Nitto ATP World Finals Preview: Djokovic within reach of return to the summit
By Paul Newman
Much may depend on Rafael Nadal’s fitness, but the Nitto ATP Finals in London could stage another thrilling year-end finale to decide who will finish the season as world No 1. Two years after Andy Murray secured top place by beating Novak Djokovic in a winner-takes-all showdown in the final at the O2 Arena, a similar finish could again be in prospect.
Nadal and Roger Federer have filled the top two spots in the men’s world rankings for more than a year now, but Djokovic’s remarkable run since the spring could see the 31-year-old Serb return to the summit for the first time for two years.
Djokovic was ranked as low as No 21 in the world going into Wimbledon this summer, but his subsequent triumphs at the All England Club and the US Open, plus his victory at the Cincinnati Masters, took him back into the top three barely two months later. With no ranking points to defend for the rest of the year as a consequence of the six-month break he took at the end of 2017, Djokovic now has a splendid opportunity to add to the 223 weeks he has already spent on top of the world rankings.
While many top players have often struggled to sustain their form in the closing weeks of the season, Djokovic has regularly prospered towards the end of the campaign. He went into this year’s Shanghai Masters seeking his fourth triumph in that tournament – he had also made the semi-finals in his four other appearances there – and has won the Paris Masters four times. Federer was seeking his third victory in Shanghai and has won the Paris title only once. Nadal, meanwhile, has never won either.
The pattern of Nadal’s season in 2018 has been typical of the 32-year-old Spaniard’s career. He puts so much effort into the early part of the year, particularly during the clay-court campaign, that he often struggles to sustain his form and fitness in the latter stages of the season.
This year Nadal won four titles on clay, including his 11th at the French Open, made the last four at Wimbledon and won in Toronto before finally succumbing to knee trouble at the US Open, where he retired hurt after the second set of his semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro. As tennishead went to press, Nadal was hoping to make his return to competition in Paris at the end of October.
Of the 80 titles Nadal has won, the 17-times Grand Slam champion has only ever won four after the US Open: Beijing in 2005 and 2017, Madrid in 2005 and Tokyo in 2010. The Spaniard’s perennially troublesome knees have regularly forced him to curtail his schedule in the latter stages of the season, to the extent that he has qualified for the year-end finals for the last 14 years in a row (including this year) but failed to take part because of injury on five occasions. In 2017 he played only one match at the O2 Arena before withdrawing because of knee trouble.
Djokovic, in contrast, has a superb record in the year-end finale, having won the title five times and been runner-up once. He won it for the first time in China in 2008 and has utterly dominated the tournament in the last six years. Since failing to qualify from his round-robin group in 2011, the Serb has played 25 matches at the tournament and lost just two of them: to Federer in the group stage in 2015, when he went on to beat the Swiss in the final, and to Murray in the 2016 final.
Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras can match Djokovic’s record of five year-end titles, but the only man who can beat it is Federer, who has six. However, the 37-year-old Swiss has not added to his collection since 2011, though he was runner-up to Djokovic in 2012, 2014 and 1015. Since winning his 20th Grand Slam title at the start of this year in Melbourne Federer has suffered a number of disappointments, most notably his quarter-final defeat to Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon and his fourth-round loss to John Millman at the US Open.
While some of the O2 stalwarts of recent years – including Murray, Stan Wawrinka, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych – will be missing this time around, Del Potro will be making a welcome return for the first time since 2013. The 30-year-old Argentinian, who was runner-up to Nikolay Davydenko in 2009, became the fourth player to qualify for the elite eight-man field (after Nadal, Federer and Djokovic) thanks to a series of outstanding performances in the big events this year.
Del Potro reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros, the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, where his defeat to Nadal was one of the matches of the year, and the final of the US Open. He also won his first Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells.
Going into the closing stages of the season Del Potro might even have been considering his chances of becoming the first player outside the “Big Four” to top the world rankings since Federer replaced Andy Roddick at the summit in February 2004. The possibility of Del Potro finishing the year as No 1 is still a long shot, but there would be no more popular player to break the rankings domination of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray than the gentle giant of Tandil.
As for spectators at the O2 Arena, the message will be to enjoy this week-long festival of top-class tennis for as long as possible. The current deal to stage the year-end finals at the O2 Arena expires after 2020. While it has been a huge success in London, which has hosted the tournament since 2009, some within the game think it is time to take the showpiece to another part of the world.
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