The second half of the 2019 ATP season will involve many compelling dramas. One drama with very specific dimensions involves the two men who contested the Stuttgart final on Sunday: Felix Auger-Aliassime and champion Matteo Berrettini.
Observe these two tweets:
Felix Auger-Aliassime will obviously find it bittersweet losing a third ATP final in straights, but he’s currently *11th* in the Live ATP Race rankings and a clear contender to become the youngest ATP Finals debutant since Pete Sampras in 1990.
What a goddamn season he’s having.
— Bastien Fachan (@BastienFachan) June 16, 2019
Matteo Berrettini is also Live Race top 15 after Stuttgart (#14).
Auger Aliassime up to #11!
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) June 16, 2019
The fact that two players having strong seasons are in contention for an ATP Finals ticket isn’t the surprise. Consider something much more specific about these two quality seasons — if you think briefly about the matter, you will realize why these seasons are surprising in one very particular sense:
Neither player has done anything of note at the first two majors of the season.
Felix hasn’t even FINISHED a major-tournament match in 2019. Berrettini has won one match. Yet, they are both in the top 15 of the Race to London, because they have put in so much good work at the other tournaments, and because players 6 through 30 on tour are having a hard time gaining traction (minus Stefanos Tsitsipas and one or two other exceptions).
Look at the 2018 ATP Finals field: Seven of the eight players made at least one major semifinal that season. Alexander Zverev was the exception, but he still made a French Open quarterfinal and made the third round at a few others. Making several Masters 1000 finals, including the Madrid title, overcame his major portfolio.
Look at the 2017 ATP Finals: Five players made at least one major semifinal. David Goffin reached a major quarterfinal in Australia and a fourth round in the U.S. Open, which is not spectacular but certainly decent. Zverev didn’t do better than the fourth round (at Wimbledon), but he won two separate Masters titles in Rome and Montreal. The profoundly improbable ATP Finals qualifier two years ago was Jack Sock, who found his way to London with one Masters title (Bercy) and a total of only three major-tournament match wins the whole year.
Keep in mind the fact that in 2017, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray both shut down their seasons midway through the year. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were bitten by the injury bug in 2016. If “non-traditional” season profiles translated into ATP Finals appearances, injuries at the top played a role in recent years.
Very simply: It is hard — very hard — to make the ATP Finals without at least one of these two items on a single-year resume:
— a major quarterfinal
— a Masters title
Let’s see what Felix and Matteo do in the second half of 2019. Stay tuned.