Djokovic Makes Great First Impression On Rublev At ATP Finals

ATP Finals in Turin (photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images for ATP)

TURIN/WASHINGTON, November 17, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s hard to believe that World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and World No. 5 Andrey Rublev had never faced each other before Wednesday afternoon at the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin, Italy. One thing became certain, though, by the end of their 68-minute match inside Pala Alpitour: There were no secrets between these two Top-10 opponents – even when playing for the first time.

Djokovic clinched a berth in Saturday’s semifinal round with his 6-3, 6-2 triumph over Rublev to improve to 2-0 in Green Group play. It was his 13th victory in his last 14 matches and 40th lifetime in ATP Finals competition. Djokovic’s 14th service ace put a wrap on the match against Rublev and it was his 50th victory on the ATP Tour this season. He’s 7-0 since losing the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev in September.

The seven-time year-end No. 1 Djokovic dominated Rublev, both on his serve – winning all but four of his first-serve points while hitting 19 winners to just eight unforced errors – and on his returns, winning 50 percent of the time on his opponent’s serve. The Russian finished with 18 winners and committed 26 unforced errors. Djokovic outpointed Rublev 60-40.

“It’s strange we’ve never played since he’s been on the Tour for a while,” Djokovic said during a post-match interview with Tennis Channel. “We just never got to play against each other. It was a great match from my side. I started a bit nervous and he did. too. We both lost our opening service games. It was quite close, really anybody’s game.

“Then, at 4-3, I managed to put an extra return into play and made him to come to the net, made a good passing shot. After that, I started to swing through the ball a bit more freely from the back of the court and picked up the pace. He played very quick. I knew I had to be at my best in order to dominate him, to stay on the court.”

After Rublev finished his Monday evening victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets, in which he dropped only four points on his first serve and faced no break points in his round-robin opener, the 24-year-old Moscow native remarked: “I’m happy with everything I did today on court. From serve, return, rallies from the baseline to my mental part, how I controlled my emotions. So, we’ll see if I can keep going this way.”

By winning his opening match, it meant Rublev’s second round-robin opponent would be the 34-year-old Djokovic. Both came into their second round-robin match sporting identical 1-0 win-loss records, but that would soon change. Rublev spoke reverently about the Serbian in advance of their first meeting.

“He’s one of the greatest players in history, so I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I hope I’m going to win a couple of games, but the reality is the only thing I can do is to do my best and believe in myself.”

After exchanging service breaks to start the 35-minute opening set, Djokovic settled down and showed why he’s the best returner in men’s tennis – if not on Planet Earth – as he broke Rublev with a beautiful cross-court backhand winner in the eighth game, then consolidated the break with his seventh ace to win the set 6-3.

Next, Djokovic gained an early second-set break against Rublev to go ahead 2-1, then consolidated it with a love hold after winning six straight points for a 3-1 advantage. Later, he increased his lead to 4-2 with his 11th ace as the match reached the one-hour mark. Then, Djokovic converted his fourth of six break-point opportunities to go ahead 5-2 after Rublev ended a three-shot rally with a net return. With the match on Djokovic’s racquet, he closed it out impressively with a pair of service aces, including his 14th on his first match point opportunity.

“Winning the first set, I put additional pressure on him, and I started to maybe play more consistently from the back of the court,” Djokovic said during an on-court interview. “I served well [and] that helped tremendously. I wanted to put him out of his comfort zone, taking away the time and mix up the pace. It was a great performance overall.”

After a day off, Djokovic will wrap up group round-robin play on Friday against British alternate Cameron Norrie, who has replaced the injured Tsitsipas.

“I always like playing new players, particularly in one of the greatest tournaments in the world here in Turin,” Djokovic said. “Cameron deserves to be here, it’s not lucky. He worked his way to Turin with great wins in Indian Wells and some other tournaments. So, it will be fun to watch him tonight against Ruud and I’ll get ready for my next match.”

Tsitsipas withdraws, replaced by Norrie

No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece withdrew from the Nitto ATP Finals citing a right elbow injury. Second alternate Cameron Norrie of Great Britain took Tsitsipas’ place and played No. 8 seed Casper Ruud of Norway Wednesday night.

Tsitsipas lost to Andrey Rublev, 6-4, 6-4, during their opening round-robin match Monday night.

Norrie, who won titles in Los Cabos and Indian Wells in a breakthrough season, has played Ruud just once, less than two months ago in the San Diego Open final that was won by the Norwegian 6-0, 6-2.

“I’ve taken the very difficult decision to retire from the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals due to my elbow injury, which has been bothering me for a couple of weeks now,” Tsitsipas said. “It’s a very difficult decision from my side. I was working really hard from my side to play in the Finals and be part of this amazing event. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to continue.

“Today, I’ll see a specialist regarding my elbow, who is going to help me get ready for the new, upcoming season in Australia. I’ll feel 100 percent again, ready to compete at my highest. I think it was important to make this decision and not to continue playing with pain and to give the opportunity to someone else who is in better physical condition that I am to potentially make the semifinals this year. I’m not in a state to be on the court and I much more prefer to give that opportunity to someone else.

“I’m heartbroken and I really hope I can get back to playing at 100 percent again and be in front of my fans and perform at my best.”

