With all due respect to Carlos Alcaraz, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Novak Djokovic winning a 25th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open probably wasn’t the 20-year-old Spanish phenom who topped him in the Wimbledon final last summer but lost in the quarter-finals in the small hours of Thursday morning.
It is a 22-year-old Italian named Jannik Sinner who has given Djokovic fits in recent months. Sinner beat Djokovic in the group stage of the ATP Tour Finals in Turin, then did it again in the semi-finals of the Davis Cup 10 days later, saving three match points to stun the Serb. Two hours after, that he did it again in doubles, teaming up with Lorenzo Sonego to beat Djokovic and Miomir Kecmanovic and help eliminate Serbia.
Djokovic goes months without losing a match. He has won 33 straight matches at the Australian Open. Sinner got him twice in one day and three times in two weeks, and is probably the field’s best chance of keeping Djokovic from an 11th Australian Open singles title.
“This is what I practice for, to play against the best players in the world,” Sinner said after eliminating Andrey Rublev, the world No 5, in straight sets in the quarter-finals. “He has an incredible record here, so it’s a pleasure to play against him, especially in the final stages of the tournament.”
It hasn’t always been that way, even during Sinner’s hot streak in November. Sandwiched between Sinner’s group-stage win in Turin and Davis Cup victories was a lopsided defeat in the final of the tour championship.
Five days had passed between Sinner’s win and the start of the final. Djokovic had done what he so often does. He studied what had gone wrong in his previous match. He watched video footage of the match. He absorbed data. He consulted at length with his coach Goran Ivanisevic. Then he took to the court and put on an absolute clinic, playing arguably his best match of the year according to the numbers. In short, he figured it out.
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The metrics are the by-product of ball and player tracking data collected through high-speed cameras and analyzed in real-time from technology developed by a British company, TennisViz, and Tennis Data Innovations (T.D.I.), a joint venture of the ATP Tour and ATP Media.
Djokovic wasn’t a completely different player in those two singles defeats to Sinner, but he had figured out what parts of his game he needed to pay more attention to.
He needed to be more aggressive, to go on the attack and finish off more points where he had gained the advantage and was on the offensive, what tennis wonks refer to as his ‘conversion rate’. And he did.
His conversion rate was 61 per cent in the group-stage match, nine percentage points below his season average. In the final, he raised it to 78 per cent.
Sinner had been on the front foot in the group-stage match, with a conversion rate of 67 per cent. That dropped to 54 per cent in the final.
Djokovic needed to commit himself to the fight more fully. The game’s ‘steal score’, which measures how often a player wins a point after the opponent gains an advantage, can reflect that. Djokovic’s steal score in the final was 46 per cent in the final compared with 33 per cent during the group stage. By contrast, Sinner’s steal score collapsed, plummeting from 39 per cent to 22 per cent.
He needed to serve better. He did that, too. His first-serve rate was an ugly 61 per cent during the group stage. It was 70 per cent in the final. But not only did that serve go in more, but it also landed closer to the lines more consistently. The average distance between the line and his ball was 43 centimeters in the final, compared with 54 centimeters during the group stage.
With Sinner lunging more at serves that targeted the sidelines or having to fight off deep serves coming at his body, Djokovic could set up his dangerous forehand off the serve, the so-called “plus-one” shot. As much as 62 per cent of those plus-one shots were forehands in the final, compared with 49 per cent in the group stage. And he swung with abandon, averaging 76 miles per hour on his forehand compared with 71mph five nights before.
How much additional damage did that help cause?
Sinner hit the same percentage of deep balls in both matches. But Djokovic’s increased velocity and accuracy forced him into more errors. Djokovic also hit far fewer short balls for Sinner to pounce on.
Djokovic said that in addition to studying what had gone wrong for him in the group stage, he had an attitude shift between his matches against Sinner in Turin. His win in his first match at the tour finals, against Holger Rune, clinched the year-end world No 1 ranking. That had been one of Djokovic’s big goals for the season.
After that, he said he was “kind of half-in, half-out” mentally, and that showed in how he played his first match against Sinner. Once he made the knockout rounds, though, it was game on.
There have been echoes of that scenario in Australia this year. Djokovic struggled to engage in his first two matches until he was in trouble and had to manage some crafty and taxing escapes. But he has been dialed in since the third round and should be against Sinner. He has never lost an Australian Open semi-final – a perfect 10-0, the same record he has in Australian Open finals.
Sinner said he was very familiar with Djokovic’s record. He learned from his loss as well, then beat Djokovic in the Davis Cup. He’s looking forward to the next chapter, even if he has never beaten Djokovic in a best-of-five-sets match, coming closest at their 2022 Wimbledon quarter-final, when he was up two sets to love before Djokovic stormed back.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Sinner said. “I will control the controllable, which is giving 100 per cent, having the right attitude, fighting for every ball. And then we see the outcome. I cannot do more than this. Doesn’t really matter who my opponent is.”
Except, of course, when that opponent is Novak Djokovic.
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