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2022, the year when men’s tennis has (really, this time) set a date to challenge Nadal and Djokovic

The final of the ATP Finals between Novak Djokovic and Casper Ruud capped a season in which Djokovic and Nadal have maintained their stranglehold on the majors but more players than expected have stepped forward to unseat them

Novak Djokovic ATP Finals AI/Reuters/Panoramic

With Novak Djokovic winning the Masters final on Sunday, the 2022 men’s tennis season is ending with two leaders. A world No 1, Carlos Alcaraz, the official ATP leader. And an unchallenged de facto boss, Djokovic, whom, if he had been awarded his theoretical 2,000 points won at Wimbledon, would be incredibly close to the young Spaniard – minus four big events played (two slams, two Masters 1000s).

The 35-year-old Serb appeared in Turin as determined as possible to prove once again that he was the boss, a crown that Taylor Fritz unreservedly awarded him after being beaten in two tiebreaks in the semi-finals.

“When Novak has played, he’s been the best player, there’s no doubt about that,” the American said, referring to the Serb’s bans in Australia and the US. “When he hasn’t played, which is a lot of the year, we’ve seen a lot of different results because when you take him out of the equation, I think everybody else playing is extremely close in level and it’s going to come down to who’s playing the best that week, what the court conditions are, how it’s playing. There’s 15 to 20 people that can all beat each other on any given day given the circumstances.”

Fritz omits the fact that Djokovic has not been the best player of the season on clay, where he had a direct opportunity to deny Rafael Nadal a 22nd Grand Slam and a perfect start to the season after winning the Australian Open, despite his victory in Rome. That is, with his defeat against Holger Rune in the Rolex Paris Masters final, the fact that makes this statement unfinished.

No Alcaraz against Djokovic or Nadal in a Grand Slam

The reading of the tennis season will remain unfinished anyway in any case due to the absence of a direct confrontation in a Grand Slam tournament between Djokovic and/or Nadal and Alcaraz.

Juan Carlos Ferrero’s protégé achieved a masterpiece that put him on the level of the greats by eliminating Nadal and Djokovic in quick succession at the Masters 1000 in Madrid, and then pulverising Alexander Zverev in the final, the defending ATP Finals champion and proclaimed candidate for the world No 1 spot this winter. But his loss to Zverev at Roland Garros (before Nadal) and then to Jannik Sinner at Wimbledon (before Djokovic) robbed us of those moments of truth.

Alcaraz finally reaped the rewards of his exceptional progress by becoming world No 1at the US Open after defeating Marin Cilic, Sinner and Frances Tiafoe. His final against Casper Ruud, with the world number one spot at stake, may have seemed baroque at the time. It was in fact the first manifestation of a final third of the season, which ends with the ATP Finals, where the number of contenders to challenge the Big Two has increased dramatically.

This was further evidenced by Holger Rune’s victory at the Rolex Paris Masters, thanks to which two teenagers are now in the top 10. Rune is the only player in history to win a Masters 1000 after beating five top 10s and he beat Djokovic in three sets after being down a break in the third set. He has very few points to defend before the Munich tournament in May 2023 and can reach the French Open as a top 5 player.

In front of Rune, the field has become extraordinarily tight. It is dizzying that the man who was world No 1 10 weeks ago, Daniil Medvedev, will be seventh on Monday after exiting the ATP Finals in three deciding-set tiebreaks; he had match point against Andrey Rublev, he served for match against Stefanos Tsitsipas and he served for match against Djokovic.

The list of losers in the group stage does not lie about the fragility of the hierarchies. It includes Nadal, the only player with two Grand Slams this year, Medvedev, the player who spent more time at No 1 in 2022, Tsitsipas, who was still in the hunt to be world No 1 five days earlier, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the best player in the seven weeks prior to the Rolex Paris Masters.

It’s not just his three ATP titles back-to-back, but also his wins over Alcaraz and Djokovic within two weeks of each other in the Davis Cup and Laver Cup. Only Nadal and Rune have done that.

Ruud well-placed to measure the gap

The qualification of Rublev, Fritz and Ruud for the last four in Turin is, from this point of view, only the ultimate manifestation of a tightening of the pack towards the two 30+-year-old legends who have, until proven otherwise, no lasting competitor to challenge them for the major titles.

Ruud, the only player to have played three finals in the five biggest tournaments of the year, is in a way the standard-bearer for these players who belong neither to the pre-stardom Next Gen for nearly five years (Zverev, Tsitsipas, Medvedev), nor to the teenagers to whom even the young retiree Federer lends the potential to take tennis elsewhere (Alcaraz, Rune, Sinner).

The Norwegian is also the best placed to measure the gap that Djokovic and Nadal have maintained with the others. He has not beaten either of them. Never even took a set from them: 0-2 against Nadal, including a loss in these ATP Finals, and 0-4 against Djokovic.

“We saw Alcaraz and Medvedev in this situation”

Asked on Saturday about his world No 2 status and the natural temptation of No 1, Ruud struggled to move beyond the conventional answer he was obliged to give, aware that the balance of power is unstable.

“I was close to getting to No 1 and I didn’t,” he said. “But it gave me a motivation and belief that it can happen in the future, for sure. I don’t know what else to say. I will try to keep pushing for it. There are many players that I think are great players on the ATP Tour fighting for the big tournaments.

“In the future I guess the No 1 spot will be a little bit more open for more players to get there maybe one time in their career, and I hope I can be one of them. We’ve seen it this year with Daniil and Alcaraz have been able to get there. I hope for sure in the future I can be there. It’s no guarantee. The odds are not great to become world No 1, but I will give it my best try.”

More than 2,700 points will separate the two players on Monday and they have not faced each other this year. In a sign that the top spot is open, but perhaps not to all, they are also the two players Djokovic has praised most this week in his public statements. Just like if, among the group of contenders, he has his own favourites for greatness. After him.

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