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Alix Ramsay Shares Her Views From London @ 02 Arena • The ATP Tennis Year End Championships

Novak Djokovic celebrates another victory after winning his group stage match against Diego Schwartzman in an empty O2 Arena.

By Alix Ramsay

There is something slightly unnerving about Novak Djokovic’s winning celebrations these days. It was always a little bizarre, mind you – the world’s best player revelling in another victory by looking as if he auditioning for a bit part in a push-up bra advert – but now that he is doing it behind closed doors with no one watching, it has become even more peculiar. And in the darkness and emptiness of the O2 Arena, all 17,000 deserted seats of it, it just looks plain daft.

We had better get used to it, though, as on the evidence of his opening display, a 78-minute 6-3, 6-2 demolition of Diego Schwartzman, he will be thrusting his decolletage heavenwards for the rest of the week. He was outstanding for all but the occasional point; Schwartzman did not play badly but Djokovic was on another level entirely.

With his sixth end-of-year No.1 ranking long since secured (he got the trophy on Sunday and is sashaying around the O2 in his new Lacoste jacket with six crocodiles emblazoned on the chest), he looks confident, relaxed and ready to have the rest of the field on toast.

Djokovic enters the court for his group stage match against Diego Schwartzman at the ATP Finals in London.

Against the diminutive Argentinean, his only misstep was dropping his serve in the third game. Not that it seemed to worry him – he was soon back on level terms and then, in the twinkling of an eye, he was running away with the match as Schwartzman scampered behind in his wake. It was as near a perfect start to his campaign as he could have asked for.

“That start of the match he was not playing, you know, his best,” Schwartzman lamented. “He was doing a few mistakes. I took the chance at the beginning, but then that break back from him – I think I did too many mistakes. I think the first set was close. But then he was playing better than me.”

Diego Schwartzman of Argentina during a break between games in his group stage match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the ATP Finals in London.

Sadly for everyone else, Djokovic has been playing better than them for great chunks of the past decade. And when he is that frame of mind, there is little anyone can do to stop him. He just wishes that somebody could be there to see him do it this week.

“I do miss the crowd,” Djokovic said. “I think that’s one of the most important aspects of professional tennis of why we play this game and why we travel so much.

“Hopefully this is only temporary. It’s unfortunate that there is no crowd in the O2 Arena for the last year of the ATP Finals here. This has been one of the most exciting arenas to play for a tennis player. The atmosphere was always electric, and the crowd was always loud and really into matches.

“It’s unfortunate. I really miss them, of course probably as anybody else. Why I celebrated? Because that’s my celebration. I mean, that’s my also gratitude to the court and to this opportunity to be able to compete. You know, even though it might sound like a phrase, but I try to remind myself that don’t take things for granted, and that’s kind of one of the routines that reminds me of the things that I have to be aware of.

“So even though there was no crowd in stands, I know there was a lot of people watching it on TV, so that was me sharing that emotion with them.”

And, presumably, that was him encouraging them to buy underwired bras.

But the lack of fans makes one of the hardest tournaments of the year even harder. Bad enough that there is no such thing as an easy match at the ATP Finals – and with only the top eight in the world taking part, how could there be? – but with no atmosphere and no support, every point can become a struggle.

The theory was that in this restricted Covid season, the players would be fitter and fresher for the end-of-season jamboree. They had had more than four months off due to lockdown so they surely could not be so exhausted by the time they got to London. But it turns out that it is the mental fatigue that is the biggest problem: living life in the bio-bubble is knackering.

Dominic Thiem had an almighty struggle to get the better of Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday in a rematch of last year’s final and as the match dragged on in the empty arena, the US Open champion was feeling it.

“Physically I think it’s the easiest year since a long time,” he said having beaten the Greek 7-6, 4-6, 6-3. “Today was my 30th match on tour, which is not a big number, but mentally it is tough, because, I mean, you get so much energy from the fans.

Dominic Thiem reacts during his win over Stefanos Tsitsipas during the Nitto ATP tennis finals at the O2 Arena in London, Britain, 15 November 2020.

“If you go in the stadium, if you have a huge win like today and you get the atmosphere from 17,000 people, it brings so much positive energy, and all of this is missing.

“You have to bring it up yourself during the match. I think today was like two hours 20 or something. You have all the time to push yourself, give yourself energy.

Yeah, that’s exhausting. And as well, if you have a long day and then you go in a great city like London or like New York, the city as well gives you nice energy, nice restaurants, hanging out with the people you love.”

He is not complaining (none of them are); he is just glad to be back at work. But life behind closed doors brings with it a new raft of unexpected problems which goes some way to explaining the surprising results of the past couple of months.

The one constant in all this chaos, though, if Djokovic: when he gets the sniff of a big title, he is metronomically reliable (unless, of course, he meets Rafa in the French Open final. When it comes to consistency, it doesn’t get any better than Rafa on French clay). It seems that we are due many more “uplifting” moments from Mr D in the days to come.