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ATP Finals — The Semifinal Measuring Stick

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

We know that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have won a lot of ATP Finals (formerly the Tennis Masters Cup). We know Rafael Nadal has never won this tournament. Championships obviously — and appropriately — receive more attention than runner-up or semifinal finishes.

Yet, let’s not ignore the importance and value of making the semifinals and finals of important tournaments. This is something I have emphasized throughout the Golden Era of men’s professional tennis: You can play great tournaments and not lift the trophy. Playing great — or achieving an important result even if one’s level of form isn’t stellar — ought to matter for the competitors who didn’t win first place.

With that in mind, the ATP Finals — whose level of significance will always be debated among tennis fans — offer a fascinating portrait of how each season’s best male tennis players handle the unique format.

Whether you assign a considerable amount of importance to this event or not, it remains that the ATP Finals represent a showcase ostensibly meant to pit the best against the best. The champion stands alone at these events, but for the field as a whole, the main goal is to get through the three round-robin matches and qualify for the semifinals. For Federer and Djokovic, winning the title is the expectation, and making the final is the minimum goal in London. In years when Rafael Nadal was healthy, making the final represented a strong tournament for him. He frankly needed to face someone other than Djokovic or Federer to feel good about his chances.

On a broader level, however, the goal of any non-Big 3 player since the start of this Golden Era in 2003 (when Federer first rose to prominence and dominance) has been to make the semifinals. One could carve out a few specific exceptions: In 2016, Andy Murray’s goal was to win the ATP Finals and secure year-end No. 1, which he did. Generally, though, if you have not been a member of the ATP’s tremendous trio — the Holy Triad in the parlance of tennis commentator Juan Jose Vallejo — your goal in London (previously in Shanghai or Houston) has been to make the semifinals.

That achievement means that in a gathering of the best, you have been able to rise to the higher tier. No one should expect non-Big 3 players to win championships at the ATP Finals, but one should expect semifinals on a reasonable amount of occasions, especially in years when one or more members of the Big 3 are absent, as has been the case for the past few tennis seasons.

So, with this prelude now completed, let’s consider some facts about the ATP Finals since the arrival of Federer as a top-tier force in 2003. All of these facts are filtered through the lens of the semifinal measuring stick, and to be more precise, they all refer to players who played in the ATP Finals at least once:

— Marin Cilic has NEVER made an ATP Finals semifinal.

— Gilles Simon has made an ATP Finals semifinal.

— Tomas Berdych and Andy Roddick both played six ATP Finals and never got past the semifinals.

— Berdych made only one semifinal in his six appearances. Roddick made three.

— Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga both made the semifinals exactly once. They met in the 2011 semifinals, with Tsonga winning.

— Kei Nishikori has made the semifinals twice, one instance being in 2016 when Federer and Nadal didn’t play.

— Nikolay Davydenko made three semifinals in five appearances and went 2-1 in those three semis.

— David Nalbandian made two semifinals in three appearances.

— David Ferrer made two semifinals in seven appearances.

— Stan Wawrinka made three semifinals in four appearances.

— Juan Martin del Potro made two semifinals in four appearances. This would have been his fifth ATP Finals, but he pulled out due to injury.

— Gaston Gaudio made an ATP Finals semifinal, while Fernando Gonzalez did not.

— Robin Soderling made a semifinal, while Ivan Ljubicic did not.

— Milos Raonic made a semifinal, Fernando Verdasco did not.

— James Blake made a semifinal, Gael Monfils did not.

— Andy Murray has reached four semifinals.

— Rafael Nadal has made five semifinals, keeping in mind that he qualified for the ATP Finals on six other occasions but wasn’t healthy enough to play. He withdrew from the 2017 event as well.

— Novak Djokovic has reached seven semifinals.

— Roger Federer has notched 14 semifinal berths, missing the semis only once in 15 appearances, in 2008.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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