ATP Finals Preview: No No. 1 at stake, but London showcase is special

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Court Report: Looking ahead to the Nitto ATP Finals in London

 

Two weeks ago, the Nitto ATP Finals in London looked as if it would be the sight of a photo finish for the year-end No. 1 ranking. Rafael Nadal, who dominated the clay season, and Novak Djokovic, who dominated everything after, were separated by only a few dozen points in their race for the top spot.

Unfortunately for lovers of suspense—i.e., sports fans—that race ended it before it ever reached the homestretch. Nadal pulled out of this event and underwent ankle surgery, which means that instead of a photo finish, the ATP Finals will host a coronation. Djokovic comes to London having already clinched his fifth year-end No. 1, tying him with Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer for second on the all-time men’s list behind Pete Sampras.

So what’s left to watch at the O2 Arena? What we always watch at a season-ending event: A weeklong showcase, in a theatrically darkened stadium, of the eight best players of 2018—or at least the eight best players who happen to be healthy after 10 months of tennis. They won’t start playing until Sunday, but they’ve already been split into the customary pair of four-man groups. Here’s a look at how they might play out.

*****

Group Lleyton Hewitt: Roger Federer, Dominic Thiem, Kevin Anderson, Kei Nishikori

Roger Federer
2018 record: 46-8; career record vs. group: 12-5; career record at ATP Finals: 55-13

Federer, who reached the semifinals in London last year, can’t catch Djokovic for No. 1, but he could pass Nadal for No. 2. He certainly has the experience advantage over his group-mates: Federer has played this event every year since 2002, with the exception of his injury-shortened 2016. With his recent title in Basel, and his semifinal run at Bercy, the 37-year-old also happens to be playing some good tennis at the moment. Still, his 12-5 record against his round-robin competition isn’t quite as one-sided as we might expect from him. Federer is just 1-2 against Thiem, and he lost to Anderson in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. It will be interesting to see him try to get the better of those two this time around. He probably will.

Dominic Thiem
2018 record: 53-18; career record vs. group: 5-10; career record at ATP Finals: 2-4

The fact that Thiem is still standing, and even thriving, at this late stage of the season should probably be considered progress. In past years, the hardest-working man in pro tennis has typically faded down the stretch. Not in 2018: This fall, he has reached the quarterfinals at the US Open, won a tournament in St. Petersburg, won two Davis Cup matches for Austria, and reached the semifinals at Bercy. At 25, with a Roland Garros runner-up finish on his résumé, this would seem to be the year for Thiem to advance past the round-robin stage in London for the first time.

Kevin Anderson
2018 record: 45-17; career record vs. group: 10-11; career record at ATP Finals: 0-0

Anderson is the neophyte in this group; he’s making his ATP Finals debut at the unlikely age of 32. Will the dip into uncharted waters have an effect? Possibly. The cerebral South African doesn’t gravitate toward the spotlight, and he never found anything close to his A game in his first US Open final last year, or in his first Wimbledon final this summer. As far as his record against his group-mates, though, Anderson should be ready. He’s nearly .500, he has a 6-2 record against Thiem, and he beat Federer at Wimbledon. At 6’8”, with a serve to match, he should also like the controlled conditions at the 02. Both of Anderson’s titles in 2018, in Vienna and on Long Island, came on indoor hard courts. His run in Vienna also included wins over Nishikori and Thiem.

Kei Nishikori
2018 record: 42-19; career record vs. group: 10-11; career record at ATP Finals: 4-7

Nishikori’s return from injury in 2018 hasn’t been quite as spectacular as Djokovic’s, but it has been impressive nonetheless. He’s qualified for his fourth ATP Finals despite missing the Australian Open and Indian Wells at the start of the year. To make it, Nishikori played some of the best tennis of his career over the second half of the season, reaching the semifinals at the US Open and finals in Tokyo and Vienna. While his 4-7 record in London might not sound auspicious, it has been enough to advance him to the semis in two of his three appearances there.

Semifinalists: Federer, Thiem

*****

Group Gustavo Kuerten: Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, John Isner

Novak Djokovic
2018 record: 49-11; career record vs. group: 25-5; career record at ATP Finals: 31-11

It’s getting to the point, already, where there aren’t any praises left to sing—Djokovic is back, Djokovic is No. 1 again, Djokovic is the best player in the world, Djokovic has won this tournament five times of the 10 times he’s played it, Djokovic looks unbeatable at the moment. Is he? The Serb has won his last 23 matches dating back to early August, and has lost just once since the start of Wimbledon. Probably the most we can say against him as far as this tournament goes is that each of the three players in his group has the potential to challenge him. Cilic beat him at Queen’s Club this year, and took a set from him at Bercy last week. Zverev has a 1-1 record against him. And Isner has two wins at Masters 1000s over him. But Djokovic is still 25-5 against them overall.

Alexander Zverev
2018 record: 54-18; career record vs. group: 10-3; career record at ATP Finals: 1-2

Which Zverev will we see, the one who won three tournaments by the beginning of August, or the one who looked lost down the stretch, and suffered losses to players like Malek Jaziri, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Marius Copil? Can Zverev salvage his second half and give himself a little momentum for 2019, or is it too late to hope for anything new and better from him at this late date? His round-robin opposition should help his cause: Zverev is 10-3 overall against them, including a 4-1 record against Isner and a surprising 5-1 record against Cilic. He’s probably lucky he’s only played Djokovic twice.

Marin Cilic
2018 record: 41-18; career record vs. group: 10-24; career record at ATP Finals: 1-8

Numbers-wise, this week looks like a struggle for Cilic. He’s 2-16 against Djokovic, 1-5 against Zverev, and he’s recorded just one victory in three appearances at this event. Facing the best doesn’t bring out the best in Cilic; if anything, it exposes the fact that he doesn’t have a higher gear than the normal, everyday level he uses to beat his lower-ranked opponents.

John Isner
2018 record: 34-19; career record vs. group: 6-19; career record at ATP Finals: 0-0

It has been a big year for the big guy. He has become a father; won his first Masters 1000 title, in Miami; and reached his first Grand Slam semifinal, at Wimbledon. Now, at 33, with help from withdrawals by Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, he will make his appearance at the ATP Finals. How will Isner fare? The numbers are against him. He comes to London with the fewest wins (34) in 2018 of any of the eight competitors, and he comes in with losing records against all three of his round-robin opponents. Still, Isner does have two wins over Djokovic. With his serve, and what you have to expect will be a nothing-to-lose attitude, there’s always a chance.

Semifinalists: Djokovic, Zverev

*****

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Thiem; Federer d. Zverev

Final: Djokovic d. Federer


This Week on Tennis Channel:

Fed Cup Final (Sat. 11/10 to Sun. 11/11)
Petra Kvitova leads the Czech Republic against defending champions USA. Live coverage begins Saturday at 8:00 am EST.

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