You were not born yesterday. You are smart. When seeing the words “chase down” in a story title, you’re wondering why those words were chosen for Novak Djokovic’s Paris championship.
Indeed, the words aren’t used idly or without intent. They definitely try to emphasize a point: When Novak Djokovic really wants something, he normally gets it. When he feels he absolutely has to win, he normally wins.
That has been the prevailing rule, the governing force, of men’s tennis in a decade which has just one event left: the 2019 ATP Finals. (The Pique Cup is its own separate entity and a first-time event. For all intents and purposes, the ATP Finals is the grand finale for this decade of ATP competition.)
Rafael Nadal has won 13 majors this decade. Yet, he was the decade’s second-best player. Djokovic has been No. 1… and without question.
Nadal has continued to pile on the Masters 1000 titles. This year, he won Rome and Canada. Djokovic managed to tie Nadal with his second Masters championship of 2019 on Sunday in Paris, beating Denis Shapovalov in a convincing straight-set conquest.
Nadal was incredibly unlucky to get hurt before the semifinal round against Shapovalov, but Djokovic could not control or influence that turn of events. All he could do was show up, play, and be his best self.
Djokovic lost the 2018 Bercy final to Karen Khachanov, so the fact that Djokovic was a clear favorite heading into Sunday did not, in itself, guarantee that Nole would win.
Djokovic had a point to prove about taking care of business. He also was engaged in a chase, hence the use of “chase down” in a title.
The broader story of Djokovic’s career is itself a chase, a pursuit of the high standards set by Nadal and Roger Federer. Many will debate the point, but it certainly is a valid one regardless of your opinion on the matter: Djokovic has eclipsed Fedal in many ways, and as I wrote after his Wimbledon title this year, Djokovic has made a convincing case that he is the best big-point player of his time.
Djokovic loves the chase, the thrill and challenge of the pursuit.
This past week in Paris, he was trying to make sure that Rafael Nadal didn’t lock down the year-end World No. 1 ranking. It would have been so great for Djokovic — and the sport — to be able to beat Nadal in the final to come closer in the chase for year-end No. 1. We were deprived of that opportunity.
Yet, it remains that Djokovic played the biggest points with supreme concentration, sharpening his defense just as he did in the three Wimbledon final tiebreakers against Federer.
He won a close tiebreaker against Kyle Edmund. He won a close tiebreaker against Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals on Saturday. He avenged his Shanghai loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas with a ruthless demolition of the Greek in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Remember when Djokovic lost early in Indian Wells and Miami this year? Some people felt this was the byproduct of being distracted by matters of ATP governance. Some people felt Djokovic wasn’t hungry or motivated.
The point I made then was — and still is — more precise than either of those two lines of arguments: Djokovic was hungry… but he lacked the small yet substantial extra degree of ravenous hunger which is often needed to win titles.
Djokovic will be hard-pressed to produce yet another season on par with his soaring 2015 or his almost-as-great 2011. Being 32 years old usually brings tennis players, even the best ones, in touch with the reality that complete season-long dominance is not as likely to emerge as it once was.
There is nothing ordinary about Djokovic. Much like Serena and Fedal, it is in his nature to transcend our expectations of what is possible. Yet, if certain tournaments during the tennis season didn’t bring out his very best performances in 2019, I don’t view that as a lack of hunger. I view it as an organic process in which large accumulations of activity lend themselves to more fluctuations in results as one gets older.
The key insight for Djokovic after his Paris championship is simply that when he has something — or in the case of Nadal, someone — to chase, the thrill of the pursuit still elicits his most clutch and resolute tennis.
Novak Djokovic will be chasing year-end World No. 1 at the ATP Finals in London.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t bet against him. The pursuit of more milestones and more greatness still brings out the very best of Novak Djokovic.
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