As Novak Djokovic walked from his locker room towards centre court at the Pala Alpitour on Saturday, the Serbian closed his eyes for a moment. The five-time Nitto ATP Finals winner was in the zone. Call it the champion’s zone.
The 35-year-old found that area of focus when he needed it most in the Turin semi-finals against Taylor Fritz, whom he defeated in two tie-breaks to advance to the championship match at the season finale.
“I was looking forward to being in this position. I’m very happy to be able to compete for another big trophy, one of the biggest ones that we have in our sport,” Djokovic said. “So far a great week for me. Four out of four wins. Of course, the last match of the season, I’m going to give it all. I’m going to obviously try my best.”
Watch Djokovic vs Fritz SF Highlights:
More often than not, Djokovic has discovered his best tennis on the world’s biggest stages under the most pressure. It is a champion’s intangible that the Serbian has relied on in the toughest of moments.
It is not always easy for the former World No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. On Friday, Djokovic needed more than three hours to claw past Daniil Medvedev while under physical distress. He put that behind him to battle past Fritz in a tense semi-final.
“I like the fact that I was able to win against Medvedev after a very long battle, then come back the next day after not too much time for recovery, be able to win another tight match against Fritz in two sets,” Djokovic said. “That’s something that has in a way defined my career over the years. I’ve had similar situations where I was able to bounce back and really make some big wins.
“I would love to, of course, win the trophy, but I’m not going to be the only player who is going to want that on the court. Hopefully I’ll be able to play at the level that I’ve played most of the matches this week and get a trophy.”
This is a position Djokovic is plenty familiar with. The Serbian first triumphed at the Nitto ATP Finals — then the Tennis Masters Cup — in 2008. If he lifts the trophy Sunday, it will make 14 years between his first and most recent title at the year-end championships. The current record belongs to Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, who claimed their first and last season finale crowns eight years apart.
Separately, Djokovic can tie Federer’s record of six Nitto ATP Finals titles. He has positioned himself for this opportunity through consistent evolution.
“I would like to believe that I’m evolving, as anybody else, hopefully in a positive way. I’m experiencing changes on my body and of course with my mentality, my mind, my character. We all are evolving and moving along. Every single year we are different people,” Djokovic said. “Of course, with the different circumstances in life, you adapt to them and you try to be [a] better version [than] you have been the year before, not just in terms of athleticism or results or tennis, but just in general.
“There is more experience. I like to maybe believe there is more wisdom, as well, in terms of how I see things related to my sport and my life. Of course, I’m seeing tennis different and the life around tennis today than I’ve seen it 15 years ago. I’ve always been very thorough with my approach and analysis on and off the court.”
Djokovic developed this mindset under the tutelage of Jelena Gencic, his first tennis coach. According to the 21-time major winner, she “was very professional and had that holistic approach to everything”.
“Of course, as I was getting older, each year was passing, more things, more lessons learned, more things added, some maybe put away,” Djokovic said. “It creates a formula of success that is obviously working for you, but maybe not for somebody else.”
Djokovic has successfully used that formula countless time during his career. He will hope to do so once more on Sunday, when the champion of champions will be crowned.
Did You Know?
Djokovic is one victory from becoming an undefeated Nitto ATP Finals champion for the fourth time. If he lifts the trophy, it will come with the biggest payday in tennis history: a record $4,740,300 in prize money.