masters titles, the knock on Sascha Zverev has been his mystical and frankly annoying tendency to evaporate in the first week of a major. He really needs to get that checked out, because he’s a staggering talent. An ATP Finals final against Djokovic, however, didn’t seem quite like the moment to find himself. And yet.
The kid did the shit. In the end Djokovic’s serve could not sustain its perfect streak in London, and Zverev did a lot of damage on the second-serve return, winning 65 percent of those points en route to four breaks of serve. The young German also played a near-perfect match from the net, winning nine of his 12 points there. These included some of the absurdly difficult touch volleys seen above, an encouraging sign for a player whose only easily identifiable weakness is his lack of frontcourt finesse. But Sascha’s baseline play has always been unimpeachable, and this time it withstood a stress test against the best player in the world. He came away from London with the biggest hardware of his young career, and even higher expectations for Australia, where he will once again try to translate his talent to best-of-five tennis. Djokovic, meanwhile, finishes the back half of the season 35-3, with all three losses at the hands of players 22 and younger. That is in itself an interesting omen of things to come in 2019, a season that looked from afar like it could have been (and still probably will be) the one-note reign of Djoker all over again.