by Saqib Ali
The ATP Finals are underway in London, for the final act of the 2017 season. Tennis is all about the four majors, but the year-end showcase event previously known as The Masters or World Tour finals is easily the most prestigious event outside of Majors. The field allows the top eight ranked men to compete at this event. Ranking points are what the tennis pros chase all year on the tour– over more than 10 months at 66 tour events. It is a goal of all top players to reach this year-end spectacle which has been hosted by different cities around the world. The event has always been played indoors and on hard courts. The ATP Finals have called the O2 Arena in London their home since 2009.
To me this event is simply the tennis playoffs. The regular season ended more than 10 days ago and the top eight are in London to compete for the big prize. This event is also unique in the tennis calendar — this is the only ATP tournament where the format is round robin, meaning even after losing a match a player can advance to the semifinals, a knockout stage. The event has been dominated by the cream of tennis players the last 30 years. Roger Federer is leading the pack with six titles followed closely by a tie for five titles by three dominant former world number ones ; Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Americans Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl. Boris Becker and John McEnroe have also won this event three times each in their heydays. The only big name missing from the winner’s circle is the Spaniard, Rafael Nadal. Rafa is a more than accomplished all-court player but has struggled by his glorious standards in the indoor conditions on the low-bouncing hardcourt at the O2. He has still managed to qualify for this event on 13 occasions, which speaks volumes of his caliber as a top-tier tennis champion.
Nadal has been openly critical about the surface of choice of these ATP Finals, saying he always felt at a disadvantage here due to the low-bouncing medium-fast court. He made two finals where Federer and Djokovic got the better of him. Nadal is not alone in this complaint: Former World No. 1 Marcelo Rios of Chile also made similar remarks almost 20 years ago, saying the surface and conditions favored big-serving rivals Pete Sampras and Boris Becker. The tennis tour has its own calendar; where different surfaces are used at different junctions of the year. The year starts with the hard courts in Australian summer, which is followed by the American spring season.
The clay and grass feature in the summer season of Europe, which paves the path to the American summer culminating in the U.S. Open in New York. After that the tour moves to Asia and then heads to the last leg of the season in Europe for indoor hard courts. The logical argument for not having clay as the season finale surface is that the lead-up events in fall are on hardcourts. Indoor clay is an option but then the lead-up events have to be on clay, which can be a big structural change for the tennis year. Nadal is more than aware that his change may never come to fruition in his playing days.
Nadal came into the ATP Finals after a resurgent season in which he won two majors and sealed the year-end No. 1 ranking for the fourth time in his career. He faced stiff competition from his archival, Federer, for the top spot as the two legends turned the clock back to their dominant days and delivered a season for the ages. The duo swept the majors this year as in their prime years of 2006-07 and 2010. Nadal will have to wait another year to find out if he can prevail in the year-end finale. He called off his season after losing to Belgium’s David Goffin Monday in London.
Of course the year had its share of absentees in form of injured superstars. Novak Djokovic — who has been the standout player of the last few years — had a tough year in which he struggled with physical and mental problems for most of the season. Djokovic was joined on the sidelines by former number one Andy Murray and three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland. Their absences meant that the field at the ATP Finals will have more than a few newcomers. This year’s edition has promising newcomers, especially Germany’s Sascha Zverev – who is seen by many tennis pundits as the successor to the Big Four. While there is no doubting Zverev’s clear talent, he comes to London a little jaded. In his second full year on the tour he has played a lot of tennis and looks mentally and physically spent. However, this field can also fire up the young Zverev to find that extra gear again in this very long season. He scored a big win in his first match of the event over former U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. Now he faces tournament favorite Roger Federer in the marquee round-robin match. Also making the O2 for the first time are American Jack Sock and Grigor Dimitrov.
The Bulgarian Dimitrov has long been seen as the next major winner and this year he has finally managed to put a season that is more worthy of the expectations that have surrounded him. He broke through by winning the Cincinnati 1000 event this year and becomes in the second favorite to the event after Nadal’s departure.
The tournament is unique because every match involves top players. All eight participants need to start quick out of the gate. Federer, in his record 15th appearance at this tournament, is a master of these quick starts. The 36-year-old is defying Father Time in his own historic way as he tries to win the ATP Finals for a record seventh time. After Nadal’s exit, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the aforementioned Zverev could be his biggest hurdles. Federer is coming off a two-tournament win streak in Shanghai and Basel. Anything can happen, but given his record at the O2 and his recent form, write him off at your own peril.