There aren’t that many tournaments Rafael Nadal has failed to win throughout his long career and the ATP Finals is one of them.
But as he broaches the subject of his drought at a tournament he has contested on seven previous occasions, Nadal is quick to highlight a particular fact.
“Yes it’s always on my mind (that I haven’t won here before), it’s true, but at the same time it’s always on my mind that in the 13 years that I’ve qualified I’ve never played on a different surface than this one,” the world No.1 smiles as he addressed reporters at the O2 Arena in London on Friday.
Since 2005, the ATP Finals have been staged on indoor hard courts – a surface Nadal favours the least.
The Spaniard, who has enjoyed success on all surfaces but is undoubtedly the most comfortable on clay, has long discussed the fact that the season finale should be hosted in different cities on other surfaces.
But London has been such a smash hit financially that it has held onto the event since 2009, with the contract now extended until 2020.
It looks like Nadal will never play this event on his beloved clay.
Starting Sunday, the 31-year-old Nadal headlines a field that includes Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Jack Sock.
The top seed has been racing against time to recover from a right knee injury that forced him to withdraw from his Paris Masters quarter-final last week and while he gave no guarantees on Friday, he said he had every intention to take to the court this Monday for his opening clash against Belgium’s Goffin.
“Here I am trying my best, that’s all I can say now. I hope, and if I don’t believe that I can be ready for Monday, I would not be here. We are working every day, practicing a lot and just trying to be ready for the action,” said the 16-time Grand Slam champion.
“I’m going to play, today the thing that I can say is that I’m going to play, that’s my feeling today. But what can happen in a couple of days I cannot predict what’s going to happen. But my feeling now is that I’m here to play and I’m going to try my best to give me chances to play this event.”
If all goes well and Nadal does indeed play in London, fans will given a mouth-watering prospect of a potential showdown with second-seeded Federer, who is targeting a seventh ATP Finals trophy.
While Nadal has long dominated their head-to-head; this year, Federer got the better of him in all four of their meetings.
Would victory over Federer to close out the season give Nadal a confidence boost?
“No, I don’t need to beat Roger to get confidence. I won enough to be enough confident,” says Nadal, a winner of six titles in 2017, including two Grand Slams.
“If I play against him here it would be great, to finish the year playing against him again, and to give me another chance, so that’s it.”
Nadal then notes that all of those four defeats he suffered to Federer this year came on hard courts.
“We cannot forget that we played all the times on surfaces that he likes more than me. Just accept that and just to find different ways to reach the match and if that happens, and I’m healthy enough, I know I’ll have my chances,” added the Mallorcan.
Rafa is asked if he was scared at some point that Federer would take the No.1 ranking from him. Dimitrov interrupts on his way out of the room: “Rafa is fearless!” 😂
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) November 10, 2017
Federer, who headlines Group Boris Becker, begins his campaign on Sunday against tournament debutant Sock, with Marin Cilic facing Alexander Zverev.
Group Pete Sampras kicks off on Monday with Thiem taking on Dimitrov before Nadal opens against Goffin.
Next Gen ATP Finals top seed Andrey Rublev believes some of the new rules being tested out at the 21-and-under tournament in Milan are making the game “unfair”, the Russian said on Thursday after booking himself a spot in the semi-finals.
The inaugural event in Milan is experimenting with some changes this week, where the sets end at four games, not six, with no ad-scoring, no lets on serve, best-of-five format, a shot clock on the court to countdown 25 seconds between points, on-court coaching via headsets, stats available to the players via tablets between sets, Hawk-Eye Live replacing all line judges, and free movement for fans on the sidelines during play.
Rublev, who beat Canadian Denis Shapovalov 4-1, 3-4(8), 4-3(2), 0-4, 4-3(3) in a two-hour battle on Thursday, has his reservations regarding some of the new rules.
“When they put some rules that doesn’t change game of tennis, it’s okay. But I don’t like when they try to change the game, because with these rules still four games, with no ad-scoring, they changing the game,” said the 20-year-old Rublev, who is currently ranked No.37 in the world.
