With all due respect to Carlos Alcaraz, the biggest obstacle to Novak Djokovic’s 25th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open is likely to be the 20-year-old Spanish phenom’s record in last summer’s Wimbledon final. They lost in the quarterfinals in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Janic Ciner, a 22-year-old Italian, has given Djokovic a match in recent months.
Cener saved three match points to upset the Serb again in the Davis Cup semi-finals 10 days after defeating Djokovic in the ATP Tour finals in Turin. Two hours later, he teamed up with Lorenzo Sonigo again to defeat Djokovic and Miomir Kecmanovic to help eliminate Serbia.
Djokovic went months without losing a match and won 33 straight matches at the Australian Open. Cinner has won twice in one day and three times in two weeks and is perhaps the field’s best chance to keep Djokovic from an 11th Australian Open singles title.
“This is what I’m used to, playing against the best players in the world,” Sinner said after knocking out world No. 5 Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. He has an amazing record here so I enjoy playing with him, especially in the final stages of the tournament.
It wasn’t always like that, even during the unseasonably warm spell of November.
Sandwiched between Sinner’s group-stage triumph in Turin and his Davis Cup victories was an unexpected loss in the Tour Championship final.
Five days passed between the victory of the sinner and the start of the finals. Djokovic did what he often does. He studied what happened in his previous match. He watched video footage of that match. He took information. He consulted a lot with coach Goran Ivanisevic.
He then took to the court and put on an absolute clinic and played arguably his best match of the year.
In short, he figured it out.
More on Djokovic and his remarkable 12 months…
The metrics below are results of ball and player tracking data collected by high-speed cameras and analyzed in real-time by English company Tennis Vis and Tennis Data Innovations (TDI) jointly with the ATP Tour and technology. ATP media
Djokovic wasn’t a completely different player in those two singles losses to Sinner, but he knew which parts of his game he needed to focus on more.
He had to be more aggressive, go on the attack and score more points where he had the advantage and was on the attack – what Tennis Wonks called ‘the conversion rate’. And he did. His conversion rate was 61 percent in that group-stage matchup, nine percent below his season average. In the end, he raised it to 78 percent.
Siner was on the front foot in the team match, with a conversion rate of 67 percent. That dropped to 54 percent in the final race.
Djokovic should have been more dedicated to the fight.
A match’s ‘steal point’, which measures how often a player wins a point, can reflect that. In the final, Djokovic’s steal rate was 46 percent in the final, compared to 33 percent in the set. By contrast, Sinner’s steal rate dropped, dropping from 39 percent to 22 percent.
He should have served better.
And he did that. His first serve rate was a team-worst 61 percent. In the end it was 70 percent. But not only is his serve going in more, he’s getting closer to the lines more consistently. The average distance between the line and the ball was 43 centimeters and the final was 54 centimeters.
Because Sinister is walking more on sideways serves or having to fight deep serves that come across his body, Djokovic can set up a dangerous forehand outside his serve, called a “plus-one.” Of those plus-one shots, 62 percent came in the Finals, compared to 49 percent as a team. And swinging with abandon, he averaged 76 mph compared to 71 mph the previous five nights.
How much more damage did this aid cause?
Although Sinner hit a similar percentage of deep balls in both matches, Djokovic’s increased speed and accuracy forced him into more errors. Djokovic, on the other hand, hits fewer short balls and has climbed to the top.
In addition to studying what he lacked as a group, Djokovic said he had a change in attitude between his two matches with Sinner in Turin.
His victory against Holger Run in his first match at the finals of the tour secured him the world No. 1 ranking at the end of the year. That was one of Djokovic’s biggest goals of the season. After that, he said that he was mentally “half-in, half-out type”, and this shows how he played in the first meeting with the sinner. Once he made the ball, it was game on.
There was an echo of that in Australia this year. Djokovic struggled to get going in his first two matches until he ran into trouble and had to manage some tricky and taxing escapes. But from the third round he is dialed in and has to counter with a sinner. He has never lost in an Australian Open semifinal – a perfect 10-0, his record in the finals.
Sinner said he was familiar with Djokovic’s record. He learned from his defeat and then beat Djokovic in the Davis Cup. He is looking forward to this next chapter when he had to love Djokovic in the 2022 Wimbledon quarter-finals before falling behind.
“It’s going to be tough,” Sinner said. “I will control the manager who gives 100 percent, has the right attitude, fights for every ball. Then we will see the result. I can’t do more than that. It doesn’t matter who my opponent is.
Unless, of course, that opponent is Novak Djokovic.
(Top photo: Nicolo Campo/Lightrocket via Getty Images)