Djokovic shocked at Kyrgios support
Djokovic was asked in a press conference about Nick Kyrgios’ recent comments made on his No Boundaries podcast, in which he supported the Serb’s views against mandating the Covid-19 vaccine.
Kyrgios said he was double-vaccinated but doesn’t think anyone should be forced to take the jab, noting that athletes like Djokovic and Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving have sacrificed a lot for their sports, and deserve to have autonomy over such decisions.
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“That was unexpected, knowing what was coming from him towards me in the last couple of years,” Djokovic said laughing. “But this time I must agree with him that the freedom of choice is essential for everyone, whether it's me or somebody else.
“Doesn't really matter whether it's vaccination or anything else in life. You should have the freedom to choose, to decide what you want to do. In this particular case, what you want to put in your body.”
What Djokovic probably doesn’t know, is that Kyrgios had posted a video retracting most of what he said on the podcast, and backed the idea of banning unvaccinated players from competing at the Australian Open.
That didn’t last long!
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A man with a plan
Novak Djokovic is a true student of the game and it’s always fascinating how much he knows about all the players on tour, even the ones he has never faced or practised with.
He’d be in a tournament in Dubai, and can discuss, in detail, a match that happened overnight in Acapulco. You’d mention to him the name of a player ranked outside the top 200 and he’d tell you a few random facts about him. He scouts the young up-and-comers, so they don’t take him by surprise, and thoroughly does his homework before stepping on court to play someone.
So it’s no surprise that when Djokovic took on Andrey Rublev for the first time on Wednesday, he knew exactly what to do to throw the Russian world No.5 off his game.
Rublev, who had a near flawless performance against Stefanos Tsitsipas in his ATP Finals opener on Monday, broke Djokovic in the first game of the match then went ahead and lost the plot.
The powerful 24-year-old looked unsettled throughout, rushing through his decision-making and committing 26 unforced errors in a 6-3 6-2 defeat to the top seed.
At one point, Rublev apologised for a net cord before realising the ball actually landed on his side of the net. It was that kind of day for the No.5 seed.
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After the match, Djokovic acknowledged that Rublev hits the biggest ball on tour and that he takes time away from his opponents by hugging the baseline and firing lightning-fast groundstrokes, but noted how he had a plan to deal with that going into the contest.
“He’s the kind of player if something goes wrong, it’s difficult for him, he makes a lot of unforced errors. So I wanted to put him out of the comfort zone, take away the time from him, mix up the pace; just a great performance overall,” Djokovic said after the match.
Shortly after, Rublev walked into the press conference room and pretty much confirmed that Djokovic’s plan worked perfectly to the Serb’s advantage.
“It felt maybe a bit like rushing, like you're playing one of the best players and you feel, ‘Okay, now I have a chance to finish the point or to take a lead during the rally and play there aggressively’. You think too much sometimes,” explained Rublev.
“In the end, ‘Okay, this is the chance, I have to go’. You go. And in the end, instead of making it, like usually you do in other matches, you are missing them. Or maybe you're hitting not that good or not that smart that he catches you, and in the end he makes you pass shots and stuff like that. I think always over-thinking, like stress, rushing.”
The confusion was precisely what Djokovic wanted to happen.
Djokovic has another first-time opponent coming up next in the form of Cameron Norrie, who replaced Stefanos Tsitsipas in the draw as the second alternate.
“Great, great, why not? I always like playing new players, particularly in one of the greatest tournaments in the world here in Turin,” said the world No.1 enthusiastically about the prospect of facing Norrie. He’s probably already drawn up the game plan for their Friday clash.
‘Federer deserves a proper farewell’
As Novak Djokovic continues his quest for a record-tying sixth ATP Finals trophy, the man he is trying to equal, Roger Federer, is still sidelined with a knee injury and revealed he is unlikely to return to the tour before mid-2022.
Federer cast doubt on his participation in Wimbledon next year, and is unsure if he’ll ever compete in a Grand Slam again – although he’ll keep trying to make that happen.
“Obviously Roger is an icon of our sport and people around the world love him,” said Djokovic on Wednesday, reacting to the Swiss’ latest news.
“So for the sake of our sport, I sincerely hope that we can see him play at least another time. I'm sure he doesn't want to end his career this way. I think he's going to definitely try to give it a last push, a last try.
“I think for everything that he has achieved and created for this sport, he deserves to play and he deserves to have a proper farewell, I mean, if his injury is not allowing him to play more frequently on the tour.”
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Ruud passes mental test
No.8 seed Casper Ruud woke up on Wednesday thinking he was going to face world No.4 Tsitsipas that evening but ended up taking on second alternate Norrie, who replaced the injured Greek in the Green Group.
For Ruud, it wasn’t just a matter of preparing to face a lefty instead of a righty; the Norwegian explained how tricky it was mentally to go from being an underdog against Tsitsipas to a slight favourite against Norrie, who lost their previous meeting 6-0, 6-2 in San Diego a few months ago.
Ruud managed to get the win anyway, overcoming Norrie 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“It’s a big match for me, it’s the first time I’m here so to get a win is a very good thing for me,” said the 22-year-old Ruud.
“It all changed today for me because I woke up prepared to play Stefanos, knowing that I was the underdog, that I can play freely and then you hear that he’s pulling out.
“So then kind of everything changed, I was feeling the pressure a little more, this was an opportunity for me to get my first win. The last time I beat Norrie, the scoreline was too easy because we both know how good he is and then the week after he went on and won Indian Wells.
“It didn’t, in a way, feel right to win 6-0, 6-2 because I know how tough of a player he is and that day everything went my way, so I knew that today was going to be different; not every day is like that. I was prepared for a tough match and a tough match it was.”
Clutch moment of the day
Facing a second match point while trailing Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert 9-10 in the match tie-break of their evening doubles encounter, Rajeev Ram fired a beauty of a backhand return winner that painted the line to keep his team’s chances alive.
Four points later, the American unleashed another massive backhand return to secure himself and his partner Joe Salisbury a 6-7(7), 6-0, [13-11] victory over the Frenchmen.
Stats of the day
Rublev has fallen behind to 0-3 win-loss against world No.1s following his defeat to Djokovic on Wednesday. Incidentally, he also won just five games in each of his losses to then-No.1 Andy Murray at the 2017 Australian Open and then-No. 1 Rafael Nadal at the 2017 US Open.
Djokovic qualified for his 10th ATP Finals semi-finals, tying Pete Sampras in third place on the list of most last-four appearances in tournament history.
With his three-set win over Norrie, Ruud is now an impressive 13-3 in deciding sets this season.
Subbing in for Tsitsipas, Norrie became the fourth Brit to compete in the ATP Finals in singles on Wednesday.
This is just the third time in tournament history, and first since 1998, that two alternates have replaced players in the draw mid-tournament.
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