All eight contenders have had their say now after the opening two days of the O2 Arena’s end-of-season battle for the year’s final piece of glory and prize money.
And already two of the biggest names are struggling to make it to the weekend semi-finals, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both losing their opening ties.
This is the penultimate year that London hosts the ATP Finals – the 11th year of residency on the Greenwich peninsula for the elite players in men’s tennis.
And what have we learned so far? That at 38, Federer will do well to add to his six previous titles, the last of which was won in 2011. He looked out of sorts in losing 7-5, 7-5 to Dominic Thiem on Sunday, with his timing and movement not up to his expected levels. At least there is a chance to turn things around in the round-robin format.
By contrast, five-times winner Novak Djokovic breezed past Italy’s Matteo Berrettini 6-2, 6-1 in only 63 minutes to lay down an ominous marker. The Serb won four in a row at the O2 before Andy Murray claimed the 2017 title, followed by Grigor Dimitrov in 2018 and Alexander Zverev last year, after the German’s unexpected defeat of Djokovic in the final.
And it was last year’s winner who also made the biggest waves in his opening match, brushing aside Nadal in straight sets to undermine the Spaniard’s bid to finish 2019 as world number one. Zverev won only one ATP tour event this year, making him the poor relation of the other seven finalists, but in claiming a first win over Nadal – who held a 5-0 head-to-head record going into yesterday’s evening match – he has raised hopes of retaining his title.
Nadal’s form has been patchy and injury-hit since the US Open in September and he entered the competition with doubts over his recovery from an abdominal strain, but he did not try to blame the 6-2, 6-4 loss on his possible lack of fitness. “The physical issue was not an excuse at all,” he said. The only excuse was I was not good enough tonight.”
For all his brilliant accumulation of grand slam titles on the clay courts of Paris, Nadal has never won on the O2 carpets, losing the final twice in 2010 and 2013.
In yesterday’s afternoon match, Stefanos Tsitsipas, an Australian Open semi-finalist in January, claimed his first win over Daniil Medvedev to also shake off the monkey of a 5-0 losing record in head to heads. The Greek, who at 21 is the youngest of the eight finalists, looked every inch a contender and his delight after clinching the match 7-6 (7-5), 6-4 was etched on his face in his post-match celebration. He did it without facing a break point too.
“It’s a victory that I’ve craved for a long time now and it’s great that it came at this moment,” Tsitsipas said, alluding to the fact he and the Russian do not get along.
“Our chemistry definitely isn’t the best that you can find on the tour. It’s not that I hate him, I guess , as he said, we will not go to dinner together.”
Today, Federer must get the better of Berrettini to revive his hopes. In the evening, the first round winners face each other, with Djokovic the favourite to extend his imperious form against the Austrian Thiem.
Whatever the physical state of the players after a long season, they all want to be here, given the cash on offer. They receive US$215,000 just for participating in three group matches and the winner pockets US$ 1.354 million – more than twice that amount if they win all five of their matches in the competition.
And there is no disputing the allure for the greats of the game in the past five decades. Since the tournament started in 1970, when it was first staged in Tokyo, the list of winners reads like a real who’s who of tennis. Nastase, Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Lendl, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, and Becker are all past champions. Nadal is the obvious name missing from that illustrious roll call.