WASHINGTON, November 18, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
Over the first six days of the Nitto ATP Finals, whether one flocked to London’s O2 Arena or watched from the comfort of home via worldwide TV, fans were witness to both perfect and imperfect tennis. For the most part, Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov, who each went undefeated in their respective groups, met or exceeded everyone’s expectations. Because each is playing solidly at the end of a long and grueling season, both Federer and Dimitrov have an excellent chance of reaching – and winning – Sunday’s title match.
While Federer and Dimitrov advanced to Saturday’s knock-out round with identical and unblemished 3-0 win-loss records, Jack Sock and David Goffin, who round out this weekend’s quartet of semifinalists, have lifted their games at crucial moments during the week – both prevailed in win-or-go-home matches – and each remains hopeful of winning the year-end championship of men’s tennis.
Looking back, although Alexander Zverev came up just short against both Federer and Sock – losing to each in three sets – and ultimately didn’t reach the final weekend as many hoped, it shouldn’t diminish at all what the 20-year-old German accomplished this season. Indeed, as he looks ahead toward 2018, this year’s NextGen ATP star proved himself worthy of being a NowGen star going forward.
Finally, tough luck and props go to World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, whose tremendous success in winning Grand Slams has never translated to the London O2 stage during the ATP Finals. Despite already clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking regardless of what happens the rest of the way, Nadal saw his season end prematurely. After dropping his first ATP Finals opener since 2009, against a determined Goffin, the Spaniard immediately withdrew because of a knee injury that became very apparent in the final set against the 26-year-old Belgian. “I’m going to work hard… to keep being at the top and fighting for the most important things. Thank you and Merry Christmas, everyone,” said Nadal during his final press conference, signing off on 2017 season.
Now, with the field of eight reduced to just four, the big points are up for grabs – and everyone’s a contender.
World No. 2 Federer looked impressive in both of his first two wins, against Sock and Zverev, and came from a set down to beat Marin Cilic, who also lost to Federer in the Wimbledon final last summer. By the time Federer faced Cilic on Thursday with a semifinal berth already wrapped up after beating Zverev, he looked relaxed on court, and it was reflected in his looser style of play. It marked the tenth time Federer has gone undefeated in group play.
“Knowing to be qualified on Tuesday evening is kind of weird,” said Federer during an on-court interview with Sky Sports’ Annabel Croft after his win over Cilic. “It gives me a great idea how I want to prepare for Saturday. I’m looking forward to playing. One more last weekend, one push before the vacation, then I’ll prepare for next season.”
The 36-year-old Federer, who since the start of this season has lost just four matches, limited his play this year to just 12 tournaments – winning a remarkable seven of them including two Grand Slams (Australian Open and Wimbledon) – and he will face No. 8 Goffin, who with an 0-6 lifetime head-to-head record will be an underdog against the Swiss, during Saturday’s day session. If Federer advances to Sunday’s final, he would face either Dimitrov or Sock, who both looked convincing during group play. Plus, if Federer runs the table this weekend and wins a record seventh ATP Finals title – and I like his chances to win it all – he will finish the 2017 season just 140 points behind Nadal in the year-end Emirates ATP rankings.
As the first Bulgarian to qualify for the ATP Finals, the World No. 6 Dimitrov seems to be peaking at the right time. After winning his first Masters 1000 title (Cincinnati) last summer, the 26-year-old Dimitrov clinched a weekend berth with a crushing victory over Goffin that followed his earlier win over Thiem. On Friday, Dimitrov made quick work of fill-in Pablo Carreño Busta, and lost just two games in each of his last two matches. In his first time at the ATP Finals, Dimitrov has embraced the court, the crowd, the atmosphere and the pressure.
“The first day, as soon as I walked in that arena, it was an unbelievable feeling,” said Dimitrov, during an on-court interview with ESPN’s Darren Cahill after his win Friday. “It’s always been a dream of mine to come out here and perform. I think the first match was key for me. Staying focused and playing my game is what I did.”
Asked if he’s playing his best tennis, Dimitrov smiled at Cahill, then said, “Yeah, indoors!” with a bit of a chuckle in his voice. “I can’t hide it. The past two matches I’ve played really well. The focus was right there. When you have really important moments, you embrace it,” he said.
Dimitrov’s semifinal opponent, Sock, rebounded from his opening loss to Federer to beat both Cilic and Zverev. The 25-year-old Sock, who is still glowing from his Paris Rolex Masters triumph earlier this month that lifted him into the Top 10 with a World No. 9 ranking, owns a 3-1 career head-to-head advantage against Dimitrov. Most recently, Sock beat him in a round of 32 three-setter at the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells last March. There will be a lot of big-time shotmaking on display when they face each other Saturday night.
Meanwhile, following his win on Thursday Federer was asked if he had any regrets about missing out on No. 1. “Regrets, I don’t have any,” he told Sport 360º’s Reem Abulleil. “I’m just happy I’m playing a great season. I’m so happy that I was able to reach this level of play and still being able to play also at the end of the year. It wasn’t just, like, one tournament at the beginning, then nothing after that. So it was just throughout I’ve had a great year.
“I have no regrets because I totally over-exceeded my expectations. Just happy I’m injury-free and healthy right now, enjoying myself still.”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.