SAQIB ALI — @saqiba
Marin Cilic comes into the ATP Finals with a 41-18 record in 2018. The second half of his year has not been solid by his standards. He has suffered more than a few unlikely losses in bunches. He comes to the O2 for the fourth time and he has a point to prove. Most top players have to fight for ranking points, big tournaments and prize money throughout the tennis year. One of the big goal is to confirm yourself at this showcase event – the Nitto ATP Finals.
Besides the huge prize money and enormous ranking points, there is one more element in this prestigious event that drives players with extra motivation – pride. Cilic, with his big serve and powerful game, surprisingly has a very pedestrian record at this tournament. He has won only one out of his six matches here. Something tells me he is more than aware of that stat and would be eager to correct that record. His form, as I mentioned, is not ideal coming in. He lacks the momentum that usually comes after winning lots of matches. However this is his fourth time in this setting — he can use that to his advantage against fellow group member John Isner, who is making his debut in this year-end tournament.
There are no easy matches in this field, since one plays a top-eight player every time. These are consummate professionals who don’t believe in settling scores or revenge in terms of matches – at least that’s what they all allude to in their press interviews. However, one does not reach the top echelons of pro sport if they are not fierce in competition, and Cilic has shown in the last two years that his improved consistency across the tour makes him a clear threat on any given day. A medium-fast indoor court should once again provide his game an opportunity to thrive.
He is very aware of the challenges in the week ahead and must be fully energized to correct his record at the O2. It is not necessarily personal, but at this elite level, it is an urgent piece of business to take care of.
ANAND MAMIDIPUDI – @0thlaw
Sascha Zverev runs the risk of being perceived as overrated. His talent is obvious and his game has peaks that rival the best in the world, the Big 3 included. What isn’t clear is whether his peaks can be sustained during the top tier tournaments against the very best when mental fortitude often trumps pure ball-striking talent at key moments.
In this regard, one can argue Sascha is lagging behind his own generational peers. His recent loss to Karen Khachanov was not an anomaly – if anything it was a red herring. While he has held his own against his generation, he has also not clearly distanced himself from the pack – rankings notwithstanding – having suffered critical losses in 2018 to Hyeon Chung, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Khachanov, even trailing Taylor Fritz at Wimbledon before turning it around.
2018 is an odd year for Sascha, one of underachievement despite a shiny ranking. Yet, it must be said that it is Sascha who has made the ATP World Tour Finals, and not his fellow Next Gen crew. If he loses easily to the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, it will only underline the gap between the current champions and the Next Gen. While Zverev is in no danger of being a part of a lost generation (although one could argue there is an element of luck in this matter, with Roger, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray surely at the final bends of their illustrious careers), there’s definitely a reckoning coming at London on whether Zverev is the real deal, the torch-bearer many think he is.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer expect to win ATP Finals tournaments, not to merely reach the last four on the weekend. Viewed through that lens, they always have the most at stake because they are playing for the big prize. However, when a player faces the burdens Marin Cilic must stare down in London, the weight of the question shifts to the Croatian.
Cilic has made fewer ATP Finals semifinal appearances than Gilles Simon and James Blake. We know that Cilic doesn’t do well at ATP 500s or Masters 1000s, but Cilic has shown in the past year and a half that he can deliver the goods at major tournaments, with two finals at 2017 Wimbledon and the 2018 Australian Open. Cilic remains difficult to easily assess. He adds to his tennis resume in one moment and then detracts from it the next. He has played Novak Djokovic well and closely in recent matches but almost always loses to the Serb, which leaves fans feeling disappointed.
My reaction to the Djokovic loss in the Bercy quarterfinals was not disappointment about the fact that he lost to Djokovic. Nole was way too good in the final stretches of that match. Cilic has nothing to be upset about in direct relationship to that match.
The problem with Cilic now and throughout his career is not that he so rarely beats the Big 3 in huge situations… but how rarely he MEETS the Big 3 in the semifinals or finals of majors. Cilic is way too good to lose to Guido Pella at Wimbledon after taking an early lead. He is way too good to have Kei Nishikori on the ropes in the U.S. Open quarterfinals and then collapse in an ugly loss. He is way too good to lose as early as he does in Masters 1000 tournaments.
When Federer, Nadal or Djokovic lose a match, we chalk it up as an aberration, because those guys so regularly bounce back from bad performances and establish such strong track records over the course of full seasons. They have all earned the benefit of the doubt when they struggle. Cilic has not. He needs to weed out bad losses from his system and become a more regular presence in semifinal rounds of important tournaments, especially when the draw opens up.
It is time – long past time, actually – for Cilic to make his first semifinal at the ATP Finals. He is way too good to not have at least one semi on his London resume. He needs to get the job done this year.