London: London’s farewell edition of the ATP Finals could still have its dream climax after world No. 1 Novak Djokovic beat Alexander Zverev 6-3 7-6 to seal a last-four spot.
Defeat by Russian Daniil Medvedev had left the five-time champion needing to beat Germany’s Zverev to avoid a group stage exit and he obliged with a relatively comfortable win.
Djokovic will finish second in the Tokyo Group, named after the first edition of the season-ending tournament 50 years ago, and with Spanish world No. 2 Rafael Nadal finishing second in the London Group, they have avoided a semi-final clash.
Not that a 57th career meeting is a formality, far from it. The 33-year-old Serb will face US Open champion Dominic Thiem in Saturday’s first semi-final while Nadal plays Medvedev, the most impressive player here this week.
Sunday’s final will end the tournament’s memorable 12-year stay in London before it relocates to Turin.
Djokovic was pummelled 6-3, 6-3 by an inspired Medvedev on Wednesday, but was much sharper against Zverev, another one of the younger generation trying to barge the old guard offstage.
“In contrast to the match against Daniil I found the right shots at the right time,” he said. “I have tremendous respect for Sascha, a great player and not easy to return 140mph first serves. It was anybody’s game for most of the match.”
Djokovic was soundly beaten by Zverev in the 2018 final, a match played out in an electrifying atmosphere in front of 18,000 fans. This time the arena was empty because of the COVID-19 lockdown, a surreal backdrop for a match with so much riding on it for both men.
Despite the flat feel, Djokovic was quickly into game-mode and when world No. 7 Zverev double-faulted to drop serve in his first service game he seized control.
Zverev dug in his heels in the second set but missed a chance for an early break before recovering from a couple of double faults to fend off a break point in the following game. Djokovic looked edgy at times and twice had to hold serve to avoid being dragged into a third set.
But the 17-time Grand Slam champion raised the intensity level in the tiebreak, edging 5-3 ahead with a fizzing backhand pass. He brought up two match points with a hefty first serve before pressurising Zverev into an error to complete victory.
Djokovic is bidding to equal Roger Federer’s record of six ATP Finals titles, while Nadal seeks a first.
While Thiem poses a huge threat to Djokovic’s ambition, Nadal will have to overcome the week’s outstanding performer in Medvedev. The 24-year-old Muscovite completed a perfect group stage on Friday with a 6-3 6-3 defeat of Diego Schwartzman.
Medvedev lost all three matches on his debut in the tournament last year, but struck 31 winners to overwhelm Schwartzman and go 3-0 in group play.