The Race to O2 – the elite Nitto ATP World Tour Finals – in London has now concluded, after the ninth and final Masters 1000 event of the season at Paris. It has been the most unexpected year in a decade for men’s tennis. And it will be capped off in the week of November 12-19 at the O2 Arena. Top 8 players of the year will compete in a round-robin format tournament to clinch perhaps the most prestigious non-Slam title of 2017.
The players that have qualified for this event are, for a second year in a row, from 8 different countries. Rafael Nadal (Spain), Roger Federer (Switzerland), Marin Cilic (Croatia), Dominic Thiem (Austria) are former qualifiers, while Alexander Zverev (Germany), David Goffin (Belgium), Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria) and Jack Sock (USA) will be debutants. 25-year-old Sock will be the only non-European in the mix, and the first American to make the cut since Mardy Fish in 2011.
The two groups – the Pete Sampras group and Boris Becker group – of four players each will be announced this week.
Here are FIVE talking points ahead of the NITTO ATP World Tour Finals in London:
No World Number 1
There is a high chance that Nadal, who withdrew before the quarterfinals at the Paris Masters because of a knee-injury again, will not be allowed to play at London by his doctors. Nadal entered Paris needing to win only one match to confirm his fourth season-ending World No. 1 ranking. He won two matches in a tournament that Federer didn’t participate in and withdrew – making it highly unlikely that he will be fit for London. Nadal has never won this Masters event in his whole Singles’ career – the only empty space in a crowded trophy cabinet. Andy Murray won his first last year but didn’t qualify this year after skipping the second half of the season along with Novak Djokovic. If Nadal doesn’t take part, this could mean that Pablo Carreno Busta – who finished a heartbreaking ninth in the race – could take his place as the first alternate. Stan Wawrinka, who qualified in 7th place, has already pulled out of his season early, which means Goffin, Sock and Busta jumped a spot higher.
In perhaps the most stunning ATP story of the year, the 25-year-old American was 24th in the race before the Paris Masters last week. He wasn’t even in the reckoning. But all the stars aligned in the most miraculous way possible – Federer pulled out, Nadal retired, Zverev lost early, as did Del Potro. Suddenly, Sock reached his first ever Masters Final, facing Serb qualifier Filip Krajinovic (77th in the rankings) – making for the most bizarre and unexpected ATP final. Sock won in three sets, jumping into the top 10 for the first time and completing the race standings, one spot ahead of Busta. Sock’s jump was phenomenal, and he became only the second player needing to win a Masters event against all odds to qualify after Jo-Wilfred Tsonga did 10 years ago. Sock also became the first American to win an ATP Masters 1000 title since Andy Roddick won Miami in 2010.
World No. 2 missed last year’s World Tour Finals along with Nadal. This year, they were the first two to qualify, while Murray and Djokovic have missed the tournament. The last time, not one of the ‘Big Four’ qualified for this elite season ender was way back in 2002 – when Lleyton Hewitt won the title. Since then, Federer has won six titles, Djokovic has won five and Murray one. Nadal has reached two finals and lost both. 15 years after Federer first won this title (in Houston, as the Tennis Masters Cup) by defeating Andre Agassi, the 36-year-old enters London as the overwhelming favorite to add to his world-record 6 titles. Nadal might be injured and Zverev is the only one who poses a real challenge to the Swiss – who has won a season’s best and stunning seven ATP Singles titles this year. Nadal has won six titles this year. Out of the nine Masters 1000 events this year, Federer won 3, Nadal 2, Zverev 2, while Dimitrov and Sock have won 1 each. This is the first time Djokovic or Murray hasn’t won an ATP Masters 1000 title since 2006. If Federer wins without losing a match, he will finish only 140 points behind Nadal in the rankings. He might just play an early tournament before the Australian Open in January to see if he can snatch the No. 1 ranking for a few weeks. This will also be Federer’s 15th appearance at the tournament – a record extended ahead of Agassi’s 13.
A Year Of Debutants
Because of injuries to regulars Djokovic, Murray, Nishikori, Wawrinka and Raonic, this is the first time there will be four debutants in the World Tour Finals in more than a decade. It makes for an odd-looking field, but Zverev is the only player not from the Big 4 to win two Masters 1000 titles in years. Sock, Goffin, and Dimitrov will want to make a mark, too. Sock and Dimitrov both became first-time winners of Masters events this year, while Goffin is another player who has always been in the mix but never quite good enough to end the year strongly. Some luck has ensured that he plays his first World Tour Finals. Cilic, Thiem, and Goffin are the players to have made it here without winning a Masters 1000 title this year. Cilic made the Wimbledon Final, Thiem has been consistent on all surfaces, while Goffin has reached the second week of most Slams this year.
Heartbreak For Del Potro
Large-hearted Juan Martin Del Potro gave us some of the moments of the year with yet another comeback and a rivalry for the ages with Federer. He needed to win Basel to stay in the reckoning for London but lost to Federer in the final. He then needed to win Paris to reach the final 8 but lost in the quarterfinals to John Isner. He finished 11th in the standings – effectively 10th – and might just get a spot if two players pull out due to injury. But it won’t be on pure merit. Del Potro did make a late surge, reaching the semifinals of the US Open after defeating Federer, but it was the Swiss that denied him a London spot eventually, after beating him back-to-back in three-setters at Shanghai and Basel.
Prediction: Federer might face one of the four debutants in the final and win it. It’s an indoor fast surface – and there is no better player in the history of the sport in these conditions.