WASHINGTON, November 11, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
As the 2017 Nitto ATP Finals begin Sunday with the year’s eight best singles players and eight doubles teams assembled in the great indoors of London, the city’s O2 Arena – with its great visual design and appeal – has become such a smash location financially since its inception in 2009 that it will continue hosting the end-of-the-season spectacular through 2020. That’s good news for the sport of tennis and for those who like to come inside from the chilly outdoors to support this colorful, year-end extravaganza. Although, if you were to ask Rafael Nadal, whose troubled knee remains a big question mark coming in, it seems he would love nothing more than if the O2 Arena’s indoor hard court surface could be transformed into a red clay court. After all, he’s never won the ATP Finals on an indoor hard court surface despite qualifying 13 times.
An estimated 250,000 fans will make their way to the O2 Arena during the week-long, season-ending championship and a world-wide television audience of more than 100 million will tune-in anticipating a Nadal-Roger Federer singles final a week from now, which would match the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world. Will everyone who’s a tennis fan get their big wish? Even though Federer is 4-0 against Nadal this season and has owned the Spaniard in 2017, it would be a fitting end to a tennis season in which only the fittest have survived and made it to the finish line.
Unlike the Next Gen ATP Finals tournament in Milan, which wrapped up a week of innovative if not different-from-usual tennis and featured the best young players, the ATP Finals – the tour’s most exclusive event – includes eight very familiar and highly branded players. Seven of them are Europeans – even though a trio of its best stars, defending champion Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and former champion Novak Djokovic, will be watching from the sidelines because of injuries.
Nadal, Federer And Six More Players
Lest we get ahead of ourselves, without a doubt, Nadal (with a 67-10 win-loss record and six titles) and Federer (making a record 15th appearance), are the headliners. However, they’ve got a great supporting cast – which Reem Abulleil of the Dubai-based sports daily Sport 360º labeled as the debutants – that includes great talents in Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Jack Sock. Zverev, Dimitrov and Sock are all making their first appearance at the ATP Finals while Goffin, who played one match as an alternate last year, is essentially making his debut, too. Indeed, any of the six players whose last name isn’t Nadal or Federer possess the ability to get hot quickly, and each has the potential to make a good run at the prestigious year-end title.
One need only look at the American Sock – the lone non-European in the field – who a week ago won the Paris Rolex Masters by stringing together five consecutive wins, to see someone who is playing great and focused tennis when it matters the most. In London, each player will compete in three group matches with the top two from each group – named after Hall of Fame greats Boris Becker and Pete Sampras – advancing to next Saturday’s semifinals. So, to win it all, it will take a consistent and sustained effort – maybe even playing at a super-high level – spread over five matches.
“I think that everyone that grows up and aspires to be a tennis player dreams about being in the top 10 and pushing from there and going as far as you can,” said Sock, in an interview with Christopher Clarey of The New York Times. “I’m just going to go to London and play free. I snuck into the last spot, so nothing to lose.”
Following a tremendously successful 2017 season, which has included two Grand Slams (Australian Open and Wimbledon) and three ATP Masters 1000 titles, the No. 2-seeded Federer goes after a record seventh season-ending title. He begins round-robin play against No. 8 seed Sock, whom he owns a 3-0 career head-to-head win-loss record against, on Sunday afternoon. Most recently, Federer beat Sock in the semifinals of the Masters 1000 in Indian Wells, Calif., en route to winning the title in the California desert last March.
“I’m very happy to be here again and get a chance to compete with the best,” said the 36-year-old Federer, during a pre-tournament press conference. “It’s always one of the big highlights of the year playing here.”
Meanwhile, the 20-year-old No. 3 Zverev, who passed up playing in the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan to focus on London, plays No. 5 Cilic Sunday night as Group Becker finishes it’s first round. On Monday, in Group Sampras, No. 4 Thiem plays No. 6 Dimitrov during the afternoon session and No. 1 Nadal headlines the evening session against No. 7 Goffin.
Although the year-end Emirates ATP No. 1 ranking remains in Nadal’s possession regardless of how he does in London, over the next week, fans near and far should be rewarded with some very enjoyable – if not memorable – matches. “For sure, it was never on my mind to be in that position again,” said Nadal, during his pre-tournament press conference, “but here, I made it happen, my team helped me to where I am today.”
Federer was asked if he’s up to the challenge of playing against first-time qualifiers Zverev and Sock, who represent part of the new wave of players making their marks in the sport. He said he was definitely ready. “It’s special, but it’s not tougher. I’m used to it now, playing against young guys.”
A week from now, will Federer be in the spotlight lifting his seventh ATP Finals championship trophy? I think it’s a good bet he will. After all, the Swiss maestro seems to be the clear favorite coming in. He’s looking fresh from taking much of the fall calendar off, and at a time of the year when it matters most, he’s relative healthy, too. Plus, worth noting is Federer’s win-loss record this year is a remarkable 49-4 – and he’s won seven titles. Seven titles! Clearly, he’s in a class by himself.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.