Novak Djokovic passed a stern semi-final test from Taylor Fritz on Saturday at the Nitto ATP Finals, where the Serbian prevailed 7-6(5), 7-6(6) to move within one victory of equalling Roger Federer’s record of six titles at the prestigious season finale.
A spirited showing from Fritz saw the American recover a break deficit in the first set and surge to a 5-3 lead in the second. Despite struggling to consistently find his best level, however, Djokovic found a way to pull through in both tie-breaks as he wrapped a hard-fought one-hour, 54-minute victory at the Pala Alpitour.
“I had to fight to survive,” said Djokovic afterwards. “I didn’t feel very reactive today or very comfortable. I knew coming into today’s match from yesterday’s gruelling battle against [Daniil] Medvedev I knew it would take me some time to adjust and find the dynamic movement I need against Fritz, who is one of the best servers on the Tour.”
The seventh-seeded Djokovic delivered a solid rather than spectacular performance against Fritz, hitting just 21 winners to the eighth seed’s 31. He was delighted to claim victory in straight sets after his lung-busting three-hour, 11-minute round-robin triumph against Medvedev on Friday afternoon.
“I had to be very patient, I didn’t start the second set very well,” said Djokovic. “But I managed to break his serve at 5-4 when he was serving for the set, like when [Daniil] Medvedev was serving for the match yesterday. In those moments I find another gear and managed to hold my nerve and make him play another shot in the tie-break.
“I am very pleased to have overcome this one as I don’t think it was one of my best days with my tennis, but I managed to hang in there.”
The way in which Djokovic attacked Fritz’s second serve was key to his triumph. The Serbian won 61 per cent (14/23) of points against the American’s second delivery and converted both break points he had.
Djokovic can match the Swiss great Federer’s title tally on Sunday when he takes on Casper Ruud or Andrey Rublev in the championship match in Turin. Should he lift the trophy, Djokovic will also claim the largest payday in tennis history, with $4,740,300 on offer for claiming the Nitto ATP Finals trophy undefeated.
The 35-year-old Djokovic is chasing his fifth tour-level title of the season in Turin. The Rome, Wimbledon, Tel Aviv and Astana champion now holds a 45-17 career record at the Nitto ATP Finals, where he lifted the trophy in 2008 (in Shanghai) and in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (in London).
Despite the disappointment of Friday’s defeat, Fritz was upbeat about how close he had pushed the 90-time tour-level champion Djokovic after reaching the semi-finals on his Nitto ATP Finals debut. The World No. 9 acknowledged his week in Turin had given him extra belief that he can consistently compete with his Top 10 rivals in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
“Typically I’m good at tie-breakers,” reflected Fritz. “I feel like my tie-breaker record throughout my career has definitely been really good. Today I played both tie-breakers pretty well… I’m right there. It’s small margins in tennis. It’s always like that. It’s very small margins. [I] just need to get that little bit better and I’m right there.”
Djokovic broke to love in the fifth game of the match against Fritz to build some early pressure, but the American responded well and immediately levelled for 3-3 as the Indian Wells, Eastbourne and Tokyo champion began to settle. Although both players still struggled to find their top level, it was Djokovic who produced a moment of magic on set point with a classy forehand winner that clinched the tie-break.
Fritz came out firing in the second set, breaking the Serbian in the opening game and looking increasingly confident in his maiden Nitto ATP Finals semi-final. It was a simple missed backhand from Fritz at 5-4, 30/30 that proved pivotal, although the American appeared distracted by someone calling from the crowd as he struck the ball. Djokovic capitalised to reclaim the break before securing victory in a dramatic tie-break to the delight of his vocal fans inside the Pala Alpitour.
“I enjoy having the atmosphere,” reflected Djokovic afterwards. “When people come and watch you play, they expect some kind of entertainment and good tennis and hopefully they enjoyed themselves, especially towards the end of the match. Every point against a player like Fritz who has a big serve counts.”