What happens next? The confetti has barely been cleared from the courts in Turin and already it’s hard not to think about what lies in store in 2022. A new Big Three? A new Grand Slam champion? A new world No 1? A new all-time leader in the Grand Slam standings?
Almost everything seems to be on the table after Alexander Zverev beat both Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev over the weekend to win the ATP Finals for a second time. Not only will it be fascinating to see who wins the battle for more silverware next season, but it will be intriguing to see how the rivalry between the trio evolves and develops. Right now there appears a close bond between all three players.
Djokovic said after losing to Zverev in the semi-finals of the ATP Finals that “there is that respect and appreciation for each other that is more important than winning or losing”. The world No 1 described Zverev as a “friend off the court” and was also full of praise for him after he lifted the trophy on Sunday. Zverev too had kind words for Medvedev following the final, calling him the “leader of the new generation."
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But can the friendship be maintained as the three players continue to fight for the biggest prizes in the years ahead? Djokovic acknowledged last week that it is “not easy to be very close” with your rivals and seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander warned Medvedev that perhaps his relationship with the world No 1 is not helpful for his future. “I’m not sure I necessarily like that Novak and Daniil are hanging out, and practising together,'' he told Eurosport. “I think this is great for Novak in the long run.”
It’s unusual for the very best players in the world to hit together at tournaments, but Djokovic and Medvedev did so before the Paris Masters and also before the ATP Finals. "We played for two hours, one set, and it was great," said Medvedev. "Then we talked for 15, 20 minutes, I love talking with him. I think I can say that he's a friend."
While there is probably little left for them to learn about each other from the practice sessions, might Medvedev reconsider the idea if he loses his next few matches against the world No 1? And can Djokovic and Zverev remain close friends as they continue to try to find ways to beat each other and eek out small advantages that could prove key on the court?
History would suggest probably not. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are friendly now, but that is a friendship that has developed over 15 years and seems to have blossomed more as they have neared the end of their careers. Djokovic’s relationship with the pair has always seemed more professional than friendly. And Andy Murray was hesitant a few years ago when asked if Djokovic was his "friend", even though they grew up playing together. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras also didn’t develop a bond during their playing career. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors clashed during their tense rivalry while McEnroe and Bjorn Borg’s relationship again seemed to improve after the Swede retired.
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Perhaps, though, the matter of friendship is not atop Zverev’s mind right now. The ATP announced in October that they would be opening an investigation into allegations of domestic abuse against him, a year after they were first publicised. Zverev said he welcomed the investigation and again denied all the allegations. The announcement from the ATP came in the middle of the best run in Zverev’s career. He has finished the season by winning 32 of his last 36 matches, with three of the four losses during that stretch coming against Djokovic or Medvedev. He has won more titles this year than anyone else (six) and leads the ATP Tour with 59 match victories in 2021. The only achievements missing from Zverev’s CV are a Grand Slam title and reaching world No 1.
No man who has won the ATP Finals twice – as Zverev has now done - has so far not finished his career having won multiple majors and spent time at the top of the world rankings.
Zverev’s form since the summer, when he beat Djokovic on his way to winning Olympic gold in Tokyo, has been fantastic. He has cut out the double faults that were starting to plague his game and his serve in Turin was devastating, albeit on speedy courts that suited him nicely. If the weekend was a precursor for what’s to come in Melbourne then Zverev could not have asked for more, beating Djokovic, who had won their last meeting at the US Open over five tough sets, and ending a five-match losing streak against Medvedev in relatively comfortable fashion.
The big question for Zverev heading into 2022 is whether he can beat Djokovic or Medvedev over five sets. So far he has probably under-delivered at Grand Slams, making one final at the US Open in 2020 and three other semi-finals.
Medvedev expects Zverev to win a Grand Slam soon
And if the Australian Open started today, then Djokovic, with 20 Grand Slam titles in his back pocket, nine of them won in Melbourne, would likely still be the favourite.
It's almost ironic in a year that he came so close to winning all four majors that Djokovic’s aura of invincibility seems to have slipped slightly. He finishes the season with seven losses, and the ones in the back half of the year against Zverev and Medvedev seem significant, at least for the hopes of the world No 2 and world No 3 as they try to close a still sizable ranking gap on the world No 1. Djokovic still has a winning record against both Medvedev (6-4) and Zverev (7-4), but recent results show that it is far from a foregone conclusion when they meet now. Even since the Australian Open earlier this year the landscape has shifted. Djokovic beat Zverev in four sets and Medvedev in three to lift the trophy in Melbourne in February. Zverev has won two of their three meetings since and Medvedev has won the more important of his subsequent two matches against Djokovic in the US Open final.
Whether either can turn the tables on Djokovic at his most successful Slam will be fascinating to see.
If Djokovic, Medvedev and Zverev are the new ‘Big Three’ then it will be interesting to see where Rafael Nadal fits into the picture when he returns. The 20-time Grand Slam champion is set to play again in December and has said that he hopes to compete in Melbourne. Will he be a contender for the title if fully healthy?
For now the focus is on Djokovic, Medvedev and Zverev, and the next step in their developing rivalry.
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