MADRID — The generation gap is closing in men’s tennis, but Stefanos Tsitsipas was unable to shrink it further on Sunday in the final of the Madrid Open.
Not with his legs and right arm feeling heavy after he had beaten Rafael Nadal on Spanish clay less than 24 hours earlier, and not with Novak Djokovic looking as fresh as a teenager and as focused as a champion on the other side of the net.
That is still the trouble. Fence your way past one member of the old guard, and there is another one standing ready.
No one has managed to beat Nadal and Djokovic in the same clay-court tournament, and Tsitspas did not come close.
Djokovic took control immediately, jumping out to a 3-0 lead, and never relinquished command with his two-handed backhand setting the tone and often putting an abrupt end to the baseline duet. He went on to win, 6-3, 6-4.
“He has the best backhand on tour I have ever seen in a human being,” said Tsitsipas, who at 20 has not been on tour for long but who already knows what he is talking about.
Djokovic, 31 and entrenched again at No. 1, has plenty of other world-class tools, as his 15 Grand Slam singles titles and 33 Masters 1000 titles make clear.
But he has not been nearly so metronomic of late. After winning the Australian Open, the year’s first major tournament, with intimidating ease, he lost early in his next three events, misguiding groundstrokes and serves on crucial points and looking passive at other times.
He conceded that off-court commitments had become a distraction, including his role as president of the ATP player council and political infighting in recent months on the men’s tour.
But he appeared to recover his mojo in Madrid, dropping nary a set on his way to his third Masters 1000 title in the Spanish capital and his first-ever title with his younger brother Marko serving as coach, giving his regular coach, Marian Vajda, a week’s break.
Djokovic drew particular satisfaction from his 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) victory over Dominic Thiem in the semifinals. With Nadal’s uncharacteristic struggles (he has yet to win a title in 2019), Thiem was beginning to look like a favorite for the French Open, which Nadal has won 11 times and which will begin on May 26 at a stadium that is still under reconstruction but which the organizers promise will be ready in time.
“I feel like this tournament win was very important for my level of confidence, because after the Australian Open, I wasn’t playing my best,” Djokovic said. “I felt like I was close and needed a little bit of a push, so to say, and a very important win came against Thiem in a very close match.”
He then saved his brightest match of the week for Tsitsipas, a tremendous all-court talent from Greece who will be ranked No. 7 on Monday and whom Djokovic has known since he was a boy.
“You are definitely a new star in tennis, and a bright future is ahead of you,” Djokovic told him at the awards ceremony. “But most of all, what I like about you is your personality. We always get along very well. I’ve known your father, your family for a long time. I remember when you were much smaller than now, and you are now much bigger and stronger than me. So it’s a pleasure to share this court with you, and hopefully we will have many more battles. Efharisto.”
That last word means “thank you” in Greek, and their postmatch embrace at the net was extended and genuine, just as it was last year when Tsitsipas upset Djokovic in the round of 16 of the Canadian Open in their only previous meeting.
Since then, Tsitsipas has defeated Roger Federer on his way to the Australian Open semifinals and Nadal in Madrid on Saturday night. It was an emotional, eye-catching three-setter in which Nadal was far from peak form but in which Tsitsipas mixed bold shotmaking with gritty, athletic defense and, perhaps just as important, deep return after deep return.
But that fine formula ran into reality on Sunday as Tsitsipas slipped too often chasing Djokovic’s shots and missed put-away forehands and groundstrokes in extension of the kind he had made against Nadal. The margins are so slim at this level, the timing so fine-tuned. Arrive a fraction of a second of later than you should and take a full cut, and the ball will fly off the frame instead of the strings.
“My legs were not coping with my mind,” Tsitsipas said. “I could feel the fatigue and this soreness, not just in my legs but everywhere in my body. And yes, he played quite smart.”
Djokovic is well aware that the fast conditions at the Madrid Open, played at an altitude of 650 meters (more than 2,100 feet), are considerably different from those at the French Open.
But Djokovic also knows that the year he won his only French Open title, in 2016, he also won in Madrid. The same was true of Federer in 2009.
Though the Italian Open comes next week in Rome, the primary target is Paris, and Djokovic, unlike the 11-time champion in Paris, has renewed confidence and fresh momentum.