It is somehow fitting that a tennis year marked by chaos and disruption will end next week in an empty stadium at a tournament which over the previous 11 years had welcomed nearly three million spectators. The season-ending Nitto ATP Finals have been a spectacular success ever since they were first staged at the O2 Arena in 2009, but the tournament’s last edition in London before next year’s move to Turin will be played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus lockdown.
The eight-man line-up, which brings together the year’s most successful players, will feature neither Roger Federer nor Andy Murray for the first time since the tournament came to Britain. The year-end world No 1 ranking is also not at stake for once – Novak Djokovic is already assured of that prize – but there are plenty of other reasons why the eyes of the tennis world will be focused on the Greenwich Peninsula from Sunday as the tournament celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Djokovic will be aiming to win the title for the sixth time, which would equal Federer’s all-time record, Rafael Nadal will be trying to fill the biggest gap in his trophy cupboard and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be seeking to defend the crown he won in such spectacular fashion 12 months ago.
“This is like a meeting point for people who have had a good year to celebrate their hard work and their dedication to the sport,” Tsitsipas said at the O2 Arena on Friday. “I’m very privileged to be part of it. I know it’s not easy to be in this position and I’ve really worked hard for it. There were plenty of nights when I could not sleep and I was worried and stressed and had lots of sweats. I’m grateful that I get to be among these players with the chance to defend my title.”
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Nadal and Tsitsipas are joined in their round-robin group by the US Open champion, Dominic Thiem, and the debutant Andrey Rublev, whose tally of five singles titles this year is more than any other player on the ATP tour. Djokovic heads a group that also includes Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, who have been the most successful players on the curtailed indoor circuit this autumn, and another first-timer in Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman.
Djokovic, who was defaulted from the US Open in September after accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball and then lost to Nadal in a one-sided French Open final, sees this as a chance to “end the season in the best possible way”.
He explained: “For sure coming into the tournament knowing that I have clinched the year-end No 1 ranking releases some of the pressure, but at the same time it doesn’t change what I hope to achieve in this tournament and why I’m here. I want this trophy as much as anybody.”
Nadal is the only player who has qualified for all 12 editions of the event in London, though injury prevented him from taking up his place on four occasions. Nevertheless, of the 86 titles the Spaniard has won in his career, only two have been in indoor tournaments. He has lost twice in the London final, to Federer in 2010 and to Djokovic in 2013.
“Indoors has not been an ideal surface for my tennis since the beginning of my career, though the last couple of years have been better,” Nadal said. “But those are the numbers and I can’t say anything different. I just hope to change that next week.”
Thiem believes the tournament is wide open. “Everybody who is here is in good form,” he said. “Everybody is healthy as well, because the season was not too long. I think it all depends on the day this year. The guy who has the better day is going to win and the guy who has the most good days is going to end up winning the tournament.”
Zverev, who won this title two years ago, reached his first Grand Slam final at the US Open in September and has had a highly successful indoor season, winning successive tournaments in Cologne and then finishing runner-up to Medvedev in Paris. However, the German was asked on Friday if he felt his image had been tarnished in recent days by allegations of domestic violence made by a former girlfriend, Olga Sharypova.
“It makes me sad the impact that such false accusations can have on the sport, on the outside word, on myself as well,” Zverev said. “These accusations are just unfounded and untrue. We had our ups and downs, but the way our relationship is described in the public is not how it was. That’s not who I am, that’s not how I was raised by my parents.”
The only British competitor at the O2 Arena will be Joe Salisbury, who will be taking part in the doubles with his American partner, Rajeev Ram. With eight doubles teams in the field, Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski just missed out, finishing as the year’s ninth best pair.
As with most events that have gone ahead since the resumption of competition in August, the players are holed up in a hotel and have to spend all their time either there or at the tournament venue.
“We cannot even walk from the hotel, which is 200 metres away, but we are very lucky to be able to keep playing our sport,” Nadal said. “I cannot be negative. I say thanks to the ATP, thanks to the tournaments, thanks to the Grand Slams for making these events happen. I think these are very challenging conditions of course, especially playing with no crowd in this amazing stadium. It’s something that is not perfect, but we can play tennis so we cannot complain at all. We are very lucky.”
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