While his fellow 21-and-under players are battling it out at the Next Gen Finals in Milan, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is preparing to make his debut alongside the big guns at the Nitto ATP Finals in London next week, where he shares a group with Roger Federer, Marin Cilic and Jack Sock.
Zverev, along with Sock, and Grigor Dimitrov are all making their first appearance at the top-eight season finale, while Goffin played one match at the O2 in London last year as an alternate but has qualified directly for the first time this season.
Goffin and Dimitrov share a group with world No.1 Rafael Nadal, who is seeking a maiden ATP Finals trophy, and Austrian Dominic Thiem, who will be making a second showing at the event.
The 20-year-old Zverev has had a tremendous 2017 that saw him rise to his current career-high ranking of No.3 in the world. He claimed two Masters 1000 titles in Rome and Montreal, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final of the former, and Federer to win the latter.
Zverev had qualified as the top seed for the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan but opted out in favour of the elite action set to take place in London.
The young German made a special appearance in Milan on Tuesday though, where he played an exhibition with Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Looking ahead to the ATP Finals, Zverev said: “I think playing in that event is kind of like winning a tournament itself already.
“It shows you’ve been playing at a top-10 level the whole year. Obviously that’s great for every player. I think it’s an honour for every player to play there. This is going to be my first time, hopefully not my last, but I’m going to try to prepare myself as best as I can and try to win many matches there.”
Zverev has won five titles this season, from six finals reached, and he is 6-5 win-loss against top-10 opposition in 2017.
When he triumphed in Rome last May, he became the first player born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 crown, and the youngest player to win a tournament at that level since Djokovic in 2007. The victory catapulted Zverev into the top-10 for the first time.
“I think Rome was an amazing tournament for me because it was also on clay,” reflected Zverev, who has won twice as many titles on hard courts than he has on the red dirt.
“On clay beating those kind of guys like Djokovic and other players is even tougher I think, for me it was a very tough match I think.
“So that means even more to me that it was on clay. But winning those Masters events was great, especially in one of them I beat Djokovic in the final and the other one I beat Federer in the final. So that’s something very special I think for everyone.”
There’s no doubt that 2017 has been a breakthrough season for Zverev, but the one glaring stat is his 6-4 win-loss at the Grand Slams this year, where he failed to make a debut quarter-final appearance at any of them.
He doesn’t have many regrets though over his performances at the majors this season.
“In Australia I lost to Nadal in five sets (in the third roud), in Wimbledon I lost to (Milos) Raonic in five sets (in the fourth round), so I didn’t feel like I played a lot of bad matches at the Grand Slams, I just lost to very good players,” he explains.
“The only bad match I felt like I played at a Grand Slam was at the US Open against (Borna) Coric (in the second round). That’s my personal opinion, I thought that as one of the worst matches I played all season but other than I think the opponents were maybe a little bit better than me on that day.”
So far in his young career, Zverev has stepped up on many big occasions and seems unfazed by the pressures that come with being amongst the sport’s elite. But the ATP Finals present a unique challenge for him, and he is well aware he’ll need to be firing from the get-go.
Asked if he was feeling any early butterflies ahead of London, Zverev said: ““I mean it’s Tuesday so it’s still a bit early. But it’s completely different.
“You play one of the best eight players in the world from the first match on. That’s something very special and you have to play your best tennis from the early rounds, which I think a lot of top players, maybe try to play themselves into tournaments, like I did in Washington and Montreal, actually I won both matches 7-6 in the third in the first rounds, and I got better the more I played.
“But this year I think it’s going to be an amazing experience for a lot of the first-timers this year and I’m looking forward to it.”
Nadal is in a race against time to recover from a knee problem that forced him to pull out of his quarter-final at the Paris Masters last week.
His doctor Angel Ruiz Cotorro told Cope radio station on Tuesday that they are doing everything they can to get the Spaniard ready for the Finals and that scans have shown that there was “nothing serious detected in the tendon” of his right knee.
Nadal has missed two of the last three ATP Finals through injury and has never won the event, while Federer is seeking a seventh trophy at the season finale.
The ATP Finals begin on Sunday with Federer’s group taking to the court at the O2, while Nadal’s group commence on Monday.