“With these rules, everyone can beat everyone, and in my opinion is a little bit not fair, because in my opinion the winner have to be the guy who is working harder than everybody.
“Suddenly with these rules, the guy who is not doing right things, maybe he is not professional and he have easy chances to win, to compete with all the players and to win the tournaments, and I think this is not fair.”
Asked to elaborate on which rules in particular he deems unfair, he said: “The game rule, the sets, still four games, all that inside the game. You understand what I mean? Outside this, I don’t know, net — I mean, this Hawk-Eye system or clock time doesn’t changing the game.
“But all the rest with the rules exactly for the games, points, this is what is changing the game.”
Not all players share Rublev’s views. American Jared Donaldson says the determining factor for making any permanent rules changes to the game should be the tennis fans who are consuming the product.
“I don’t really think it matters my opinion. I think it depends what the fans want,” said Donaldson, who lost all three of his group matches to exit the tournament.
“So if the fans want to see tennis played with these rules, then I think that tennis should be played under these rules, if they don’t, then I don’t think they should change the rules.
“I think every rule has a purpose, and depending on what that’s trying to accomplish is either a good thing, is a good thing; if there’s a problem in the sport then there’s got to be a rule that could fix it.
“If there’s any problems that the ATP thinks arises or the fans think they need to be addresses I think there are rules that will fix that.”
— Colette Lewis (@zootennis) November 9, 2017
In the semi-finals, Rublev will face Croatian Borna Coric, who is undefeated so far this week, while Chung Hyeon – who is also unbeaten – squares off against Russian Daniil Medvedev.
While no ranking points are up for grabs at this event, a large sum of money is on offer with the champion potentially walking away with $390,000.
“I think of course for the players it’s also important, because here is the big money, especially for our age and of course everybody is motivated, because not many players could win this money just in one event,” admits Rublev.
“And of course everybody is also fighting for this, and it’s normal.”
Chung has been on a roll in Milan having taken down Rublev, Shapovalov and Italian wildcard Gianluigi Quinzi, who had defeated the South Korean in the Wimbledon junior final in 2013.
“I don’t know why I’m playing good in here. Just I’m trying to enjoy on the court and trying to play my 100 per cent all the time,” said Chung. “I think I’m just playing better and better every day.”
Of all the rules, the bespectacled Chung singles out the shot clock as one he’d like to see on tour, and he has a specific reason for that.
“I like shot clock, because sometimes I got warning because I have to clean my glasses, so I got the warning all the time in long match. So I like the shot clock.”
The world No.54, whose English has improved dramatically over the past two years, allowing him to confidently communicate with his peers and the press, says he’s got plenty to be proud of this season.
“I have a really good many thing in this year so far. I have first reach in third round in Grand Slam. I play Kei (Nishikori) in the Grand Slam (lost in five in Roland Garros third round). And first semis in ATP Tour 250 (in Munich) and I got the new highest ranking in here. I have good memories on this year,” said the 21-year-old.
Jared Donaldson did not get the season finale he had hoped for as he leaves the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan following a third defeat in as many group-stage matches – the latest being a 3-4(3), 4-2, 4-3(1), 4-0 defeat to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev on Thursday.
The American No.5 seed did not sugar-coat how he felt about his win-less week in Milan and was visibly disappointed about how things went.
“About as bad as it could be, for me, playing-wise,” said the 21-year-old from Rhode Island. “I don’t know, I guess these guys are obviously just better than I am right now.”
Donaldson, ranked No.55 in the world, fell in straight sets to Karen Khachanov on Wednesday, and to Borna Coric on Tuesday, but the short format of the sets sometimes means matches are a lot closer than they seem.
With many new rules being experimented this tournament, did Donaldson feel he didn’t adjust to them as well as his opponents did?
“No, I don’t want to blame it on the format. Same rules, it’s tennis, I just lost,” he admitted.
“I think I need to work on everything because obviously nothing is that good right now.”
Donaldson tried to play aggressively this tournament, and made frequent trips to the net, but he concedes that perhaps that is not the right way for him to play.
