Djokovic, Nadal and rising stars: 5 things to know about tennis’ ATP Finals

Greece’s Stefanos Tsistipas is the defending champion at the men’s season-ending event, set to take place in London’s O2 Arena without fans. Here’s what to watch for.

By Nick McCarvel

Will the ATP Finals have a different champion for a sixth consecutive year?

Not since 1974-79 has the men’s season-ending championships in tennis had such a carousel of winners, but when the tennis gets underway on Sunday inside an empty O2 Arena in London, it’s a very real possibility.

Namely because Rafael Nadal, the Olympic gold medallist and 20-time major champion, has yet to hoist this trophy in his career, nor has current US Open champ Dominic Thiem (last year’s runner-up), as well as in-form up-and-comers Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev.

No fans will be on site due to strict COVID protocols in England, but world No.1 and five-time champ Novak Djokovic will be, the London 2012 bronze medallist seeking his own sixth title, already having wrapped up a record-equalling sixth year-end No.1 ranking.

The tournament is a round-robin event, meaning each of the eight singles players (and doubles teams) will play three matches in group play before the top four performers (two in each group) move on to the semi-finals.

Nadal, Thiem, Rublev and defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas have been drawn in the “London 2020” group, named for the tournament’s 50th anniversary. Djokovic leads the “Tokyo 1970” group, along with Medvedev, Diego Schwartzman and 2018 winner here Alexander Zverev.

US Open winners Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares lead the doubles, while Germany’s Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, the French Open champs, are the lone single-nation team, making them one of the early favourites for Tokyo 2020.

Here are five things to know about the event, which begins on Sunday 15th November will conclude with the singles and doubles finals on Sunday 22nd November.

Djokovic’s London domination: Can it continue?

Djokovic, who won his 17th major at the Australian Open earlier this year, has been outstanding at this event, the indoor facility and quick courts playing to his advantage. He won his first Finals in Shanghai in 2008, then emerged victorious in London in four straight years, 2012-15.

He’s never lost a set in those five final wins, though he has a 36-14 overall record at the event, and lost in the 2018 final to Zverev. In 2019, Djokovic went 1-2 in group play, failing to advance to the semis. He beat Matteo Berrettini, but then had losses to Thiem and Roger Federer, who is out this year with a knee injury.

2020 has been a roller coaster for Djokovic, who was undefeated in the year going into his fourth round match at the US Open. It was there that he was disqualified for hitting a linesperson with an errant ball. He made the French Open final, but was subdued by the King of Clay, Nadal, there.

In total, the Serbian is 39-3 on the season.

Nadal aims to end season on a high

The Spaniard lost to Federer in the 2010 final here as well as Djokovic in 2013, part of his 18-14 career record at the event. While he’s won Slams on all surfaces, Nadal doesn’t excel particularly well in an indoor setting: He’s also never won the Paris Masters, where he was a semi-finalist last week.

But the Beijing 2008 Olympic singles gold medallist and Rio 2016 doubles champ (with Marc Lopez) still likes his chances coming off his Roland Garros triumph last month. He’s into the event for a 16th consecutive season.

“I am doing well on all the important things,” he said last week after his Paris Masters loss, according to the ATP. “I hope to be ready for it.”

He told reporters ahead of the event this week that he's aware of his challenges indoors: "We can find excuses or reasons, but at the end of the day the numbers are the numbers," he said, according to Tennis Now. "The indoor surfaces have not been ideal for my tennis game... I hope to change that this week. I'm going to keep trying my best (and) I hope to give myself chances."

Group London: Tsitsipas, Thiem look to emulate 2019

While Nadal secured the year-end No.1 ranking last year at this event with a thrilling round-robin win over Tsitsipas, the Greek player had already qualified for the semi-finals, and would score wins over Federer and Thiem to win the biggest title of his career.

Tsitsipas, still the youngest in the field at 22, did not have a Slam breakthrough like Thiem this season, but has compiled a 28-12 record, most recently buoyed by his run to the French semis, where he lost in five dramatic sets to Djokovic. The Greek star told reporters that he is still struggling with a leg injury held over from the last couple of months, but that he's: "Very close to 100 percent... I'm happy that I'm able to move more freely and (be) less conscious of my pain. It's positive feedback."

He and Thiem join Nadal and Rublev in Group London, Rublev winning a leading five titles this season, even with the tour on hiatus from March to August due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Thiem, after his US Open win in September, lost to Schwartzman in the French Open final eight and Rublev in Vienna. He should arrive in London with a full tank of gas.

Group Tokyo: Djokovic vs. the field

With his past success at this event, Djokovic will look to escape group play with an unblemished record, though Zverev and Medvedev have wins against him in their respective careers - and Shwartzman has come close.

While Zverev has qualified for a fourth consecutive year, Medvedev will look to sink his teeth into the event having gone 0-3 here last year, visibly tired from a successful final few months of the 2019 season. Schwartzman, the barely-five-foot-seven (170cm) Argentine, could make a splash: The never-say-die baseliner plays every point like it’s his last and is 12-3 over the last two months.

Djokovic is into the Finals for a 13th time and looks to tie Federer with a record sixth title here.

Federer is absent but training ‘going as planned’

Speaking of the Swiss maestro, Federer, the 2008 Beijing doubles gold medallist (alongside countryman Stan Wawrinka) and 2012 silver medallist in the singles (lost to Andy Murray), has been out since February with a knee injury that he later had surgery for.

“Things are going in the best way,” Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic, told last week. “He is in the recovery phase.”

“He trains more and more and better and better,” Ljubicic said, adding: “I’m curious to see how much we will be able to push in the coming months. There is a lot of confidence.”

Federer is next scheduled to play the Australian Open, set for January in Melbourne.

Federer also posted to his Instagram account last week with the simple caption: “Back to work.”