Before the start of the Next Gen ATP Finals that kicked off in Milan on Tuesday, ATP president and executive chairman Chris Kermode addressed the audience at the draw party on Sunday and made a bold statement.
“Men’s professional tennis is the greatest sports entertainment product in the world,” he proudly said.
That could be debatable but many tennis fans probably agree with him.
The Englishman then began to defend the reasoning behind the newly-introduced 21-and-under tournament, and the set of rules they are testing out in the process.
They are “innovations”, as the ATP are calling them, that have been met with lots of criticism before the event even started.
Those new rules include:
The list is not a short one.
The players who are undergoing this experiment are the top seven in the world rankings, aged 21 and under, plus Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi, who won a tournament to qualify for Milan.
It all came together for the first time on Tuesday at the Rho Fieramilano, where Daniil Medvedev became the first match winner in the history of the Next Gen ATP Finals, by defeating his fellow Russian Karen Khachanov 2-4, 4-3 (6), 4-3 (3), 4-2 in one hour and 50 minutes.
“The reason we are doing this is the traditional tennis viewership is my age and older,” said the 52-year-old Kermode ahead of the action.
“What I want to look at is the next generation of tennis fans who hopefully are the future of watching our sport. And how kids are going to consume sport for the next 10-15 years is very different to how we do now.
“We’re going to test-case a whole new way of playing tennis. This has caused my email inbox to overflow with quite a lot of abuse actually. ‘You’re the guy that’s going to ruin tennis, all the tradition of the game, you’re going to change the sport, it works, why are you messing with the sport?’
“The reason we are trying these things out, is exactly that. We are trying to do things for the future of the sport.”
We got to see how these new rules played out on Tuesday and most of the players sounded keen about seeing some of them, possibly, getting implemented on tour.
Medvedev believes the shot clock and on-court coaching would be good additions.
“I think it was talked a lot about in last years that there is the time violation rule gets stricter on the tour, so I guess the shot clock will be something I think, in my opinion, that will be first added to ATP Tour,” said the 21-year-old Medvedev. “Maybe even soon, I guess. I’m not sure. I’m not the one who makes the rules.”
The world No.65 used the headsets during his match to talk to his coach and he says it would be useful if he could enjoy that privilege year-round.
“It’s actually a little bit strange. I think tennis is maybe only sport to not have coaching, which I see, in my opinion, is not really, not fair, but is not right. I mean, you work with your coach all year long. So why cannot he tell you something during the game?
“So when I put the headphones on me, I didn’t have anything to say about myself. I just wanted to listen to him and what he says. He gave me some advices, and finally I won, so I guess he made a good job.”
It’s unclear if and when any of these rules would make their way to the actual tour but Kermode assures it won’t be imminent.
“So we’re going to try this stuff, if it works, we might implement it on the tour events in three, four, five years down the line. We won’t be making radical changes next year, don’t panic! But I’m really interested in everyone’s feedback,” said the ATP boss.
South Korean Chung Hyeon beat Canadian Denis Shapovalov 1-4, 4-3 (5), 4-3 (4), 4-1 before world No.3 Alexander Zverev – who qualified as the top seed for this event but opted out because he’s playing the ATP World Tour Finals next week – contested an exhibition against Greek alternate Stefanos Tsitsipas.
“This was something I wanted to give back to the fans a little bit and just have some fun,” said the 20-year-old Zverev, who had a breakthrough 2017, winning two Masters 1000 events and qualifying for the year-end top-eight finale in London for the first time.
“But when you try to play seriously and when you will be at a tournament playing semi-finals or finals, most of the rules will be tough to handle. I think the shot clock is a good thing. The Hawk-Eye calling all the lines, I like that, but a lot of the other things I’m not sure are going to happen.”
Zverev jokingly had an on-court coaching chat with his friend, doubles No.1 Marcelo Melo, who was in the stands during the exhibition.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) November 7, 2017
“It was fun to give him some tips, I don’t know if he got it or not but it was fun to be a coach for one day,” Melo told Sport360.
“I think it’s very nice to see that we’re trying different things to improve tennis. I really like the shot clock, I think we should put this on tour. But other things they need to see about the players how they feel it after finishing the tournament, the crowd, the people, and then if you can apply new things, that’s always good.