“I don’t know, I guess it will depend on how I play going forward. It didn’t work this week so I’m not sure how it’s going to incorporate into my future game plans,” he added.
The top Next Gen American is coached by ex-world No.14 Jan-Michael Gambill, who is with him in Milan, and former top-10 player Mardy Fish, who Donaldson assured will continue to be part of his team moving forward.
— Jan-Michael Gambill (@JanmikeGambill) November 8, 2017
Gambill says Fish will join them in the offseason for training but that the extent of the ex-world No.7’s involvement next season is still unclear.
“It’ll be great to have him out on the court at the end of the year now,” Gambill told Sport360.
“One of things that Mardy does is that he’s casual with the things he says but they’re very pointed. Like he says things that make sense, he’ll drive a point through, he keeps things pretty light in practices, which I like, and it’s a really good combo so when he’s around I’m pretty happy.”
While Donaldson sounded hard on himself for his results this week, Gambill is proud of their season and believes making it to Milan in itself was a great achievement.
Other Americans in Donaldson’s age bracket have maybe been talked about more but it is the Rhode Islander who ended up qualifying for the Next Gen Finals.
“Getting here, the only American to make it, and he deserved it. I think that’s a really cool thing here. None of these people were given this opportunity, it was all earned, even the Italian wildcard was a tough tournament,” said the 40-year-old Gambill.
“Jared’s been able to put on good results throughout the year, not amazing results – I guess Cincinnati is a pretty dang good result for a young guy, making quarter-finals of a Masters 1000, but besides that, just solid, solid, lot of round of 16s, winning a lot of matches, getting through.
“I make him play the qualifying rather than take a wildcard. I’d rather him earn that chance to be there, so that in the back of his head he knows he made it.
“It’s sort of like this event. We had to be all in for this event. It didn’t go the way we wanted but he earned it so you’ve got to be for it.
“I believe in putting the hard work, off the court and on the court. Especially in the offseason it’s going to be tough. But he does have the grit, he steps out on the court he wants to win, he wants to be a good tennis player, he wants to be a professional.
“He knows that his best game is probably ahead of him, I think we all know that, as he gets more physical and matures a little bit and gets even faster I think he’s going to be even a better player.”
Donaldson does not have the power shots that maybe most of his fellow Americans have but Gambill sees lists lots of positives in his pupil.
“He’s very coachable,” he says. “He’s willing to make changes in his game, at 20-years-old we changed his serve and gave him the ability to have a big serve. I’ve streamlined I think his groundstrokes quite a bit, and his fundamentals.
“We worked really hard on his footwork and it’s something we’re going do even more in the offseason, I think it can get better. The more you can streamline your fundamentals and have your tools in your bag be the same every single day the more confidence you’ll have when you set foot on the court.
“You can bluff your way through some matches and bravado and hype can get you through a little bit. But I still would prefer that he continues to stay a little bit under the radar.”
One of the things Gambill insisted on in 2017 was to get Donaldson to go for ATP events instead of leaning back on the Challenger Tour. The youngster played 43 tour-level matches this year, and just eight on the Challenger Tour.
“He knows what he wants and he also is quite intelligent and he’s smart enough to know that the hype is sometimes just hype,” explained Gambill.
“And one of the things that we also made a decision on early, it was one of the things working with me, I was like ‘I firmly believe that once you have the ranking to play the ATP events, you go out and play the ATP events’. You don’t go back and get a Challenger just to get a few points to up your ranking a little bit in hopes to get more main draws in ATP events because what that can do it give you that false floor there.
“You can go out and beat the Challenger guys and get some points, you see those guys who do that over time and their ranking just goes up and down, up and down, up and down.
“But if you go out and qualify and you take a loss here and you get that inspired win there, all of a sudden you feel like you belong, you’re one of the guys and that’s your tour, you own it.
“The Donaldsons were behind me in that decision. We played sometimes where it was kind of scary, going to play qualies in a bunch of events, especially the clay-court season, he managed to get in and he even got one lucky loser that he made good use of in Madrid. Those kind of things can happen but you’ve got to be there to do it, and then you get that confidence.”