Sascha Zverev: Roger and Rafa have been playing the best tennis of their lives this year

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Just a man and his idol: Zverev and Federer.

This year may have been dominated by two all-star veterans – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – but the next two players in line, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, are from the younger generation the tennis world has been waiting for.

It seems fitting that Federer and Zverev have landed in the same group. One is a 36-year-old six-time champion at the event. The other is a 20-year-old making his tournament debut. The contrast is huge yet they are 1-1 head-to-head this season and 2-2 overall.

Zverev grew up idolising Federer and met the Swiss when he was just five years-old asking him for an autograph at the Hamburg Masters. Today, they are peers in the Group Boris Becker at a tournament celebrating the eight best players of the season.

The world No.3 remains in awe of Federer, who took his tally of Grand Slam finals to 19 this season by winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, despite missing six months of action at the end of last year due to injury.

Nadal has also won two majors in 2017, and returned to No.1 in the world rankings.

“I think Roger and Rafa have been playing the best tennis of their lives this year. I really think that, especially Roger,” said Zverev, who won the Rome Masters by beating Novak Djokovic in the final, and Montreal by defeating Federer.

“He’s only lost four matches this year. It’s quite amazing how he’s able to play at 36 years-old; I’m not saying he’s old or anything.

“What he’s doing on the tennis court is amazing.

“Also Rafa, how he came back and played the clay-court season was unbelievable. The most he lost in a set in the French Open was three games. Winning a Grand Slam losing three games in a set, max, is something that I don’t know if we’ve seen before.

“All of us are working hard to try to replace them a little bit.

“This is what we’re all working for, to win the biggest tournaments in the world. I’ve won two Masters this year. I’m still working on Grand Slams.

“At the moment what they’re doing on the tennis court is amazing.”

Federer could not compete in London last year as he was out of action with physical problems and he won the last of his six titles at the event in 2011.

The Swiss started the year ranked 17 in the world due to his extended break in 2016 but stunningly claimed the Australian Open on his first official tournament back.

“Last year I couldn’t be here so it’s nice to be able to do it again because this year I had to start further back in the rankings,” said Federer on Friday.

“The early goal was to be maybe halfway point, before or after Wimbledon, around eight in the world or something but that was always going to maybe put me in an interesting situation for the rest of the year trying to qualify for the World Tour Finals.

“So by winning the Australian Open, pretty much I was in a good position throughout after that. I was very happy how I played throughout the entire season, stayed pretty much injury-free apart from the back issue in Montreal that carried over a bit but I played great and I’m very happy to be here again and get a chance to compete with the best.”

Federer begins his campaign on Sunday against ATP Finals debutant Jack Sock while Zverev takes on Wimbledon runner-up Marin Cilic.

Cilic hit a career-high ranking of No.4 in the world last month and is making his third ATP Finals appearance.

“The year has been extremely consistent for me,” said the Croatian.

“I played great tennis and I found that key in my own game to play on a good level almost every single week. I had a lot of victories in the last six, seven months that has given me good confidence, and good belief when I’m playing the top guys, which is very important here.”

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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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