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ATP Finals Preview: Can Novak Djokovic hold off a youthful surge in his Turin debut?
The Nitto ATP Finals moves to Italy and will host a septet of young contenders aiming to unseat the 20-time major champion.
Published Nov 12, 2021
Tennis Channel Live: Discussing the ATP Finals, headlined by top seed Novak Djokovic, in its first Turin edition.
Dust off your Gladiator metaphors: the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals has moved from its longtime home at London’s O2 Arena to the Pala Alpitour in Turin, boasting an elite eight that will leave no question of whether you’re entertained.
The FedEx Race to Turin nearly came down to the final week when two spots remained up for grabs at the Masters 1000 event in Paris. Ultimately Hubert Hurkacz and Casper Ruud completed the field with quarterfinals runs, each making their ATP Finals debut.
At the top of the heap is Novak Djokovic, who has already assured himself the year-end No. 1 ranking by besting No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev in the Rolex Paris Masters final, but leads a field replete with young European contenders. To illustrate the stark generational shift, the 2020 tournament boasted an average player age of 26.75, while this year’s field is just above 25. Without the 34-year-old Djokovic, the average drops further, below 24.
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dealing with protracted injury struggles, the Serb will be the sole representative of the game’s Big 3 at the ATP Finals for the first time since 2016, when he and Andy Murray faced off in the final. His chief rival in Turin will instead be Medvedev, who handed Djokovic his only loss in 28 matches played at the majors in 2021. Champion in Melbourne, Paris and London, the world No. 1 fell just short of both the Calendar Year Grand Slam and the opportunity to pass Federer and Nadal for 21 major titles.
The Turin crowd will have at least one hometown hero in Matteo Berrettini, who roared into his first major final earlier this season at Wimbledon and is firmly in front of a new golden age of Italian tennis. Jannik Sinner came close to joining his countryman with four titles in 2021, but had to settle for first-alternate status after an early exit in Paris.
Broken into culturally apropos round-robin groups, Djokovic will lead the Green Group, while Medvedev headlines the Red Group:
- Novak Djokovic
- Stefanos Tsitsipas
- Andrey Rublev
- Casper Ruud
- Daniil Medvedev
- Alexander Zverev
- Matteo Berrettini
- Hubert Hurkacz
Jannik Sinner and Cameron Norrie will serve as alternates.
The WTA Finals has, of late, favored its lower seeds when it comes to round-robin favorites. Out of their last 16 semifinalists, 11 that qualified were seeded between No. 5 and No. 8, a testament to the power of momentum—many of those lower seeds needed to play "playoff tennis" in order to qualify near season's end. Such can be the case for Casper Ruud, who rounds out a group that balances out Djokovic with a pair of flagging figures in Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev.
It’s been a tale of two seasons for both Tsitsipas and Rublev, who played peak tennis during the clay-court swing—Tsitsipas with his heroic run to the Roland Garros final, while Rublev stunned 11-time Monte Carlo Masters champ Rafael Nadal en route to his first Masters 1000 final. Champion at the ATP Finals in 2019, Tsitsipas led Djokovic by two sets with a maiden major in sight, only to fade in five. Seeded No. 4 in Turin, the Greek star made back-to-back Masters semifinals in Montréal and Cincinnati but has lately looked adrift on the game’s biggest stages, exiting before the second week at Wimbledon and the US Open while taking a second loss to Frances Tiafoe of the year in his Paris Masters opener.
Rublev has been equally out of sorts since his epic win over Nadal, similarly playing solid tennis in Cincy but looking abysmal elsewhere, lacking an extra gear in Paris when he played two tight sets against Taylor Fritz.
All this bodes well for the 22-year-old Norwegian, who has steadily proven himself a player for all surfaces since his own initial clay breakthrough. Racking up four titles on his preferred dirt, Ruud nabbed his first hard-court title at a 250 event in San Diego while posting quarterfinal finishes in Canada, Cincinnati and Paris. Having shaken off the fatigue that led to a fourth-round exit at the BNP Paribas Open, Ruud could easily join Djokovic in the semifinals.
Across the draw in the Red Group is his late-arriving counterpart and Miami Open champion, Hubert Hurkacz. The Pole began 2021 in bright fashion when he won his first Masters 1000 title over Jannik Sinner in Miami—a championship match that began the season’s youth trend in earnest—and demolished Federer to reach the Wimbledon semifinals.
Playing for his ticket to Turin, Hurkacz outgutted Aussie James Duckworth and pushed Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak in the semifinals. Playing his groupmates just five times in total, Hurkacz is a less familiar but still dangerous look for players like Medvedev, who took a tough loss to the amiable 24-year-old at Wimbledon and narrowly avenged the defeat weeks later in Montréal.
Berrettini will have to turn around steeper head-to-heads against Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, who own a combined 5-1 record against the Italian. Scintillating as his season has been, one could argue the absence of Djokovic, who beat him at three of the four majors in 2021, could have made it one for the history books, as he aims to improve on his fourth-place finish at the ATP Finals in 2019.
Zverev is one of four former finalists in the draw, having upset Djokovic to win his biggest career title in 2018. For all that may haunt the German off the court, his on-court performance has been difficult to ignore with results like Olympic gold, two Masters wins and two major semifinals. Medvedev will prove a tough ask given four consecutive losses to the Russian, but it's easy to envision Zverev emerging out of group play.
Finally, defending champ Medvedev arrives in Turin fresh off his US Open victory. Though he surrendered his Paris crown to Djokovic in an indoor rematch last week, Medvedev has been pitch-perfect on hard courts all season, amassing a 41-7 record and three titles. His encounter with Berrettini will be a full-circle rematch of his season-opening ATP Cup victory, but perhaps will be a stiffer challenge with the indoor conditions allowing the Italian to unleash.
Though history won’t necessarily be on the line, the ATP Finals could prove just how close the next generation (lower case) is to the likes of Djokovic, who largely triumphed where it mattered most. Should Medvedev score another win over the Serb, he will enter 2022 in hot pursuit of Djokovic’s No. 1 ranking, while success from others could set them up for a first major. The lion's den is about to open. Gladiators, I salute you.