There will be eight men contesting the Nitto ATP Finals, which start on Sunday at London’s O2 Arena. But the bookmakers’ odds suggest that only the top two seeds – Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – have a realistic shot at lifting the title.
These are arguably the two best indoor players in history and they have an extraordinary record at the season finale, winning 11 of the past 15 events between them. No wonder Federer stated on Friday that he would like to see the tournament stay in London beyond the end of its present deal, which stretches to 2020.
“If the O2’s happy and the crowd keep flocking and coming to this venue and the tour has a good deal, why not stay here?” said Federer. “It’s been a winning formula. I’ve enjoyed playing in a city that knows tennis very well. It’s been a good place for us players to showcase our talents.”
We heard a different argument, not for the first time, from Djokovic. Newly returned to the world No 1 spot, he repeated his theory that the event – which has been held in 14 different cities since the inaugural edition in 1970 – should not settle in one place for too long.
“I feel like maybe 10 years in one place is a bit too much,” said Djokovic. “Not because of London, not because of anything to do with this event. I personally have had phenomenal success and I should be the last one talking about moving it anywhere. But at the same time, I feel that the general idea of this event is that it travels more.”
While Rafael Nadal has been ruled out of this tournament for the seventh time, having undergone minor ankle surgery last week, both his leading rivals looked surprisingly fresh for this late stage of the season. But then, neither of them has played a full schedule. Federer participated in 12 events in 2018, Djokovic in 15, and they each came away with four titles. In Federer’s case, this carried him to the tantalising total of 99.
“The 100 happens when it does,” said Federer, with the beatific air of a man who has already ticked off his life goals. “I hope it happens sooner rather than later, but I’m happy to wait as well. I think if I won here it would be more about winning the World Tour Finals and not about winning my 100th.”
The betting experts have Djokovic as odds-on favourite at 4-6, with Federer next at 11-4. Then there is a precipitous drop to Alexander Zverev – who is comfortably the youngest man in the field at 21 – and Marin Cilic at 16-1 apiece.
The more charismatic option would be Zverev, who made the most of his appearance in the interview room on Friday as he heckled his contemporaries, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe, for their excessive use of towels.
Zverev had been asked for his response to the towel rail that has been provided at this week’s Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan – a direct consequence, one suspects, of Fernando Verdasco’s ugly scolding of a ball boy who was slow to pass on his towel in Shanghai at the end of September.
Asked about the experimental reform, Zverev replied: “I think it would prevent players from taking the towel after every double fault, mis-hit return, because sometimes it gets a little ridiculous in my eyes. I mean, Tiafoe takes the towel after every point and Tsitsipas takes the towel after an ace or double fault.”
Nadal’s injuries (which also include an abdominal issue) have caused the cancellation of the potentially embarrassing exhibition match that he was due to play against Djokovic in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Dec 22.