Ruud rallies to beat second alternate Norrie

World No. 8 Casper Ruud of Norway rallied after a first-set wobble to beat second alternate Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, in an hour and 51 minutes for his 54th victory of the 2021 season. He won on his fourth match-point opportunity with a service winner, then sent get well wishes to Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini when he signed the camera lens: “Speedy recover Stef & Matteo!”

Norrie broke out of the gate quickly. The World No. 10 broke the No. 8 seed Ruud in the fourth game to go ahead 3-1 after the Norwegian’s seventh-shot backhand skidded off the tape. Then, he consolidated for 4-1 with a forehand winner. Soon, Norrie gained a double-break lead at 5-1 and won the opening set on his third set-point chance after Ruud netted a backhand off a solid serve by the British No. 1.

Next, Ruud rallied in the middle set after resetting to win 6-3. He broke Norrie’s serve in the eighth game to go ahead 5-3, thanks to three straight unforced errors, and closed out the set solidly after his opponent’s fourth-shot forehand was wide and long.

In the final set, Ruud took advantage of Norrie’s second double fault to break the British star for a 3-2 lead and consolidated it with a strong forehand winner. Then, serving for the match, Norrie fought off three match points before succumbing on the fourth when Ruud hit a service winner.

Ruud, who beat Norrie to win the San Diego Open in September, was asked during a TV interview with Tennis Channel how he turned Wednesday’s match around after losing the first set. He said: “Well, I was thinking that I wish I was back in San Diego because it went my way there. [Cameron] played very well. He forced errors out of my racquet. I didn’t play unbelievably bad, but he also forces you to go after some big shots that maybe you shouldn’t always. He moves very well and gets a lot of balls back, especially from the backhand side, with the slice backhand that’s very efficient on this surface. He made me dig a lot to get my top-spin balls going.

“I wasn’t feeling like his shots were too good in the beginning, but I stepped up a little bit with my service and I was able to hold serve in the second set. Then, a couple of points here and there and the match turned around. I think Cameron was the better player in the first set and most of the second set. Then, I was able to come out and turn it around. The momentum switched in the third set and I was able to get more breaks.”

Ruud, who is 30-7 since Wimbledon, is the first Norwegian to win a match at the Nitto ATP Finals. He  finished with 10 aces and hit 32 winners to 22 unforced errors, while Norrie’s numbers were similar: six aces, 29 winners and 20 unforced errors.

The victory leveled Ruud’s group round-robin record at 1-1. He will play Andrey Rublev (1-1) on Friday with the winner advancing to Saturday’s semifinals.

Cabal and Farah remain alive in doubles

No. 5 seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah (1-1), both from Colombia, kept their semifinal hopes alive in Red Group doubles with a 76-minute 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 7 seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil (0-2). It was just the fourth time in 12 tries that Cabal and Farah had beaten the British/Brazilian duo and only the second time on a hard court.

The two-time semifinalists Cabal and Farah, who have won three titles this season, improved to 37-19. They will face second seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain on Friday.

• The evening doubles match paired Ram and Salisbury against French duo Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, both whom won their opening matches on Monday.

With a semifinal berth on the line, Ram and Salisbury pulled out a 6-7 (7), 6-0, 13-11 victory over Herbert and Mahut in one hour and 40 minutes to maintain their perfect start. They saved all five break points they faced during the match and outpointed their opponents 75-64.

Herbert and Mahut won the 55-minute first set in a tie break 9-7 after earlier saving two set points. Next, Ram and Salisbury dominated the 23-minute second set with three staggering breaks of their opponents coupled with three solid holds to send it to a match tie break. In the decider, after saving two match points at 8-9 and 9-10, Ram and Salisbury went on to win on their second match point opportunity, after Ram hit a solid return off a Herbert serve that the Frenchman was unable to get a racquet on.

Wednesday’s Nitto ATP Finals results

Thursday’s Nitto ATP Finals order of play

By the numbers

• Novak Djokovic is through to his 10th semifinal at the Nitto ATP Finals. He has a lifetime 40-16 match record in the year-end finale. His victory over Andrey Rublev improved his 2021 season win-loss record to 50-6 (including 27-1 in major championships).

Andrey Rublev‘s first match against Novak Djokovic was his third against a World No. 1 overall and first since 2017. He won just five games in each of his losses to then-No. 1 Andrey Murray at the 2017 Australian Open and then-No. 1 Rafael Nadal at the 2017 US Open. Rublev came into his match against Djokovic on a two-match winning streak, after defeating Dominic Thiem in his final group match in London last fall and Stefanos Tsitsipas in his opening match on Monday.

• This is the third time in the 52-year history of the Nitto ATP Finals that there have been two alternates pressed into service. This year, it’s Jannik Sinner and Cameron Norrie. In 1998 at Hanover, it was Greg Rusedski and Albert Costa, and in 1997 at Hanover, it was Tim Henman and Thomas Muster.

“Quotable …”

“The atmosphere is amazing, everyone cheering here for me and for Italy. Playing in Italy is special because you stick together and. You want to win together, and I had this feeling today. When the whole stadium is playing [with you] against one guy, it’s not easy.”

Jannik Sinner of Italy, World No. 11, on the Pala Alpitour atmosphere during his Nitto ATP Final debut Tuesday night.