ATP Finals 2019 Preview: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic eye history; Roger Federer, Daniil Medvedev try to spoil the party

  • Nadal is currently 640 points ahead of Djokovic in the rankings, which means there are quite a few permutations and combinations at play

  • Alexander Zverev comes in as the defending champion, which should give him some confidence despite his recent underwhelming form.

  • Roger Federer skipped playing in Paris to be fit and ready to play at the ATP Finals in London where he's seeking a seventh title

The ATP season-ending tournament has never been short on star power or gravitas, but this time it won’t be short on desperate mathematical equations either. With Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal locked in a tight battle for the year-end No. 1 ranking, most fans will likely have calculators on hand every time either of them take the court in London.

Nadal is currently 640 points ahead of Djokovic in the rankings, which means there are quite a few permutations and combinations – exacerbated by the unique point-distribution mechanism at the tournament – that could determine the ultimate leader. And you can bet that both Nadal and Djokovic will do everything in their power to get the coveted spot, even if it means giving it their all for meaningless dead rubbers.

With the two men so close to each other (and to Roger Federer) in the GOAT debate, it’s not just a numerical position that is at stake in London. History and legacy are at stake too.

 ATP Finals 2019 Preview: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic eye history; Roger Federer, Daniil Medvedev try to spoil the party

Alexander Zverev comes in as the defending champion at the ATP Finals in London. AP

Even aside from the lofty ambitions of the two men, there’s also the small matter of the title itself. The ATP Finals is widely regarded as the most important event on the calendar after the Slams, and for much of its history it has remained the preserve of the world’s very best players. Winning the title has such dramatic ramifications that Alexander Zverev still hasn’t recovered from his unlikely triumph last year!

Is there room for another Cinderella story at the 2019 edition? Or will the 'Old Guard' reclaim the prize that they would like to believe is rightfully theirs? Here’s a look at how the groups and draw have panned out:

Group Andre Agassi: Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev

Nadal has a very unfortunate history at the year-end championships; it is famously the only big title in tennis that he has never won. He has also rarely been fully fit for the event, and this year is no different.

The Spaniard suffered an abdominal distension last week which forced him to withdraw from the Paris Masters semifinal. And while he is entered to play in London, it remains to be seen how much the injury will affect his tennis – especially while serving.

If you put aside Nadal’s hopes of winning the title, considering both the state of his body and his relatively poor record on indoor courts from the past, what are his chances of doing just enough to retain the No. 1 ranking? Needless to say, he’s in a far better position than Djokovic in this regard.

Nadal’s race to No. 1 – the scenarios

Nadal can guarantee top spot if he reaches the final after going undefeated in the group stage, irrespective of what the Serb does. That’s because reaching the final undefeated would fetch Nadal 1,000 points, which added to his existing lead of 640 would put him 1,640 ahead – and therefore out of Djokovic’s reach (the highest that any player can earn at the Finals is 1,500 points).

Nadal can also make Djokovic’s job very difficult even if he doesn’t reach the final. Should the Spaniard win just two round-robin matches (irrespective of whether he qualifies for the semis or not), he would still get 400 points (200 for each round-robin win) and thus go 1,040 points ahead of the Serb. That would mean Djokovic can’t get the top spot unless he wins the title.

The only realistic way Djokovic can get to No. 1 without winning the title is if Nadal doesn’t win more than one match in the round-robin tournament. Exiting the tournament with just one victory would put Nadal 840 points ahead, allowing Djokovic to reclaim the throne by reaching the final undefeated (and thereby getting 1,000 points).

And if Nadal fails to win a single match (presumably because of an injury withdrawal), Djokovic can get to No. 1 even if he loses one round-robin match but reaches the final.

Nadal’s competition

You’d think getting two wins out of three matches wouldn’t be such a big problem for Nadal, but his group isn’t exactly a cakewalk. While the Spaniard has never lost to Daniil Medvedev (2-0 head-to-head record), Zverev (5-0 record) or Stefanos Tsitsipas on hard courts (3-0 record on hard, 4-1 overall), he would be wary of the form and indoor pedigree that the three men bring to the table.

