As much as he would like, Novak Djokovic will not carry the FedEx ATP No.1 ranking in his grave. He’s been on the pole for a total of 295 weeks (and more) and is just 15 weeks off Roger Federer’s all-time record of 310 career weeks.
Sometimes this season he looked a lot like an indestructible superhero. But as good as it was – 41-4 heading into Saturday’s semi-finals – the cold reality is, someone will overtake him sooner or later. On Saturday, as the four best players in the world gathered at the O2, the question posed by The Who in 1971 was once again on the table: who’s next?
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No one can rule out the possibility that that other pair of tennis superheroes you may have heard of, Señor Rafael Nadal and Herr Roger Federer, could get their thrones back. But another scenario is that one of Djokovic’s younger rivals will eventually supplant him. On Saturday, two of the most likely suspects – Dominic Thiem, 27, and Daniil Medvedev, 24 – went through auditions to play the role of alleged heir.
While Sunday’s league game in the Nitto ATP Final is a big deal on its own, it may also reveal who among this pair is most likely to threaten Djokovic’s grip on No.1 in the future.
Thiem leads his ATP Head2Head streak against Medvedev 3-1. The Russian’s only victory came on hard ground outside in Montreal last year, during his scorching summer where he advanced to the finals of six consecutive tournaments, winning three of them. It will be their first meeting inside. Thiem won his last game in this year’s US Open semifinal in back-to-back sets, but the Russian served for the second and third sets before falling in tight tiebreakers, 9/7 and 7/5. .
Thiem said after that game that the tiebreaker is “really a tough thing mentally.” “I don’t like them at all, to be honest,” he says.
Of course, he liked them much better when he won a dramatic fifth-set tiebreaker against Alexander Zverev in the final two days to capture his first major. The victory, coupled with what he has accomplished this week, will give him a huge boost as he looks to win his first Nitto ATP Finals title on Sunday against Medvedev, who rides his own wave in the game.
Look for Thiem to get away, aiming for lines. He can also take a page from Nadal’s playbook and try to lure the Russian into the net, where he is less confident. Thiem, who stayed on to watch the second semi-final, will enter the game with a 25-8 record over the season. He was 7-15 against the Big Three before 2019, but has been a spectacular 9-3 against them since. He has more wins (17) in the majors than any other player this year and has had a better season than any other player, with the possible exception of Djokovic, who has five titles against his two.
Medvedev, the name means “bear” in Russian, arrives in the final with a 27-10 season record. Quite exhilarating stuff for a kid whose parents used to drive him 90 minutes each way to train in Moscow before moving to France to advance his career at 14. Expectations for him have skyrocketed after reaching the finals of six straight tournaments last season, winning three of them, but his fifth gear has escaped him at times this season. He’s a regular player who is on a roll right now, which means he will be tough on Sunday.
Medvedev looks like a man from the future, but after his semifinal victory over Nadal, he allowed himself to look back wistfully on his first meeting with Thiem since their youth. The Russian was just 14, the last to qualify for a tournament in Umag, Croatia, while Thiem was the reigning junior Roland Garros champion.
“He destroyed me 2 and 0, I think,” Medvedev recalls. “I think maybe I made a ‘winning tweener if I’m correct. Actually (I) lost my memory of that match, and he (reminded me) in an interview once about it … I had (a) crazy attitude on the court (at the time) , like 10 times worse than now. He said to me after the game: “You will have a good future maybe, but you have to be a little calmer.” Because I was going crazy.
Calm or crazy, whoever wins it will be the sixth year in a row with another Nitto ATP Finals champion, which is hard to believe in a sport that has been dominated by three men for so many years. Djokovic said after his loss it was “too early” to say whether Thiem posed a threat to his hold on No.1. He won’t be there to reverse that opinion on Sunday, and he won’t want to. But one thing is certain: the man who holds the trophy on Sunday will be the one who will bear the brunt of the great expectations, as the next elected tennis player, by 2021. Neither of the two would like it otherwise.