And certainly there were those among the quartet of 23-and-unders in this year’s line-up of the elite eight in tennis who were threatening to challenge the triumvirate of the top three seeds.
And make no mistake, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have dominated the scene since the now 38-year-old Swiss Federer first topped the ranks more than 15 years ago. They are, between them, the most profligate Major champions, Masters champions and ATP Finals champions, and only Andy Murray has broken their stranglehold on the No1 ranking for a 40-week stretch in 2017.
But in the last couple of years, some fresh names have stolen some of those Masters titles, the likes of Alexander Zverev, with three of them, and Daniil Medvedev, who won two of the last three. Karen Khachanov won his first last year, and the slightly older Dominic Thiem won his first in Indian Wells this year.
After a decade during which Federer, Djokovic and Nadal almost exclusively controlled finals day at the O2, the last two years have also seen something of a sea-change, first with victory by Grigor Dimitrov, and last year Zverev.
And while the last dozen Majors have remained in the grip of ‘the three’, some of those younger men have even had the temerity to steal a runner-up spot: Thiem twice, and Medvedev in New York this September.
So the gauntlet has been thrown down with increasing frequency, but which of the London hopefuls was the most likely to succeed?
The first to really step up was defending champion Zverev, with his three titles from six Masters finals. This year, he had, perhaps, the toughest hurdle of his contemporaries in taking on Nadal in his opener on Monday evening with a 0-5 head-to-head. However, he did count two wins over Djokovic and four over Federer in his resume.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the youngest of the stars to take on Nadal in the round-robins, made his first Major semi in January, and could claim two Masters finals and two Masters semis—and he had scored wins over Federer, Djokovic and Nadal this season.
And while the young Greek also had a winning record against Zverev, he had never beaten his first opponent here, Medvedev. It was a 0-5 deficit that he hoped to change here, as he told Greek journalist, Vicky Georgatou:
“I’ve played him five times and haven’t found solutions yet. He plays good tennis and has good thinking… is fast and has a great serve that’s hard to break…I may beat him, I may not, but there will be more chances.”
For arguably, the 23-year-old Russian was the current leader of the pack. He reached a career-high No4 courtesy of the Cincinnati and Shanghai Masters titles, having also reached that first Major final at the US Open—which was one of six straight finals that ended in victory in Shanghai.
He was on a 29-4 run since Wimbledon, and while he was yet to beat Nadal or Federer, but he had beaten Djokovic in their last two matches. And he led Djokovic in match-wins this year, with 59, but had to pull out of Moscow and Vienna with fatigue. Would that play its part now?
The first set would certainly test the proposition, almost an hour of intense competition that produced just one break chance, to Tsitsipas in the third game.
They would head to a tie-break, but the Greek was serving the better—by this stage, he had dropped not a point in 20 first serves, and made 10 points at the net. Medvedev was making precious few errors, firing his flat drives from behind the baseline, working the angles, both wings, but he could make few inroads.
The tie-break was just as tight, first Tsitsipas with a point or two lead, now Medvedev levelling, but at 5-5, the Greek beat the Russian at his own game in a long baseline rally, and served out the set, 7-6(5).
The second set was more of the same, initially at least, but Tsitsipas had the greater energy in his shots, able to go toe-to-toe at the baseline but also able to chase down drops and force the issue at the net: He would make 9/9 there in the second set.
And having survived a tough hold in the sixth game, he worked a break chance in the seventh. He could not convert, but did so at 4-4 after Medvedev left a ball, only to see it land in.
So in his signature flamboyant style, Tstisipas chased to the net to work match point, clenched his fists at his box, and served out the win, 6-4, after an hour and three-quarters.
This is a significant win for the youngest man in the draw, the man who, only a year ago, won the NextGen title in Milan. As well as having wins over the ‘big three’, he now has wins against his two chief contemporary rivals here.
No wonder he was so thrilled:
“It’s one of the most important victories in my career so far. I gave myself a big boost today, kept believing, kept fighting. It’s such a relief. It’s not easy coming in knowing you’ve lost five times before, but I made a deal with myself that I’ll keep trying until I get it. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10, 20 times.
“This victory means a lot to me and this crowd means a lot to me. So much love, so much support, Greek flags everywhere. It almost feels like I’m playing in Athens.”
He has certainly been taken to the London fans’ hearts. Will it remain the same when he faces Nadal? Zverev will get a taste of what that is like in Monday’s evening match
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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