Medvedev, of course, has been on a hot streak in the second half of 2019, reaching the final in six of his last seven tournaments. He ran Nadal awfully close in one of those finals – at the US Open – and the quick indoor conditions in London should favour his playing style too.

In fact, when you consider Medvedev’s form and his record against Tsitsipas (5-0), coupled with the fact that he demolished Zverev in their last meeting, the Russian might actually be the favourite to top this group – even though it is his first appearance at the tournament.

Zverev comes in as the defending champion, which should give him some confidence despite his recent underwhelming form. Aside from his run to the Shanghai Masters final, Zverev hasn’t done much of note lately, but his big serve should be helped by the court at the O2 Arena – just like it was last year.

Tsitsipas, also making his debut, is probably the wildcard of the group; there’s no telling how he is likely to perform. The Greek has defeated each member of the 'Big 3' this year, showing that he can bring the goods when pitted against the very best. He also enjoys the mental advantage in his matchup against Zverev, with a 3-1 head-to-head record.

However, Tsitsipas hasn’t looked even remotely close to solving the Medvedev riddle, having lost all five matches against the Russian so far. You suspect Tsitsipas’ chances of reaching the semis will depend on his match against Nadal – which could go either way unless Nadal is not fully fit, in which case Tsitsipas would be the favourite.

Predicted semi-finalists: Medvedev, Tsitsipas

Group Bjorn Borg: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Dominic Thiem, Matteo Berrettini

Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns a ball to Denis Shapovalov of Canada during the final match of the Paris Masters tennis tournament in Paris, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

Novak Djokovic has an opportunity to go past Rafael Nadal in the race to finish 2019 as top ranked player. AP

While Nadal can be a little relaxed knowing that he just needs to win a couple of matches to put himself in pole position for the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic doesn’t have that luxury. The only foolproof way for the Serb to guarantee the top spot is by going undefeated throughout the tournament – which is exactly what he will have his eyes set on.

I’ve often said there’s nothing in tennis more dangerous than a motivated Djokovic, and that’s especially true at the year-ending championships. The Serb has won the tournament as many as five times, and has made the final in every edition he has played since 2011; he clearly loves playing indoors. He also won the year-ender four consecutive times (from 2012 to 2015) – something that even Roger Federer has never done.

But Federer has won the title six times, which is an all-time record. The Swiss will be keen to preserve his edge by preventing Djokovic from drawing level, and he will be the Serb’s toughest competition in this relatively lightweight group. Djokovic has never faced tournament debutant Matteo Berrettini and has never lost to Dominic Thiem on a hardcourt (he enjoys a 6-3 head-to-head advantage over the Austrian), and will be heavily favoured to defeat both of them.

Djokovic leads Federer 26-22 in the head-to-head, and hasn’t lost to the Swiss player since 2015. But their last two matches have gone the absolute distance – a third-set tiebreaker at the 2018 Paris Masters, and a defining fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon 2019 which Djokovic won after saving two match points. Will Federer take confidence from the fact that he came so close on both those occasions, or will he go in fearing that no matter what he does he will always come up short against Djokovic?

Conventional wisdom suggests Federer’s best chance to pull one back will be in the round-robin stage, where the pressure would be lower than normal. And considering the form he displayed at the Swiss Indoors a couple of weeks ago, he could very well pull it off; after all, the crowd in London can be just as pro-Federer as that in Basel.

Federer will also start as the favourite against Thiem and Berrettini. While Thiem has a 4-2 overall head-to-head lead in their rivalry, Federer has the considerably superior game for indoor conditions. And the only time the Swiss faced Berrettini – at Wimbledon this year – he strolled past the Italian without breaking a sweat.

The match between Thiem and Berrettini seems set to be a battle for scraps. Both the men have shown considerable improvement this year – Thiem won the indoor event at Vienna, and Berrettini has been going deep in almost every tournament lately – but you have to think their best chance of registering a win in London would be against each other. Berrettini’s big serve and forehand combination should hold him in good stead indoors, despite his 1-2 head-to-head record against the Austrian.

Predicted semifinalists: Federer, Djokovic

Semifinal predictions: Federer def. Tsitsipas, Djokovic def. Medvedev

Final prediction: Djokovic def. Federer

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Updated Date: Nov 09, 2019 18:25:00 IST