ATP Finals review: Does Alexander Zverev's confident and resilient display mark a new beginning in men's tennis?
It was down to Alexander Zverev to spring the biggest surprise of the week. He turned up with perhaps the finest performance of his young career to overpower Novak Djokovic
If comebacks have been the overriding theme in men’s tennis for the past two years, a new beginning may be on the cards after the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals at London’s O2 Arena. In a stunning display of confidence and resilience, Alexander Zverev Jr defeated world No 1 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3 in Sunday’s final to land the biggest feat for the much-hyped Next Gen of ATP.
The floppy haired German has long been the leader of the next wave of youngsters hoping to take over men’s tennis. While his form in Grand Slams and five sets still remains suspect, Zverev showed just what he is capable of on a good day. He served better, returned better and even lasted the long rallies better than the industrious Djokovic to win the title.
“This is the biggest title of my career so far,” Zverev said “This trophy means a lot, everything, to all the players. You only have so many chances of winning it. You play against the best players only. How I played today, how I won it, for me it's just amazing.
“I wasn't trying to overthink it. I just tried to go out there and enjoy the match as much as I can, enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the moment. That's what I did. My serve has been working well the whole week. I had a lot of confidence in it. It all worked out well.”
By way of winning the biggest title of his career, ‘Sascha’ Zverev also made us revisit the history books. He became the youngest champion since Djokovic in 2008, the first German since Boris Becker (1995) to win the ATP Finals, the first player since Ander Agassi (1990) to beat the top two seeds and the only players to beat both Roger Federer and Djokovic at the event.
Going into Sunday’s final, Djokovic had been an overwhelming favourite. The Serb had turned his season around in the summer, winning Wimbledon and US Open and sealed his year-end No 1 ranking last week. He had won 35 of his 37 previous matches, including a convincing 6-4, 6-1 win over Zverev in the round-robin stage in London.
But the German, who had started the tournament with a scratchy 7-6, 7-6 win over Marin Cilic, picked up steam during the weekend, especially on his serve. Zverev hit 18 aces during his round-robin match against John Isner, served 7 aces and won 88% of the points on first serve against Federer in the semi-finals and turned on the heat against the best returned in the sport on Sunday. Serving consistently around 140mph, Zverev won 18 of 21 points on his serve in the first set. He earned the break in the ninth game of the opening set when he netted a forehand on break point.
The Serb had not been broken in the four matches leading to the final, but Zverev succeeded in breaking his serve four times in the match. The 6’6 player, with longer legs and wider reach, was hitting his spots, eliciting errors from a usually solid Djokovic. Zverev, who added the legendary Ivan Lendl to his coaching team, was not afraid to rush to net and finish off points after drawing a short response from the Serb.
“Sascha definitely played much better than he did in the group stage. He deserved to win, he's still quite young but he's had an amazing career so far and I wish him all the best for his future,” said five-time champion Djokovic. “I want to thank my team for a great season. If we put things in perspective, it was an amazing year, a great comeback so thanks for helping me get to where I am.”
Djokovic’s incredible run the last six months had thus ended in two finals defeats against Next Genners. He lost the Paris Masters final to Karen Khachanov, before going down to Zverev in London. But it may mean little in the immediate future, as Djokovic heads into 2019 as the best player in the world.
Djokovic’s defeat also meant that Federer remains the most decorated player at the tournament with six titles.
Federer’s journey at the 2018 ATP Finals perhaps reflected the last six months of his career. He’s there, but not quite. After the high of winning the Australian Open in January and rising to the top of rankings in February, the year hasn’t gone to script for the Swiss. And it was a similar up-and-down ride in London. He lost the opening match to Japan’s to Kei Nishikori before surging into the semi-finals with straight sets wins over Kevin Anderson and Dominic Thiem. Having gone through the final four at the top of Group Lleyton Hewitt, Federer was sent packing by an inspired Zverev.
“I must tell you I'm very proud that at 37 I'm still so competitive and so happy playing tennis,” said Federer, who finished the year ranked No 3 in the world. “From that standpoint, as disappointed as I might be about this match, if I take a step back, I'm actually very happy about the season.”
The fourth semi-finalist in London was the 6’8 Kevin Anderson, who has taken giant strides this season. Anderson was the first South African since Wayne Ferreira, in 1995, to play the season finale and at 32 is having the time of his life.
The South African had opened the show at London’s O2 with a 6-3, 7-6 win over Thiem and followed it with a 6-0, 6-1 rout of Nishikori. He faced Federer in the final League match, an opponent he had vanquished after being match points down at another, and slightly more famous, London venue – Wimbledon. But Anderson could not repeat the quarter-final performance and fell prey to Federer’s onslaught. In the semis, a confident Djokovic beat him 6-2, 6-2.
It was another disappointing outing at the ATP Finals for the promising Austrian Thiem and Croatia’s Cilic. Thiem had not been able to make an impact in his last two appearances at the event, and maintained the status quo of winning just one round-robin match. After losing to Anderson and Federer, Thiem scored a consolation 6-1, 6-4 win over Nishikori.
Meanwhile, Cilic, who had only one win to show in three previous appearances also continued his poor run. He was a break up in both the sets against Zverev in the opening match, but squandered those to go down 7-6, 7-6. He lost to Djokovic and a hard-fought three-set win over Isner was too little too late for the 6’6 Croat.
It was down to Zverev to spring the biggest surprise of the week. He turned up with perhaps the finest performance of his young career to overpower the Serb. What was supposed to be a victory lap for Djokovic for his phenomenal year, turned into coronation of a new champion.
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Federer has missed the tournaments since Wimbledon including Tokyo Olympics, US Open and is out for rest of the season.
"Relief. I was glad it was over," Djokovic said about his feelings in the moments after the defeat.