Wednesday, December 13The Voice of London

London set to serve up eight of the best

As has become customary since moving to London in 2009, the ATP World Tour Finals is once again coming to town. With the eight best players from 2017 qualifying, it is bound to be another week of showstopping world class tennis.

The 2017 ATP season has been blighted by high profile injuries. Incredibly, all of last year’s season ending top six will miss out this time around, at least in part due to injury.

As well as recovering home favourite and current champion Andy Murray, there will be no Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori or Gaël Monfils at this year’s edition.

But who can we look forward to seeing? With the groups having been drawn, Voice of London Sport take a look at this year’s eight contenders for the prestigious World Tour Finals crown.

Group Pete Sampras:

Rafael Nadal (1)

Despite having never dropped out of the top ten since first entering as an 18 year old back in 2005, Nadal had seen some lean years going into this season. Constant knee troubles and a lack of confidence meant that the Spaniard hadn’t won a single major in 2015 or 2016, but this year, that was to change.

Bringing in Milos Raonic’s former coach Carlos Moya to work alongside his uncle Toni proved to be an inspired move, with Nadal laying down an early marker by getting to the Australian Open final back in January. Since then, Nadal hasn’t looked back, winning six titles this year, including the incredible feats of winning his tenth titles at three separate events back in the clay swing.

Reigning champion now at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, and already guaranteed to finish 2017 as year end world number one, Nadal will be looking to cap off an already remarkable season with World Tour Finals glory. The problem is, despite a dominant 23-15 winning record against old foe Roger Federer, he has lost all four of their meetings this year.

The ten time French Open champion goes into this event with injury concerns, having had to pull out of his Paris Masters quarter final last week with a recurrence of his knee problems.

If Nadal is fully fit, his group match with Grigor Dimitrov is one to look out for, with all three of their matches this year having gone the distance.

World number 1 Rafael Nadal on the way to tenth Barcelona title back in April. Copyright: Étienne Fermie

Dominic Thiem (4)

It’s been a strange year for Dominic Thiem.

If at the start of the year somebody had offered the 24 year old Austrian the world number four spot at this stage, he’d surely have taken it, but in truth it has been an inconsistent season.

After a remarkable clay court swing that saw Thiem become the only man to beat the great Rafael Nadal on the surface this year, and a second consecutive French Open semi final, things quickly began to wilt for Thiem.

Having produced such a stunning performance in his French Open quarter final against Novak Djokovic, so dominant in fact that it lead John McEnroe to accuse the Serb of ‘not trying’ in his television commentary for Eurosport, the question was whether this year, Thiem would be able to take this form onto his lesser suited surfaces.

The answer, unfortunately, was no.

It looked as though Thiem was going to reach his maiden US Open quarter final back in September, when he lead Juan Martin del Potro 6-1, 6-2. The Argentine, however, produced an incredible comeback in what was one of the matches of the year, that unfortunately serves as quite a convenient microcosm of how Thiem’s year has gone, having only won two out of his seven matches since.

This all seems very harsh on a 24 year old world number four, but frustration comes from just how much talent Thiem possesses. Solid off both wings, however it is his stunning single handed backhand that will be something to look out for in London. With nothing expected of the out of form Austrian, maybe next week he can surprise people, especially if Rafa isn’t fully fit when they meet in Group Pete Sampras.

 

Grigor Dimitrov (6)

It’s been a productive year for the 26 year old Bulgarian. Winning his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, defeating Nick Kyrgios in the final was certainly a highlight, as well as beginning his year with an ATP 250 title in Brisbane, and winning a home title in Sofia.

Now up to a career high ranking of world number six, the man formerly dubbed, “Baby Fed” will be looking to try and finally step out of Roger’s considerable shadow.

Another player with a glorious single handed backhand, Dimitrov’s athleticism and guile will get fans off their seats at the O2 as he makes his long overdue debut in the year end showpiece.

The Bulgarian has reasons to be pleased with his draw. Despite losing three tight matches to Nadal this year, if the Spaniard is even slightly off the pace, Dimitrov could easily pounce. As for his other group stage opponents, he will fancy his chances against the out of form Thiem, as well as against David Goffin. He will be pleased to have avoided Federer himself, as well as Alexander Zverev who also boasts a winning head to head against Grigor. Without doubt one to watch.

 

David Goffin (7)

Another 26 year old up to a career high ranking, last year’s alternate will be looking to make an impression this time around.

In 2016, Goffin made his World Tour Finals debut when the injured and already eliminated Gaël Monfils pulled out. Such situations are often difficult and the Belgian was promptly dismissed 6-1, 6-2 by a rampant Novak Djokovic. This year, Goffin will be looking for an improvement.

Given the nasty ankle injury he suffered in his third round match at the French Open that caused him to miss Wimbledon, it is a remarkable achievement for Goffin to have even qualified at all.

