When Roger Federer claimed his 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne in January, the Swiss looked set for another year of dominance alongside the untiring Rafa Nadal. While the Spaniard subsequently prevailed at the French Open, we’ve since seen Novak Djokovic rise from the ashes to reclaim the world number one spot. The Serbian roared back to his best at Wimbledon, claiming his 13th Slam title, before following this up with another major triumph at Flushing Meadows in September. This has set the scene for a thrilling end of season event at the ATP Finals in London, even though Nadal has since pulled out in order to undergo ankle surgery.
We’ll review the ATP Finals below, while asking which players are likely to be the key contenders in London this weekend.
Starting at the Top – Novak vs. Roger
In many ways, Djokovic’s renaissance can be traced back to his SW19 semi-final against Nadal, when he prevailed in a five-set epic after grinding out wins during the first week of the tournament.
The Serbian achieved an incredibly high level during this win, which was then maintained throughout a hard court season, where we saw Djokovic become the first man to complete a career sweep of all nine Masters 1000 Series titles at the Cincinnati Masters.
Djokovic then claimed his third U.S Open win and 14th major title overall, before adding his fourth Shanghai Masters title in October. Although his winning run came to an end with a surprise defeat to Karen Khachanov in the Paris Masters final, Djokovic has reclaimed the world number one spot and will start as the clear favourite at the ATP Finals.
Still just 31, the Serbian has also recorded a couple of high profile wins against Federer in the second half of the year, and will fancy his chances of winning a sixth end of year title. However, he faces a tough group stage challenge against players like Alexander Zverev and Marin Cilic, so he’ll need to be at his best from the very beginning in London.
The world number three Federer has also enjoyed a relatively prosperous 2018, having started the year with a bang by winning his sixth Australian Open. Now 37, he has added three 500 Series titles and won his 99th career honour in Basel.
Still, his form and fitness have faltered in recent months, while he last won the ATP finals back in 2011. Since then, he has recorded two showpiece defeats to Djokovic (2014 and 2015), and it’s hard to see him maintaining a consistent enough level to overcome his rival this time around.
His desire to land a 100th ATP title remains strong and we must remember that few can live with the Swiss maestro when he’s at his absolute best.
Beyond the Top Two – Who are the Other Contenders at the ATP Finals?
We’ve already touched on the challenging nature of Djokovic’s group, with world number five Zverev having established himself as one of the most consistent players on the tour.
While the talented German has failed to translate this form on the Grand Slam stage, he has landed a number of prominent titles in 2018 (including an eye-catching win at the Madrid Open in May) and will fancy his chances of progressing beyond the round-robin stage of the finals for the first time.
At 21, he definitely has time on his side and now would be the ideal time for the youngster to deliver on the biggest of stages.
At the other end of the spectrum is South African Kevin Anderson, who has enjoyed the best 12 months of his entire career at the tender age of 32. Now ranked sixth in the world, he has reached two Grand Slam finals during this time (this year’s Wimbledon and the 2017 U.S. Open), while his consistent serve and powerful groundstrokes are tailor made for the indoor surface at the O2 Arena.
Having also won his maiden ATP 500 title in Vienna earlier this year, he’ll relish the opportunity to play in London and will definitely pose a threat to Federer in the group stage. However, he has fallen short in his two major finals to date, having ran out of stream against the Djokovic at SW19 and lost in straight sets to Nadal in New York last year.
Similar big-hitters Cilic and John Isner may also fancy their chances in London, with the latter making his maiden ATP finals appearance having benefited directly from Nadal’s unexpected withdrawal.
For Cilic to prevail, however, the world number six will have to overcome a recent trough in form; despite qualifying for London for the fourth consecutive year he has only managed to win a single title in 2018 (at Queen’s Club). He also suffered successive early exits in Tokyo, Shanghai and Basle, and will have to raise his game considerably here.
The Last Word
The absence of Nadal appears to have paved the way for a Djokovic and Federer final in London, particularly with fellow contenders like Zverev and Anderson yet to prove themselves on the biggest of stages.
So while this years’ finals are sure to be close and keenly contested, it’s hard to look beyond the dominant Djokovic and the perennially competitive Federer when searching for the eventual winner.