“We should do it somehow the coaching. I don’t know if this is the best way, could be or not, we need to see with the players as well, and the coaches, but I think the coach should be allowed in one way. I don’t know which one is the best one but in one way it should be allowed.”
There are no line judges at the Next Gen ATP Finals, with Hawk-Eye Live automatically calling all the shots. When a ball lands particularly close to a line, a “Close Call” replay is shown on the big screen.
A replay was mistakenly played after a Khachanov first serve fault which meant the Russian hit his second serve while the “Close Call” was being replayed.
Such kinks will surely be ironed out throughout the week.
A recorded voice calls the outs during the match, based on Hawk-Eye Live and Khachanov made an interesting observation regarding that.
“I think for now live Hawk-Eye is a good thing. Only thing is I would like to hear a different voice,” he said with a smile. “I think it’s better that all umpires record their voices and each match that he played, it’s an umpire that is on the chair. I think it would be better like this.”
The world No.45 feels playing to four games makes the set too short and doesn’t give a player a chance to break back if he lost serve. He suggests playing to five, with a tiebreak at 4-all would be better.
It’s worth noting that none of the first three matches of the day saw a player come back from a break down in the set to go on and win that set.
With so much experimentation going on this tournament, it might be hard for fans to take it seriously. But Khachanov assures the players themselves are all in. While there are no ranking points on the line, the winner in Milan can collect up to $390,000 – that is more than a third of what Khachanov earned all year in 2017.
“I think everybody plays serious here,” he insisted. “We are not playing for something, like, not big, you know. So, okay, we don’t have points but there is prize money, and still, it’s a very prestigious tournament that all of us, we qualified here, to be here and to play. So everybody plays serious.
“And even that we know each other close, we are friends outside, but in the match everybody plays full. So I think with motivation, there is nothing to say. It’s 100 per cent.”
Round robin action resumes on Wednesday with the final taking place on Saturday November 11.
Andy Murray believes he will get back to his best after targeting a new year comeback from a hip injury.
However, the 30-year-old will not rush his body and admitted there was always a doubt following an injury.
The two-time Wimbledon champion has not played competitively since labouring his way through this year’s tournament at SW19 and limping out at the quarter-final stage to Sam Querrey.
However, the Scot hopes to be fit for the season kick-off with an appearance at the Brisbane International, which starts on December 31.
And he intends to get back to challenging for major honours, although he conceded the Australian Open might be an ambitious quest.
Ahead of an exhibition match against Roger Federer at his Andy Murray Live charity event in Glasgow, he was asked whether he could get back to 100 per cent fitness.
Murray said: “You never know when you’re coming back from any injury, but that’s what I’m working towards, for sure. We have to see, but I believe that will be the case.
“When I get back on the court next year and start playing again, it might not come immediately at the beginning of the year.
“I have been hitting the ball very well in practice – it’s just that there is a difference between that 75-80 per cent practice and going flat out at 100 per cent for two and a half or three hours on the match court. Until I do that I can’t say for certain, but I think I’ll be able to come back just fine.”
Murray plans on getting to Australia early to acclimatise in a bid to offset his lack of sharpness, but he will not feel compelled to play if he is not totally fit.
“Things have been going pretty well so far in the rehab, but you just never know,” said Murray, whose medical team chose rest and recovery instead of surgery.
“I’ve been training for a few weeks now. Some days I’ve felt great and some days not so good.
“But I will come back when I’m ready and when I’m 100 per cent fit. I probably made a bit of a mistake trying to get ready for the US Open but it was the last major of the year and I wanted to give it a go.
“And now it’s time to give my body the rest and recovery it needs. I’ll come back when I’m ready.”
Federer had reinforced that message moments earlier. The 36-year-old had a similar lay-off last year after struggling with knee problems and came back rejuvenated, winning his first Grand Slam event for five years at Wimbledon and following it up with a US Open triumph.
He told Murray: “Take your time, however long it takes. When you come back you want to be at 100 per cent, otherwise the problem is you feel you just can’t beat the best at the big tournaments, so it’s wise and worthwhile to take the extra week, extra month maybe.
“I’m sure Andy is going to have a lot of years left, so he shouldn’t hurry, but as a professional athlete you always want to come back as quick as possible.
“You need to have goals but sometimes they need to be postponed.”