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Novak Djokovic has achieved almost everything in the sport he could have dreamed of as a boy growing up in Belgrade. And so, when he recently came upon a boy hitting tennis balls on the streets in his hometown while out walking his dog, he stopped to give the kid some pointers.

The proud and unapologetic Serb has had a hell of a year. He won his eighth Australian Open. Djokovic has won at least one major every year since 2011, excluding his injury plagued 2017 campaign. He’s won 39 matches against just three losses this season. And he recently clinched his record-tying sixth year-end No. 1 finish in the FedEx ATP Rankings. But the Serb is so good that we expect him to win, and so his losses tend to be magnified more than his wins.

Technically, he comes into the Nitto ATP Finals with nothing to prove, but if you think ‘Nole’ will be on cruise control this week, prematurely oiling himself up for a beach holiday, you don’t know the tenacious Serb very well. He’s won the event five times before, one fewer than Roger Federer, and a win at The O2 would be exactly the kind of early Christmas denouement the World No. 1 craves.

“Coming into the tournament knowing I already clinched the year-end No. 1 releases some of the pressure definitely, but at the same time it doesn’t change what I hope to achieve in this tournament and why I’m here,” Djokovic said at the tournament’s media day Friday. “I really want to win every single match that I get to play and try to get my hands on the trophy and I want this trophy as much as anyone here…

“I’m really hoping that I can end the season in the best possible way and the success that I had previously here in the past 10 years helps me feel more comfortable and confident about myself on the court.”

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His adversaries in Group Tokyo 1970 — Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, and Diego Schwartzman — will no doubt shudder at the prospect of Djokovic feeling more comfortable and confident at The O2, where he’s won four titles. Overall, the battling Belgrade native has compiled a 36-14 career mark against the world’s best at this tournament. His finals ‘kill list’ includes tombstones for Nikolay Davydenko (2008), Roger Federer (2012, 2014, 2015), and Rafael Nadal (2013). As the legendary Italian tennis writer Ubaldo Scanagatta likes to say to Novak, “not too bad, eh”?

But Djokovic didn’t make it out of the round-robin phase of the tournament last year, the first time he’s suffered this indignity since 2011. He played 68 matches last year, against just 42 so far this year, so he should have more gas in the tank than he did at this time last year. And as he expressed at media day and in a recent Zoom call with Pete Sampras and Tim Henman, it’s a court and an event that he clearly loves.

“The [Nitto] ATP Finals is probably the biggest event that we have in our sport,” he said. “It’s probably the ultimate challenge in a season: facing the top eight guys of the year in a group stage format… it’s one of the most special events that we have in our sport.”

He’ll be the prohibitive favourite to win the tournament and to prevail in his opening match Monday afternoon against Diego Schwartzman, a first-time qualifier who is 0-5 lifetime against the Serb. But meticulous Djokovic knows that the Argentine has been red hot and is taking nothing for granted.

“He never played on this court but that probably is kind of releasing him from any pressure that he has to do well,” said Djokovic, 33. “Diego is in great form this year, it’s been the best season of his life, he deserves to be part of this tournament. I have lots of respect for him, he’s a fierce competitor [and] one of the quickest players on the Tour.”

Daniil Medvedev or Alexander Zverev, two of the hottest players on the Tour, are also in Group Tokyo 1970. He’s 3-2 versus Zverev and 4-2 versus Medvedev.

“Zverev and Medvedev are probably in the best form of anyone at this tournament indoors,” he said. “They’ve won two tournaments in a row and played in the finals in Paris. Those guys are very tall and have big serves and lots of weapons from the back of the court, solid backhands and forehands also. They’re complete players both of them and [they have] similar styles. You have to be at your best to win against those guys the way they’re playing indoors.”

The Serb said that it’ll be “strange to give a farewell to [The O2] without crowds” but insisted that he was grateful to have a chance to compete. Expect him to do so fiercely and with gusto, like a kid from the streets of Belgrade still trying to make a name for himself.


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