What to make of the last men’s tournament of the year, the Nitto ATP Finals, set to start in London on Sunday, November 15? As a start, unlike any other event, this one has an extremely small field—eight men who’ve accumulated the most ranking points over the course of the year.
The ATP Finals is also only men’s round-robin tournament, a format that lends itself to both guaranteed matchups and intrigue about semifinal pairings. Round-robin play also makes it possible for a player to lose and still win the tournament, a configuration that has aided the cause of many beaten but eventual titlists, including Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Given these unique structural elements, grasping the significance of this event is not always easy. Here are three ways to best see the ATP Finals:
More Coronation than Super Bowl
Though in theory a season-closing event might well decide the best player of the year, this has rarely been the case. Instead, the tournament has often served as a validation and coronation for the man who has been the world’s best over the last 12 months.
Bjorn Borg was the first to cap off a very successful year with a season-ending victory when he won the tournament in early ’80 and ’81. World number ones John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl each earned multiple titles at the height of their respective powers in the ‘80s, as did Pete Sampras in the ‘90s and Lleyton Hewitt in the early ‘00s. More recently, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have frequently made the tournament a fitting exclamation point to a season of excellence. On three occasions (’04, ’06-’07), Federer’s victory came the same year he was clearly the world’s best. Ditto for Djokovic (’14-’15, ’18).
But there have been two occasions when the season-ending tournament determined who was number one on the ATP Computer. In 2000, a year when four different men each won a major and all made it to the semis at what was then called the Tennis Masters Cup, Gustavo Kuerten’s semifinal victory over Wimbledon champ Sampras and in the finals versus Australian Open winner Andre Agassi vaulted him past US Open champion Marat Safin into the top spot. “It's strange,” said Kuerten, who earned his victory in Lisbon that year. “Like I said the other days, you know, I didn't believe I could do this. I think was good for me. I didn't think about this at all.”
Sixteen years later, Novak Djokovic began 2016 in grand style, taking the first two majors. But Djokovic’s second half of the year was so poor that the door cracked open just enough for Andy Murray, winner at Wimbledon, to charge forward. Following the US Open that year, Murray won four tournaments and in London faced Djokovic in the championship clash. For the only time in the tournament’s history, each finalist had the chance to grab the year-end number one ranking. Earning his 24th straight match victory, Murray won, 6-3, 6-4. Said Murray afterwards, “It was obviously a big match, a very important win for me. It was just a huge match to finish the year, to try and obviously finish No. 1. Obviously this is a major event, as well, and one I've not done well in in the past. So it's been a great week.”
With eight of the world’s best playing two-out-of-three sets indoors, the stage is set for many engaging battles between familiar players—no distracting weather elements, no unknowns, no dangerous floaters. Often the quality of the tennis in these matches is excellent. Last year, for example, Rafael Nadal won two superb matches, taking down Daniil Medvedev in a third-set tiebreaker and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 7-5 in the third.
Over the years, there have been many others. In Houston in 2004, Federer beat Marin Safin in the semis 6-4, 7-6, winning a spectacular 26-minute tiebreaker, 20-18. Boris Becker earned one of his three season-ending titles in 1988 when hit a let cord winner versus Ivan Lendl on championship point of a fifth set tiebreaker. Eight years later, Becker also went the distance, but lost that compelling five-setter to Sampras, 6-4 in the fifth. And back in 1978 at Madison Square Garden, Connors and Guillermo Vilas thrilled 18,000 people in a match that was won by Vilas, 7-5 in the third, a battle that also commenced the transition of Connors’ reputation from outlaw to hero.
Two years later, Madison Square Garden was the site for one of the greatest quotes in tennis history. Vitas Gerulaitis had lost 16 consecutive matches to Connors. Upon beating him in the semis of the January 1980 Masters, Gerulaitis said, “Let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” Alas, Gerulaitis lost the next day to Borg—a man who indeed would end up winning all 17 of their matches.
Potential Shape of Things to Come
In certain instances, the winner of this title has provided a sneak preview of greatness to come. Stan Smith won the first version of what was then called the Masters Grand Prix in 1970 and in ’71 won his first singles Slam, the US Open. At the close of 1971, Ilie Nastase earned his first of four year-end titles and went on to take the ‘72 US Open. In January 1979, barely six months after ending his college career, 19-year-old John McEnroe capped off a furious rise up the ranks with a title run when the event was played at Madison Square Garden—a victory that saw McEnroe fight off two championship points versus Arthur Ashe.
“I don’t know how I won the match,” McEnroe said that day. By September, at the US Open, McEnroe had taken his first Grand Slam singles crown. Lendl won the Masters for the second straight time in January ’83 and the next month reached the number one ranking for the first time.
The last three years have also offered intriguing possibilities. Grigor Dimitrov began 2017 ranked 17 in the world. But a five-win run to the title London helped him finish number three. Unfortunately for Dimitrov, only once since has he reached a Grand Slam semi. In 2018, Alexander Zverev burst through the pack—and finally, at this year’s US Open, at last reached his first major singles final. And the defending champion, Tsitsipas, plays with the kind of panache and passion, including sparkling wins last year over Federer in the semis and Dominic Thiem in the final, that could be a springboard for even bigger triumphs.
“Now that I'm a champion, I don't know how to explain it,” said Tsitsipas. “I honestly don't feel anything, because it's too many emotions to feel something (smiling). So it's horrific, in a way, to be holding this trophy. I remember myself watching this event on TV and thinking, oh, these guys have done an insane year to be playing here. And now I'm in the position to be champion, so it feels awesome.”
Beyond those three major ways, there have been other intriguing results of note, including the surprising runs of Vilas on grass in 1974, Alex Corretja in 1998, David Nalbandian in 2005 (rallying from two sets to love down to beat Federer in a fifth-set tiebreaker) and Nikolay Davydenko in 2009.
And then there’s Rafael Nadal, the greatest player never to have won this title. On five occasions—’08, ’10, ’13, ’17, ’19—Nadal has finished the year ranked number one in the world. But he has yet to win in London, Nadal’s best efforts a pair of trips to the finals in ’10 and ’13. Six other times, Nadal has qualified for the event but withdrawn due to injury, no doubt the result of his typically arduous year-long efforts. Perhaps this November, in a year when the pandemic has severely limited the number of matches he can play, the Spaniard will earn one of the few significant trophies he has yet to lift and bite.