ATP Season Finale Opens Without Fans, Just Great Tennis

WASHINGTON/LONDON, November 15, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

The Nitto ATP Finals, the most prestigious men’s tournament outside of the Grand Slams, got underway Sunday at The O2 in London for the 12th and last time. The ATP season finale has journeyed through 14 different host cities since its humble beginnings in Tokyo in 1970. It has included stops in New York, Paris, Barcelona, Melbourne and Stockholm – and next year at this time, it will take place in Milan.

For now, in celebrating 50 years of dramatic and exciting history, London 2020 has brought together the Top Eight singles players and doubles teams under one roof. While there won’t be any foot-stomping, flag-waving fans cheering for their favorites this year, each player and team – all of them elite – is eager to end what has been a most extraordinary season on a positive note.

Thiem wins ATP Finals rematch with Tsitsipas

As rising Greek start Stefanos Tsitsipas walked out on The O2 court for his match against Dominic Thiem in Group London 2020 – in a rematch of the 2019 title final – to begin the week’s singles competition amid bright spotlights, loud music and colorful fanfare, the 2019 Nitto ATP Final champion looked to become the first back-to-back champion since Novak Djokovic in 2014 and 2015. A year ago, in his London debut, Tsitsipas defeated Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev in group play, then beat Roger Federer in the semifinals en route to his title victory over Thiem.

This year, as the No. 6 seed, Tsitsipas is grouped with No. 2 Rafael Nadal, No. 3 Thiem and No. 7 Andrey Rublev. (The other group, which begins play on Monday, has No. 1 Djokovic, No. 4 Medvedev, No. 5 Zverev and No. 8 Diego Schwartzman.) He knows it will be a step-by-step process to successfully defend his title.

“Every year I get to experience being back here in thrilling,” said Tsitsipas, 22, who finished the ATP Tour regular season 26-12 and won one tournament title at Marseille. “It’s like a meeting spot for those that had a good year, just to be back here and celebrate their hard work, their dedication to the sport, and I’m very privileged to be a part of it.”

During his recent pre-tournament meeting with the virtual media covering this year’s Nitto ATP Finals, Tsitsipas commented about the various opponents in his group. He said: “They’re all difficult opponents, there are no easy opponents in this tournament. We elevate tennis, all of us. I think we’re going for a good show.”

Before Sunday, Tsitsipas and Thiem had met seven times with Thiem leading their head-to-head 4-3. The last time they faced each other was in the 2019 London final, won by Tsitsipas 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (4).

However, in their first meeting since last year’s championship match, it was the World No. 3 Thiem who gained a touch of revenge. The Austrian prevailed, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3, in two hours and 17 minutes, thanks to an early service break in the final set – the only break point that Thiem won against World No. 6 Tsitsipas. A key moment came in the third set with on Thiem’s serve, ahead 3-1. He fought through a six-deuce, 18-point game that lasted 11 minutes. He saved a break point along the way and held for a 4-1 advantage.

“That was crazy. I was pretty tight staying in that game,” Thiem said during his post-match interview on court. “I was always serving to get to deuce, saving one break point. I missed five or six opportunities to win that game. In the end, I did it, and it was the last key moment. The match finally went my way.”

Thiem closed out the opening victory on his serve, winning on his second match-point opportunity when Tsitsipas fisted a backhand wide. Appearing in his fifth straight Nitto ATP finals, Thiem improved his London record to 7-8, including 4-3 in decisive-set matches. He served nine aces, won 72 percent (75 of 104) of his service points, hit 37 winners and made 30 unforced errors. Tsitsipas finished with eight aces and hit 30 winners and 26 unforced errors.

Later, in reflecting on his victory over Tsitsipas during his virtual media press conference, Thiem said: “Today was a little bit different [than last year] … only two breaks in the whole match. I think the conditions are pretty fast here, so I am supper happy with me win. Every win against a Top 10 player at the Nitto ATP Finals is something special and every win against Stefanos is something special, because he is such a great player. He is established and has won so many big titles already.”

Meanwhile, Tsitsipas said: “He dealt with my serve better and took time to step back and apply more pressure to me [on] some of the second serves that I had early in the third set. I think that paid off for him.”

In describing the 27-year-old Austrian star, who won this year’s US Open crown as part of a breakout season, Tsitsipas said: “Dominic, we know each other for a long time. We are good friends, on and off the court. He has contributed a lot to my success, and he has inspired me in many ways.”

