Novak Djokovic aims to remind ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas of his place in the pecking order as the two play the first semifinal at the Mubadala WTC exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
The Abu Dhabi exhibition is usually played in the final days of December right before the new season begins, but has moved to a new pre-Christmas calendar slot this year. The change hasn’t affected its ability to attract top-class fields, however, with the top players in the world leading a draw which otherwise includes world no. 6 Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov, Andrey Rublev and Hyeon Chung.
Tsitsipas has already got a win under his belt at the Abu Dhabi exhibition event, beating Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-4. It’s only been a few weeks since he lifted the biggest trophy of his young career at the Nitto ATP Finals after defeating Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Roger Federer and Daniil Medvedev over the course of the competition, but Tsitsipas raced to a 3-0 start against the hard-hitting but erratic Rublev and never let up. It may be only an exhibition, but it was the first time Tsitsipas had beaten Rublev in three meetings as professionals – the Russian handed him a narrow, painful four-set defeat at the US Open, which was one of the low points of a breakthrough season for the Greek – and it might alter the tenor of the rivalry between the two going forwards.
Tsitsipas has made no secret that his ambitions for the 2020 season include winning a Grand Slam and a Masters 1000 Series title (not to mention becoming world no. 1), but he knows such lofty goals are surely destined to bring him into frequent clashes with Djokovic.
The head-to-head between them stands at 2-2, with Tsitsipas surprising the Serb in their first encounter at the Canada Masters in 2018 but Djokovic winning two of the three matches they have played this year, beating Tsitsipas 6-3, 6-4 in the final of the Madrid Masters in May and 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters. Tsitsipas came from a set down to defeat Djokovic in the Shanghai quarterfinals.
Four times a champion at the Mubadala WTC, most recently in 2018 when he defeated Kevin Anderson in the final, Djokovic traditionally plays well in these types of conditions – he has won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships four times over the years, the Qatar Open twice. It’s no secret that the Serb’s 2019 season didn’t end the way he wanted: He had to retire in the fourth round of the US Open due to injury, lost the world no. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal despite winning the Paris Masters and Tokyo, failed to make the semifinals of the ATP Finals thanks to defeats to Federer and Thiem and, despite winning all his singles matches in straight sets, failed to keep Serbia in contention at the Davis Cup Finals.
But that should only give Djokovic more motivation for the 2020 season – and the schedule he has set for himself in January, with ATP Cup followed by Adelaide and then the Australian Open, shows that he intends to hit the ground running. Tsitsipas will need to be play a very finely judged blend of attacking and cagey tennis in order to overcome the Serb’s supreme defense, and hope that Djokovic has a poor serving day to boot. Expect Djokovic to assert his authority, come out firing and record a straight-sets victory.
Djokovic vs Tsitsipas is live from Abu Dhabi on Friday 20 December at 5pm local/1pm GMT