This is the elite eight, the ones who have trained hard, played well, and made sacrifices not just through the last 11 months but for years, to end the season among the top ranks.
Certainly the debutants are almost star-struck by being here and in such company. Many also admit that their main target is invariably making the cut for the ATP Finals.
Stefanos Tsitsipas said after his win over Daniil Medvedev:
“I watched this event when it was first held in London. I used to watch it on TV and dream of potentially playing it. It’s such an important event and pure joy to play here.
“It’s been a long way to come here, so I’m really grateful for the people who really believed in me. It means a lot.”
It is a familiar story. Here was Alexander Zverev after winning the title last year:
“Obviously this is the biggest title of my career so far. This trophy means a lot, everything, to all the players. I mean, you only have so many chances of winning it. You play against the best players only. How I played today, how I won it, for me it’s just amazing.”
Zverev, whose subsequent 12 months did not, perhaps, live up to his hopes or those of his fans, was one of the last to qualify this year after a season disrupted by off-court difficulties and a slide in his confidence and form. The German 22-year-old has won just a single title, in Geneva, though there were signs of the old power and focus returning in a late surge to the Shanghai Masters final.
And in London this year, he opens against top seed Rafael Nadal in a bid for his first win over a world No1 since the final here last year, where he beat Djokovic—having already beaten Roger Federer in the semis.
He said ahead of his campaign:
“As everyone probably knows, I didn’t have the best season, but I’m still top eight in the world and made London. A lot of people would dream of that, so being with these guys is an unbelievable honour and I wanted to come back here and give myself a chance to retain my title.”
Yes, it is a title that is important to every man in the draw—but just maybe, it is more important to Nadal than anyone else. It is, after all, the one big title in tennis that he has so far failed to win.
He has qualified 15 times, but only played eight times after injury halted his long and intense journey to the Finals. And in those visits, he has made the final just twice. This year, his preparation has been rather different, however.
After winning the US Open, Nadal played just one tour event, pulling out after the third round at the Paris Masters, not with his previous hand injury but an abdominal tear. He took time out to get married to his long-term partner, and recharged his batteries. The only question remaining was… had the tear mended enough to let him play—in particular serve—at full strength?
He did have one big advantage over Zverev: a 5-0 head to head, but in their first two meetings, it had been a very close call.
Nadal had one more incentive—as if he needed one. He needed a decent run here to hold on to the year-end No1 ranking, which would be a fifth time for the Spaniard. No pressure then.
Except there was plenty right from the first point against Nadal’s serve, as Zverev showed his determination to attack. The German serve was quickly grooved at well over 140mph, and his forehand was playing havoc, too. He broke in the fifth game, as Nadal seemed unable to control either the pace of his opponent or that of these fast courts.
Unusually, the Spaniard shanked, overhit, found the net, and soon was broken again, 2-5. Zverev served out the set, 6-2, in just over half an hour, and promptly started the second set in a similar vein. He broke, then held for 2-0, a deficit that Nadal could never regain. Indeed the world No1 was unable to work a single break point in the match, constantly on the back foot, it seemed.
It was Zverev who held the reins, and even pulled off a signature Nadal running forehand pass to hold for 65-3, and served out a significant win, 6-4, in under an hour and a half.
Zverev was understandably delighted with his rise in form, and this important win:
“To play here, after winning my biggest title last year, this means everything. This is why—the atmosphere—everybody tries at the start of the season to make London…
“Coming back here to practise last week was amazing, just being out here and in this stadium is something I wanted to do again this year. It was a huge goal.”
Nadal for his part insisted there were no physical problems to explain his less-than-perfect performance:
“No, just Sascha, well played, and me, bad played, honestly. We can find reasons or excuses, but at the end of the day, what all really matters is I need to play much better two days after tomorrow. That’s the only thing.”
So after Tsitisipas overcame a 0-5 head-to-head deficit this afternoon, Zverev did just the same this evening, and looked every inch the defending champion. And if he serves as well come Wednesday evening—he went 30-34 on first serves tonight—he should press Tsitsipas hard.
He will again have to overcome a deficit against the slightly younger man, 1-3. Not that head-to-heads have meant too much in this group thus far. It should be a cracker.
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