Roger Federer produced an error-strewn performance to lose his opening match at the ATP Finals 7-6 (4), 6-3 to Japan’s Kei Nishikori on Sunday night at London’s O2 Arena.
The Swiss six-time champion suffered his first defeat to Nishikori since Miami 2014, and saw his quest for 100th career title get off to a rocky start.
Prior to the tournament, Federer had revealed that he was losing every match he had been playing in practice. In the match against Nishikori, the 37-year-old committed 34 unforced errors.
“I think it plays different or it’s definitely slower than I think the last three tournaments that I’ve played. So I think everybody’s making a minor adjustment. So am I,” explained Federer after the match.
“I’ve been feeling fine. It’s just that practice has been a bit all over the place. Practiced in Queen’s, practiced on the outside courts here, then Centre as well. So it’s not always exactly the same conditions. Overall I thought I’m hitting the ball okay. Warm-up today was totally fine.
“I think maybe we both had a bit of nerves, too, not knowing how to attack second serve. I thought I saw the bit of the same with [Dominic] Thiem, as well, early on, trying to get the right feel for it. I think we both struggled to get that early. It’s okay now, now that the first match is out of the way.”
Federer, who is making a record 16th appearance at the ATP Finals, has advanced to the semi-finals on each of his previous participations except in 2008.
There were signs of shakiness from the start, when he mistakenly hit himself with the ball, while attempting to return a Nishikori serve. But there were also flashes of brilliance from him that sent the pro-Federer crowd wild during various moments in the first set.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 11, 2018
Neither player capitalised on their opponent’s second serves but Federer was slightly more comfortable during his service games in the first set. But a brilliant backhand get from Nishikori when he was serving at 5-6, 15-30 helped the Japanese No. 7 seed swing the momentum to his side and he held serve then quickly went up 6-1 in the tiebreak.
CAN you believe that!? 😱@keinishikori in fine form 👏
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) November 11, 2018
Federer saved three set points but Nishikori converted on his fourth opportunity to take a one-set lead after 51 minutes.
Federer broke Nishikori to start the second set but he gifted him back the break and it was all his opponent needed to secure the win.
“I felt we both struggled throughout the first set. You could tell it was sort of a first round. I had my chances maybe a bit more than he did. Yeah, then I started to feel better in the second set. I think we both did. The level went up,” said Federer. “Yeah, unfortunately I couldn’t keep the lead that I got early.
“That was important, I think, at the end. That was the key of the match, that sort of I guess 10-minute swing at the end of the first throughout maybe 1-All in the second. Maybe being the leader rather than being down so…”
Federer received a warning for ball abuse in the opening set and had a quick conversation with the umpire voicing his discontent over the decision.
“I was, just because I thought what was his argument, you know, why the warning. But nothing more than that. He thought I was angry. I wasn’t. Now I’m angry because I lost, but I wasn’t, so… He knows me very well apparently, or he thought so,” explained Federer.
The win saw Nishikori snap a six-match losing streak to the Swiss. Competing in the ATP Finals for a fourth time, the two-time semi-finalist is now a remarkable 35-4 in matches where he has won the opening set.
John Isner was coming out of spin class back home in North Carolina last week when he got the call informing him that he had qualified for the ATP Finals for the first time in his career, following the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal.
The 33-year-old new dad flew to the United States after the Paris Masters to enjoy some home comforts like hanging out with his two-month-old daughter Hunter and lying on his couch watching football.
He got on a plane soon after, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and came to London to make his debut at the O2 Arena. Isner kicks off his campaign against Novak Djokovic on Monday night (20:00 London time, midnight Dubai time), looking to improve on his 2-8 head-to-head record against the Serbian world No. 1.
“I think it will be really easy for me,” Isner said sarcastically when asked about his clash with Djokovic. “I’m up against, for sure he’s the No. 1 player in the world, he’s won this event five times if I’m not mistaken, he’s the player to beat this week for sure.
“It’s a good spot for me because I don’t have much to lose, I’m definitely the underdog. So I’m going to go out there and just try to play my best, just try to play loose and free and see what happens. I’ve played him I don’t know how many times, seems like eight or nine times, I’ve beaten him a couple, but he’s beaten me more times than not. So it’s going to e a very, very tough match for myself. But I’m looking forward to it. The atmosphere is going to be great, and it’s going to be a good challenge.”
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) November 9, 2018
The oldest first-time qualifier since 1972, Isner enjoyed a career-best season this year, winning his maiden Masters 1000 title in Miami, and reaching his first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon.
“It means a lot to be here. I’ve certainly been pretty close throughout my career to make it to this event, it just hasn’t quite happened. I also realise that this year I’m pretty fortunate to be here as well. That being said, I had a very good year, and I put myself in the position to make this event, and it happened. For me to do this at 33, to be competing in my first Nitto ATP Finals is very satisfying for me personally,” said the 10th-ranked Isner.
The day session on Monday will see 21-year-old German Alexander Zverev take on Croatian four-time qualifier Marin Cilic. Zverev is making his second straight appearance at the O2, and leads the tour with 54 victories posted in 2018, including three titles in Madrid, Washington and Munich.
