Restored to World No 1 on Monday, Novak Djokovic will lead the leading players for a final push at London’s O2 Arena for the ATP World Tour Finals that begin on Sunday. It has been a long, topsy-turvy, eventful season for men’s tennis — none more so than for Djokovic. The Serb, who dipped to World No 22 in May, will be hoping to cap his comeback by winning the prestigious season-ender.
“Reflecting on what I've been through in the last year, it's quite a phenomenal achievement,” Djokovic said after returning to the No 1 spot after two years. “And, of course, I'm very, very happy and proud about it. Five months ago, if you told me that, I would be — I always believe in myself, but it was highly improbable at that time considering my ranking and the way I played and felt on the court.”
While Djokovic missed the latter part of the 2017 season, including the Tour Finals, due to an elbow injury and eventually had to undergo surgery on it after the Australian Open, the 31-year-old has turned it around in style. The hard-fought five-set win over Rafael Nadal lasted for 5 hours and 15 minutes, but it seemed the change Djokovic season in a blink of an eye. Since the start of Wimbledon, the Serb has compiled a 31-2 record that’s reminiscent of his days of dominance.
Though a tired Djokovic fell to young gun Karen Khachanov in the final of the Paris Masters on Sunday, he will once again start as the overwhelming favourite at the Tour Finals. Djokovic is level with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl with five titles at the tournament — only Federer has the most at seven.
Djokovic’s former coach and three-time champion Boris Becker had once described the Tour Finals as being tougher than the Grand Slams. With the top eight in the world competing in the season-ending event, it allows no break-in period. The eight players, slot into two different groups, go through a round robin format and the top two qualify for the semi-finals. Unlike most tennis tournaments, players don’t begin the next round match with a clean state — every set and even game goes into the final calculation of who progresses to the final four.
World No 1 Djokovic has been drawn into Group Guga Kuerten, along with John Isner, Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev. Federer will lead the charge in Group Lleyton Hewitt, which also consists of Dominic Thiem, Kevin Anderson and Kei Nishikori. This is the third year running that eight different countries have been represented in the singles field.
While most of the lead protagonists of an exciting ATP season are playing the season-ender, the notable misses are World No 2 Rafael Nadal and US Open finalist Juan Martin Del Potro. Nadal cited an abdominal injury to close his season early — he hasn’t played since the US Open. For all his achievements in the sport, the Spaniard has never managed to win the Tour Finals and will be denied the opportunity this time again, despite another stellar season under his belt.
However, his keen rival Federer, who turned 37 this year, is still alive and kicking. The second part of the season has been markedly underwhelming for the Swiss virtuoso, who started the season by winning the Australian Open and surged to World No 1 in February. Federer, who made it to the finals of the Cincinnati Masters and the Shanghai Masters, has only been able to win the Stuttgart Open on grass and his home tournament in Basel since.
The seven-time champion may not come on the back of the most promising run, but Federer is always one of the favourites going into the Tour Finals in London. The indoor hard-courts, with their controlled environment, provide an almost perfect canvas for Federer’s artistry.
He has been slotted with his Wimbledon tormentor Kevin Anderson in the group stage. The 6’8” Anderson had battled to victory after being two sets and match points down (in third set) against Federer in the Wimbledon quarter-finals. It has been a momentous year for the 32-year-old Anderson, who reached a career high of World No 5 in July and has become the first South African since Wayne Ferreira in 1995 to play in the season finale.
John Isner, like Anderson, will also be making his debut at the tournament. Isner, who replaced the injured Nadal, has followed almost the same career path as Anderson. At 6’10, he’s also a big server and came through the US college tennis set up. Though both the players have had their moments on the tour, they weren’t till recently been real threats at Grand Slams. While Anderson had a breakthrough last season, making it to the US Open finals, the 33-year-old Isner has taken a little longer.
The two met heads-on in the Wimbledon semi-final. Serving big and playing smart, Anderson and Isner fought tooth and nail for a place in the final. After six hours and 36 minutes, the South African prevailed 7-6(6), 6-7(5) 6-7(9), 6-4, 26-24. It was the longest semi-final at SW19 and the third longest tennis match ever. Though Isner lost the match, it was another marker of his progression in the sport. The big man had already won his first Masters title in Miami in March and rose to a career high of No 8 in the rankings. Isner is set to end the season inside the top-10 for the first time irrespective of the results in London.
Though not debutants, Thiem and Cilic will hope to make a mark at the season finale this year. Thiem has recorded two wins in two editions so far. “I’ve learned a lot in each of the past two years,” said the Austrian, who beat Gael Monfils in 2016 and alternate Pablo Carreno Busta in 2017. “I’ve learned that I need to be 100 per cent from the very first ball. You don’t get any presents when you’re playing against the Top 8.”
Cilic, who was runner-up at the Australian Open, has qualified for the fourth time he has only one win (over Nishikori in 2016) to show so far. He will be opening his campaign against Alexander Zverev, who for the second year in the row as opted to play the ATP season finale while also being eligible to play at the Next Gen Finals.
Completing the field is Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who has an impressive comeback story of his own. The hard-working Nishikori had missed five months in 2017 due to a wrist injury and began his journey back by playing ATP Challenger events in January. But ‘Special K’ was quickly back in the mix on the men’s tour and made three finals (Vienna, Tokyo, Monte Carlo Masters) this year. He has a win-loss record for 42-19 in 2018 and finished the Race to London at No 9.
It has been another long, draining season for these eight men standing. But the Tour Finals will be their last shot at excellence before the season closes. The battle royale will begin in London on Sunday, with Anderson and Thiem playing the opener.
Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 08:58 AM