On Tuesday, Tsitsipas will be back to try his luck, again. He knows it won’t be easy to repeat as champion. After all, just to advance out of his group, he will likely have to beat 20-time Grand Slam champion Nadal, the only player to beat Tsitsipas in his title run last year.

“Rafa is one of the biggest fighters, one of the biggest icons of our sport, and having him in my group is an opportunity to go out on the court and try my best and fight my best against him,” Tsitsipas said. “He’s the favorite, we all know that. He has been more years on the Tour, he has been playing great tennis.

“But I’m younger than him, and I haven’t had that much experience. So, I think playing against him is always an extra opportunity to prove myself, and be out on the court and try to find ways to win.”

Nadal still in search of his first ATP Finals title

Rafael Nadal has qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals a record 16 consecutive years. Yet, the Brad Drewett Cup that is awarded to the champion remains the biggest trophy missing from his vast collection of tennis hardware. The Spaniard, who has been a two-time runner-up, began with a group match Sunday evening against World No. 8 Andrey Rublev, who came to London with a trio of ATP 500 title wins since September. The Nitto ATP Finals represented just the third tournament since the ATP Tour relaunch in August.

When the World No. 2 Nadal was asked to explain how he’s managed to win a record 13 Roland Garros titles and 20 Grand Slams overall but no Nitto ATP Finals crowns, he said: “We can find excuses or reasons but, at the end of the day, the numbers are the numbers.

“I think I played less indoors than on the other surfaces, without a doubt. … The indoor surfaces have not been the ideal surfaces for my tennis game since the beginning of my career.

“I think I am able to play a little better in the past couple of years indoors than I did at the beginning of my tennis career, without a doubt, but [these are] the numbers. I can’t say something different. I hope to change that this week.”

On Sunday evening, Nadal began well against the 23-year-old Russian star and won 6-3, 6-4 in one hour and 18 minutes, putting the match away on his second match point opportunity. Nadal finished with 16 winners against just 11 unforced errors, while Rublev hit 12 winners and committed 13 unforced errors. Nadal, who didn’t face any break points and broke Rublev’s serve twice in five tries, outpointed his opponent 63-49.

Afterward Rublev said: “I was not serving good at all because I was a little bit nervous, which is normal,” Rublev said. “When he broke me in the second set I relaxed and I started to serve much better. Then [it] was [a] different game, but it was too late.”

Nadal arrived in London after recently losing in the semifinal round to Alexander Zverev in the Rolex Paris Masters. “I don’t know how close I am to the perfect preparation,” he said. “I tried to fight hard in every single match in Bercy. That put me in a position that I already played four matches on this surface and hopefully that can help me here … I hope to be ready to accept the challenge to play against such difficult opponents like Rublev in the first [match].”

During his on-court interview after his win, Nadal said: “Having a positive start is good for me. The first match is always tricky. It’s an important victory. … It changes the perspective for the tournament. I know I have a super difficult match against Dominic [on Tuesday]. A victory in two sets [tonight] helps the confidence.”

Doubles begins with two match tiebreaks 

• No. 5 seeds Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Nikola Mektic of Croatia rallied to beat No. 3 seeds Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, both from Germany, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 10-7, in two hours and three minutes, as play began in the Mike Bryan Group.  After splitting the first two sets, a match tiebreak decided the outcome of the opening match in group play for both teams. Koolhof and Mektic outpointed their opponents 85-82.

“In doubles, it always comes down to one or two points,” Koolhof said. “I think we actually played a pretty good match. We were up a break in both sets.” He called the match tiebreak “a rollercoaster.

“We were up and then we were 5-7 down. In the end, we managed to turn it around.”

• In the second match, No. 2 seeds Rajeev Ram of the U.S. and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain defeated No. 8 seeds Lukasz Kubot from Poland and Marcelo Melo from Brazil, 7-5, 3-6, 10-5, in one hour and 43 minutes. Like the first match, this one was decided by a match tiebreak. Kubot and Melo outpointed Ram and Salisbury 71-69.

Looking ahead to Monday

On Monday, Group Tokyo 1970 takes court in singles. World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic will face No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman during the afternoon session. Then, in the evening session, No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev meet for the second time in nine days after facing each other in the Rolex Paris Masters final, won by Medvedev 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.

The Bob Bryan Group doubles gets underway with No. 4 seeds Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos facing No. 6 seeds John Peers and Michael Venus in the afternoon. The evening match pairs No. 1 seeds Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares against No. 7 seeds Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

Around the Nitto ATP Tour Finals