ATP Finals: Three main talking points ahead of the action in London

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Top of the pack: Rafael Nadal.

Some high-profile regulars are absent from the ATP Finals this year with Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka all out of action since Wimbledon due to injury.

But there’s still plenty to look forward to and debate ahead of the season finale, which begins at the O2 Arena in London on Sunday.

Here are the main talking points surrounding this year’s ATP Finals…

CAN RAFA END HIS ATP FINALS DROUGHT?

Rafael Nadal’s right knee has naturally dominated the discussion heading into the Finals but he’s been looking decent in practice so far in London and the team’s spirits appear to be high. If he decides to play, we can expect him to pose a real threat, but the fact remains that he’s never won the title on any of his seven previous participations in the event.

Nadal pointed out on Friday that the fact the tournament is always played on indoor hard courts has been a factor in him never winning the title. Only one of the Spaniard’s 75 career trophies were won on indoor hard court (Madrid 2005 where he climbed from two sets down to beat Ivan Ljubicic in the final). Is it really impossible for him to beat his top-eight rivals on this O2 Arena surface? No it’s not. But with a troubled knee, it’s certainly a big ask.

The good news for the world No.1 is that he has a positive head-to-head against all of his fellow Pete Sampras Group members this season. Taking on the power-hitters from the other Group, or Roger Federer is a whole other story though. If Nadal does end up winning this title, it could be one of his most impressive triumphs to-date.

THE FIRST-TIMERS

Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, and Jack Sock are all making their first appearance at the ATP Finals while David Goffin, who played one match as an alternate last year, is enjoying his debut as an outright qualifier for the event.

With the format being so different from what the players experience year-round, having to contest a round-robin group stage before reaching the semi-final knockouts, and the fact that you face a top-eight player from the get-go, it’s understandable if a tournament debutant doesn’t perform well at the ATP Finals.

The last time a first-timer made it out of the group stage on his debut was Kei Nishikori in 2014. Stan Wawrinka achieved the same result on his debut in 2013.

Each one of this year’s debutants has a unique storyline. For some, it’s surprising that this is Dimitrov’s first time at the Finals. It feels like someone of his calibre surely must have competed here in the past.

But the 26-year-old had just missed out on the opportunity in 2014 and he has finally sealed it this year thanks to his title run in Cincinnati, and semi-final showing at the Australian Open.

For Zverev, he is the youngest of the group and at 20-years-old, is the youngest to qualify for the ATP Finals since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.

While he said that clinching a berth at this tournament is almost like winning a title, we shouldn’t expect the German to not fully turn up for his matches. Zverev has risen to big occasions in 2017, winning two Masters 1000 titles by defeating two ‘Big Four’ opponents in each final, and I don’t think he’ll be fazed by the grand stage at the O2 this week.

Sock’s situation is rather funny. The American had no idea he had a chance to qualify for London when he was at the Paris Masters last week except when a journalist told him during a press conference mid-way through the tournament.

Sock started the year well winning Auckland and Delray Beach in the first two months of the season and going deep at Indian Wells and Miami but he went on a five-match losing streak between August and October and his challenge faded.

Then suddenly he won the Paris Masters, made his top-10 debut and sealed a spot in the ATP Finals. It was a surprise for him and us as well. Someone who didn’t expect to be here can be a real threat, and he certainly has the weapons to do lots of damage on this indoor surface.

CAN ANYONE STOP FEDERER?

Federer isn’t just a six-time ATP Finals champion, he’s also only lost four matches this year and is a clear favourite for the title. Zverev will probably be his biggest challenger in Group Boris Becker, although Cilic shouldn’t be underestimated on this surface and their Wimbledon final was marred by the Croatian’s foot blisters that hindered his performance.

Still, it’s hard seeing anyone other than the second-seeded Federer lifting the trophy on Sunday.

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ATP Finals: Andy Murray makes surprise appearance at the O2

Reem Abulleil 11/11/2017
Andy Murray hasn't played a professional match since Wimbledon.

Former world No.1 Andy Murray made a surprise appearance at the O2 Arena on Saturday, where he had a practice session with Dominic Thiem.

Sidelined since Wimbledon with a hip injury, Murray, who is unable to defend his ATP Finals title next week, decided to make use of the presence of the world’s best players in London by heading east to the O2 for a hit with Thiem.

Murray, who was ranked No.1 in the world until mid-August but has since slipped to No.16, was accompanied by his coach Jamie Delgado and fitness trainer Matt Little.

The Scot is expected to make a return to the tour in Brisbane in January, assuming his hip fully recovers.

He told reports at his charity match in Glasgow a few days ago that he’s hitting the ball very well practice but “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.”

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Rafael Nadal targets maiden ATP Finals title, 'hopes' to be fit for his Goffin opener

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Optimistic: Rafael Nadal.

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.

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.

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