Zverev, in London with his coach of three months Ivan Lendl, will be looking to erase the memories from his third round robin match here last year, where he squandered a lead in the final set against Jack Sock to miss out on a spot in the semi-finals.
“I lost the match in a not so good way, so I hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Obviously another year on tour for me, another year of experience, hopefully it’s going to be different this year. But obviously very tough matches, great players, big guys, big serves, and Novak as well, so I’m just looking forward to playing good tennis here,” said Zverev ahead of his opener.
For the first time since 2004, four players outside the ‘Big Four’ – Isner, Zverev, Juan Martin del Potro and Karen Khachanov – have won Masters 1000 titles in the same season. For some, it may seem like a sign that we might get a new Grand Slam champion next season, but Isner doesn’t see it that way.
“No. I won one, Sascha won two the year before, so he’s not a newcomer in that winners circle. It was Del Potro’s first Masters title but we all know how good he is, he’s got a Grand Slam. Karen last week played incredibly well, and he still had to beat Djokovic in the final, it’s not like he beat someone lower-ranked in the final. He beat the No. 1 player in the world. I still think the old guard with Novak, Rafa, Roger [Federer] and when Andy [Murray] gets back healthy, they won’t be giving up those Masters titles too easily,” said the American.
Zverev, who has been described as the future of tennis for some time now but has reached just one Grand Slam quarter-final so far in his young career, admits it’s about time the up-and-comers gave the big guns a run for their money.
“For sure we have to step it up, for sure we have to improve, but that’s normal, everybody has to improve,” said Zverev. “Novak this year, what he’s done in the second half of the year is unbelievable. We do see that. We know we have to improve our games, nothing changes.
“So someday hopefully we will kind of surpass them and take over, even though it would be great for tennis if Roger and Rafa and Novak play forever, but you’ve got to ask them if they actually want to.
“There have always been discussions about the next generation, it was also the case 20, 30 years ago, it was always like what happens after McEnroe, Borg retire? What happens after Sampras and Agassi retire? So there’s always been new guys that excite tennis, there’s always been new guys that kind of take tennis over. It’s always been the case and I hope that it will happen naturally here as well.”
Federer is making a record 16th appearance at the ATP Finals this week, where the world No. 3 is targeting the 100th title of his career. At 37, the Swiss continues to defy all odds, which has left Zverev in awe of his longevity.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I’m 37. I hope I’ll still be playing tennis, but nobody’s Roger, so… we’ll see how it goes. Obviously it’s a great achievement that in itself, and he’s won this tournament plenty of times, we know his history, he’s won so many other titles. That’s why he’s considered the greatest player of all-time. What’s he’s doing at 37 years old is something we’ve never seen before and I’m not sure, we might not ever see it again, so let’s just appreciate that and enjoy what he’s doing right now,” said Zverev.
Some lucky daily commuters were dealt a surprise on the London Underground on Friday when they were joined by Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and the rest of the ATP Finals singles and doubles fields on the tube.
All suited and booted for the tournament’s official launch at the Houses of Parliament, the players took the Jubilee line from North Greenwich station to Westminster, avoiding London’s dreaded rush hour traffic.
I was invited to the ATP Finals launch party for the first time this year and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out the Houses of Parliament and enjoy one last function with the tennis community before the season comes to an end.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is a massive tennis enthusiast and particularly a Federer fanatic. In 2014, he said he watched Federer play 65 times that season alone, and he was of course thrilled to hang out with the Swiss in person on Friday.
Let’s just say he did not hide where his allegiances lie one bit at the launch.
The #NittoATPFinals is ready to go…
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) November 10, 2018
Andrew Castle was the MC during the event and enjoyed some fun banter while presenting the players.
“Did you arrive on the tube as well?” Castle asked Federer.
“No I took the helicopter,” Federer responded in the most believable tone. After a long pause he added: “No I’m kidding. I took the tube and enjoyed it.”
Castle admitted he struggled to come up with questions Federer hadn’t answered a million times before so he took the simple route and asked him how he’s been hitting so far at the O2?
“I’m losing every match I’m playing in practice,” confessed Federer.
Words the Speaker no doubt did not want to hear from the No. 2 seed just two days before the start of the tournament.
Djokovic took the stage with his fellow Group Guga Kuerten members, Marin Cilic (198cm), John Isner (208cm) and Alexander Zverev (198cm).
“Do you like playing tall players?” Castle asked the 188cm Djokovic bluntly.
“Thanks for bringing that up, because it feels like I’m in a basketball group or something. I’m by far the shortest guy,” laughed Djokovic. Lucky for the Serb, his height never stopped him from amassing a combined 25-5 win-loss record against his group rivals.
PLAYER CAM 👀
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) November 10, 2018
The night was not free of scandal as Zverev turned up for the event sans-socks. Dominic Thiem, who was filming a vlog for the ATP website made sure to call him out on it.
Zverev’s explanation: It’s “Zegna-style”. Too bad his sock-less look gave him a blister!