The grandest event in the ATP’s calendar, the year-end finale between the best eight players on the Tour, had hit its 50th edition. And this was its 11th playing at the O2 in London, the penultimate year of its residency here.
And the two men kicking off the singles side of the event, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, were among the most prolific champions in the tournament’s history. Djokovic had five trophies from seven finals—matched only by greats Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras—while Federer had a record six from a record 10 finals.
That they were drawn into the same group only added to the intrigue. For while Federer had been top dog at the event since his first appearance in 2002—he would win it the next year—Djokovic had gained the edge against one of his greatest rivals. He won both finals that they had played here (a third was a walkover due to a Federer of back injury). And he had won five of their last six matches, including a dramatic five-set Wimbledon final in July, from two match-points down.
There were other significant numbers this year, though.
For the first time, eight Europeans from eight different countries were in the field.
For the first time in almost two decades, there were three year-end No1s in the field—Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal.
For the first time in 15 years, the top five players had all won at least four titles during the season: Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Federer, Daniil Medvedev and Nadal.
And for the first time in a decade, there were four under-23s in the line-up, three of them debutants: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, and Medvedev.
But overarching this scene, another big battle was ready to play during this week, that of the end-of-year No1. Nadal had nabbed the top place the week before this tournament began, unseating Djokovic after a year at the top. But the end-of-year No1 was still in play this week—as long as Djokovic reached the final. And the Serb would need to win the title if Nadal came through his round-robin matches in assorted other scenarios.
But any showdown with Nadal would have to wait. Djokovic not only had to contend first with Federer, he had to play two other hopefuls in the group.
Thiem’s outstanding 2019 included wins over both the Serb and the Swiss—and Federer would have to face the Austrian star in the evening match.
For Djokovic, it was Berrettini, in a first-time meeting. And what a time to do it—in the first singles match of the 2019 event.
Two titles from three finals this year had catapulted the Italian into the limelight, helped not a little by a semi finish at the US Open and the Shanghai Masters. But Djokovic, with the experience of 35 match-wins in this event, had won two Majors and two Masters this year—the odds were weighed heavily in the Serb’s favour.
And so it turned out. Djokovic took little time in breaking in the first set, 4-2, and broke again to seal it in just 30 minutes, 6-2. And with his serve performing so well, his defence in a superb court-sliding groove, and scarcely an error on the board—he had eight compared with 27 by Berrettini as the Serb broke for a third time to lead 5-1 in the second—there was only one outcome.
When the former champion threw in a drop-shot as he served for the match, all the Italian could do was smile. It would be a statement win lasting just 63 minutes, 6-1, 58 points to 30.
Federer’s opener promised to be a much closer affair. For a start, Thiem had a 4-2 advantage in previous matches against the 38-year-old Swiss, including both meetings this year. However, both those matches, in the Indian Wells final and Madrid quarter-final, went the distance, both over two hours’ duration.
Federer’s last win, however, was right here, in the same round-robin stage. Could he do the same again? The answer would come much later.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge