It was supposed to be a high-octane finish for a pulsating calendar to decide the year-end summit in the men’s game. But Rafael Nadal’s pull-out – while not quite as post-eleventh hour as last year – leaves tennis fans devoid of a frenzied climax, and Novak Djokovic certain to hold the No. 1 rank regardless of what happens over the course of the coming week in London.
But the ATP Finals (erstwhile ATP World Tour Finals), despite its late positioning on the tennis calendar which invariably leads to high-profile pull-outs year after year, rarely passes by without living up to its ‘mini-Slam’ billing. The previous edition saw the unheralded David Goffin become the first man to defeat both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the same tournament, before being edged by Grigor Dimitrov in the title decider for the Bulgarian to earn the biggest win of his career.
Neither player features at the iconic O2 Arena this time around – but the two most decorated individuals in the competition’s 48-year history do feature together for the first time since 2015.
Final Marker in Djokovic’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’?
22nd in the world heading into Wimbledon, an embarrassing win-loss record of 18-9 around the halfway mark of the season, and continued turmoil as far as coaching staff was concerned. If you put a wager on Novak Djokovic to be No. 1 at the end of the year in June, you’re probably vacationing for the rest of your life.
If 2017 was the Resurgence of Roger and Rafa, 2018 was the Resurrection of Nole. 31 wins out of 33 since the start of the fortnight at the All England Club, crowning glory at the US Open to match Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam count, a Cincinnati title sandwiched in the middle of the majors to complete his Masters set: it will take an even braver soul to bet against the Serbian concluding a celestial second-half to the season with a final flourish.
Djokovic could argue, though, that he finds himself in the trickier of the two groups.
Federer Chases Seventh Heaven, and an ATP 100
If Djokovic does go the distance, he will level Roger Federer’s record mark of six titles at the season-ender. The last of those victories for the Swiss maestro, however, came in 2011. The seven-year drought is possibly a rare exhibit of Federer’s age, which can be easy to forget given his still-silken touch and still-sublime abilities on the court.
But the 20-time Grand Slam champion is, indeed, 37. And the wear-and-tear from an exhaustive season – even given his now selective scheduling – is reflected in tired/tiring exits through these recent years. In 2017, Federer let slip a comfortable position in the semis against Goffin; in 2014, he withdrew after reaching the summit clash with a back injury.
He enters with the knowledge that he could join Jimmy Connors as the only men to have won 100 ATP titles if he can land a seventh London crown. Federer has the best win-rate for any player on the tour this season, but only one of his four titles in 2018 have come post-June.
Can Zverev/Thiem Take a Leaf Out of 2017 Dimitrov?
The last two seasons were supposed to herald the dawn of Alexander Zverev as the next big thing, taking over from the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era. Both times around, the prodigious German began by looking the part – defeating Djokovic to win his first Masters crown in Rome last year, clinching the Madrid Masters this year – before fading into the abyss of inconsistency.
He’s still only 21, and therefore has enough and more time to match his potential. But a run of losses against significantly inferior players in the back half of the calendar, and a woeful major record – 12 of his 14 Grand Slam main draw appearances have resulted in exits by the third round, and only once has he gone beyond the fourth – severely undermine his credentials.
25-year-old Dominic Thiem, on the other hand, boasts a Grand Slam runners-up finish now, having reached the French Open final in 2018. He also remains the only man to have got the better of Rafael Nadal on clay in the last two years. The Austrian’s late season form, too, has been more inspiring than that of Zverev.
It still might be a year too soon for either of the two to match Dimitrov’s career-high achievement of 2017, but don’t be surprised if both progress beyond the round-robin stage for the first time.
Can the Rest Test the Best?
Kevin Anderson makes his ATP Finals debut at the age of 32, to cap off a year where he made it to the final at Wimbledon. The 6’8” South African’s big-serving game could prove handy at London’s indoor hard courts – a surface where he’s won both his titles this season.
His fellow bottom-half opponent in Group Hewitt, Kei Nishikori, has relied on a late surge plus the withdrawals of Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro to book himself a fourth ticket to the year-ender. The Japanese world number 9 has reached the semis at two of his previous three appearances.
In Group Kuerten, Marin Cilic faces an uphill battle against his own past. The Croatian No. 7 has two wins in 18 against Djokovic and one in six against Zverev, both of whom he will have to take on. Add to that a 1-8 record at the O2 Arena, and it’s difficult to predict a first finish beyond the round-robin stage in four outings.
For John Isner, 2018 has been nothing short of a dream. This was the year he became a father, won his first Masters title (in Miami), and reached his first Grand Slam semi-final (at Wimbledon) – all of this at 33. The American sets out for his maiden ATP Finals bow secure with the knowledge of a first year-end top-10 finish, and could well be the giant-killer in the draw.
Groups, Schedule, Qualification
Since 2015, the ATP Finals have resorted to labeling the two groups after past stars of the men’s game; the champions being celebrated this year are former number ones Lleyton Hewitt and Gustavo Kuerten.
Group Lleyton Hewitt: Federer, Thiem, Anderson, Nishikori
Group Gustavo Kuerten: Djokovic, Zverev, Cilic, Isner
Opening Round of Matches
Group Hewitt (Sunday, 11 Nov): Anderson vs Thiem, Federer vs Nishikori
Group Kuerten (Monday, 12 Nov): Zverev vs Cilic, Djokovic vs Isner
How Qualification Works
The format for the ATP tour’s sole non-knockout tournament is fairly straight-forward: the top-two from both groups of four each advance into the semi-finals.
Standings are determined by number of wins, followed by number of matches played. In the event of a tie between two players, head-to-head records decide who goes through. A three-way tie is broken by percentage of sets won, then percentage of games won, and then head-to-head records. In the highly unlikely scenario of all parameters failing to split players, the existing ATP ranking determines who goes forward.
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