Having won titles in Tokyo and Shenzhen it really has been an amazing season for the Belgian, however, having lead his country to the Davis Cup final, victory over France to secure the “World Cup of Tennis” may be more realistic than any prolonged success here in London.

He opens his Tour Finals campaign against Rafael Nadal on Monday night.

They have been the eight best players in 2017, and here is where they have picked up their titles this year. Copyright: Voice of London Sport

 

Group Boris Becker:

Roger Federer (2)

Without the decision to completely skip the clay court season, the Swiss maestro would have had a real shot at being the year end world number one.

Such has been his dominance when he has taken to court however, he was still in the conversation right up until withdrawing from last week’s Paris Masters.

Having taken the decision to rest and recover for the remainder of the 2016 season following Wimbledon, the 36 year old came back completely revitalised, beginning the year with his first Grand Slam title in almost five years as he defeated Rafael Nadal in five unforgettable sets at the Australian Open.

And since, he’s never looked back.

Having won seven titles this year, including his eighth Wimbledon crown, Federer overtook Ivan Lendl on the all time titles list, with Jimmy Connors now the only man to have won more in the open era.

Back in top form with recent titles in Shanghai and Basel, Federer goes into the tournament as the overwhelming favourite. His group matches will see a rematch of this year’s Halle and Montreal finals against young prodigy Alexander Zverev, with each player having won one a piece.

Their matchup feels like a clash of the generations, akin to Federer himself beating the great Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, and Rafael Nadal’s victory over Andre Agassi in Canada back in 2005.

 

Alexander Zverev (3)

 

It’s been an incredible breakout year for the 20 year old German.

Originally expected to be the poster boy for the inaugural Nextgen Finals in Milan, a tournament for the eight best players aged 21 or under, Zverev soon found himself in a position to pull out of that competition when it became clear he was going to qualify for London.

Five ATP titles in 2017 for a man of his age is an incredible feat, but the ambitious young prodigy will firmly have his eyes on one more as London beckons.

Zverev brings no fear into matches, and standing at a gangly six foot six, already has a strong presence from the back of the court. He will be feared.

Despite consistently playing well, and winning Masters 1000 titles in Rome and Montreal, Zverev has disappointed in the Grand Slams, and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the pressure of what would be the biggest title of his blossoming career.

The standout match of Group Boris Becker would appear to be the precocious German vs Roger Federer, but Zverev’s progression could well come down to whether he can beat both Marin Cilic and Jack Sock, with his opener against Cilic on Sunday night likely being of paramount importance to both players.

One thing can be certain from 2017; write this kid off at your peril.

Nextgen star Alexander Zverev facing Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona. Copyright: Étienne Fermie

Marin Čilić (5)

Potentially a little under the radar given his status as a former grand slam champion and 2017 Wimbledon finalist, Marin Čilić will be looking to better his two previous showings at the O2 by this time finally getting out of his group.

There’s been just the one title for the Croat this year, the ATP 250 event in Istanbul, but the man lightheartedly dubbed “The Dictator” by coach Jonas Bjorkman in an interview with The Tennis Podcast earlier this year, will be pleased with achieving his target of entering the world’s top five, even briefly reaching a career high of number four last month.

This a tough draw for Čilić though, as he has a losing record against all three of his group stage opponents. Even taking Federer, the man who beat him in this year’s Wimbledon final out of the equation, he has lost his last three matches in a row against Zverev, and has never beaten Jack Sock.

Taking all of this into account it will take something really special to see Čilić go deep into the tournament, but you can guarantee “The Dictator” will be doing all he can to give himself the best possible chance.

Jack Sock (8)

Quite possibly the most interesting of this year’s eight qualifiers.

As recently as two weeks ago nobody would have given the American a single hope of qualifying for London. But here he is.

Sock is different. He has a unique personality which could liven things up at the O2 this year. And unlike his fellow competitors at the Tour Finals, he has a more obvious weakness. Nobody would consider his two handed backhand good enough, but here he is. Nobody would have considered his overall game good enough, but here he is.

Jack Sock could potentially be the surprise package in London this year, having only qualified through a dream run to the title at the Paris Masters, the final tournament on the ATP calendar. This victory, plus the timely defeats of main contenders Pablo Carreno Busta, Sam Querrey, Kevin Anderson, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo Wilfried Tsonga, as well as fellow outside shots Lucas Pouille and John Isner has given Jack Sock the chance of a lifetime.

These feel like big moments in the career of the American. At the inaugural Laver Cup back in September, his team captain John McEnroe told him on court:

“You’ve got to decide, you’re 25 years old tomorrow, you’ve got to fucking not take no for an answer because you’re with this guy.”

The talent is certainly there, possessing a beautiful forehand, Sock could lighten up this event, but extending his run beyond three group matches will be a tall order for the 25 year old American, either way, it’ll be fun.

 

Words: Étienne Fermie | Additional reporting: Damian Burchardt | Subbing: Kieran Soutter

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