By Ritesh Misra
In the Nicco ATP Finals starting at London on 11th November 2018, the top 8 tennis players of the world will battle it out to end the year gloriously. The 8 are divided into 2 groups and these groups are named after two former champions, this year after Guga Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt.
In the Kuerten group we have Novak Djokovic, Sascha Zverev, Marin Cilic and John Isner. In the Hewitt group we have Roger Federer, Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori. Day one will have Novak playing Isner and Roger playing Nishikori.
Let’s take a look at the road traversed by the 8 players to qualify this year, in the order in which they qualified and how they have fared in earlier editions of the event and in 2018 so far.
1st to qualify was Rafa Nadal who is not playing and about whom we will specifically discuss later in the blog.
2nd to qualify was Novak Djokovic. Who would have believed that he would be the 2nd to qualify? Novak was seemingly down and out, and had slipped to world number 22, his lowest rank in almost 12 years. He roared back to win his 13th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon 2018 and continued his resurgence by defeating Roger Federer in the final of the 2018 Cincinnati Masters tournament, thereby becoming the 1st player to win all the 9 Masters at least once. Novak qualified when he won the 2018 US Open semi-final versus Kei Nishikori. He went on to win US Open and Shanghai Masters as well.
Novak has won the year-end title as many as 5 times, in 2008 and from 2012 to 2015. In 2016 he also lost to Andy Murray in the final which was a breathtaking end to the year since it was a winner take all scenario, which Andy won and became world number 1.
Roger has 5 year end Number one’s and Novak has already joined him at 5. Will Novak now complete a round half-dozen to join Roger Federer who has six?
He certainly will be the top favorite.
Novak by qualifying also ensured that his great rival Roger Federer qualified as well, due to a complicated Grand Slam champion rule. As per this rule, a Grand Slam Champion who is ranked between 8 and 20 will qualify for the WTF by virtue of winning a Grand Slam. Of course, Federer later qualified of course by finishing World Number 3.
Roger has won the Australian Open this year and two other titles. He has claimed the World Number 1 ranking thrice, only to give it back. At this tournament, it will be his 16th appearance. He has won 6 times and finished as runners-up 4 times, which includes 3 defeats to Novak. He certainly will be second favourite to win an unprecedented 7th time.
Sascha by reaching the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters qualified for a second year in a row. Last year he had won one match and lost two. This year he would be hoping to improve and do better. It will certainly not be easy to do so of course with Novak, Cilic and Isner as opponents.
The giant South African qualified in style, by winning the Vienna ATP 500 tournament with a straight set win versus Nishikori in the final. This is his 1st entry and he is only the second South African to qualify, after Wayne Fereira in 1995. That year Wayne won a solitary match versus Kafelnikov and lost to Sampras and ultimate Champion Becker. Kevin would be hoping to do better this time and win 2 of his 3 matches against Federer, Thiem and Nishikori.
Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem
Cilic qualified for the 4th time in the last 5 years and for the third time in a row. He and Thiem qualified at the same time during the Paris Masters. For Thiem too it was his third participation in succession. Cilic has a career high of world number three and has won one Grand Slam. In 2018 his major achievements are winning the Queens Club and reaching the Australian Open Final. He would be hoping to at least enter the semi-finals if not more.
So also Thiem who reached the finals of the 2018 Madrid Open and French Open and almost upset Rafa Nadal at the US Open would be hoping to leave a mark as well at the year end tournament.
Kei Nishikori and John Isner
Kei Nishikori was 1st alternate for Del Potro and Isner was 2nd alternate for Rafa Nadal. Ironically when Nishikori lost to Roger Federer at Paris, his defeat ensured the qualification of Cilic and Thiem. Nishikori too qualified when Del Potro backed out. This was his 4th qualifications and it was a terrific year for him which started by missing Australian Open and Indian Wells due to injury and even having to play Challengers. London has been a happy hunting ground for him with 2 semi-finals. He would be hoping to repeat the show.
Isner was the final and 8th to qualify after Rafa backed out. This was his 1st qualifications in his more than 12 seasons as a pro. This was also his best season ever and his marathon wimbledon semi-final agaisnt Kevin will be in memory for a long long time. Isner is excited to play the Finals and he has the toughest task of them all- a first up match with Novak Djokovic. Isner says that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain and promises to give his best.
The article will be incomplete without mentioning Rafa and DelPo who qualified easily but had to bow out due to injury.
At the Rogers Cup 2018, the World Number 1 player Rafa not only won his record breaking 33rd ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles but also clinched his Nicco ATP spot for the 14th year in a row. Nadal has a glittering resume which includes 17 Grand Slam titles, 33 Masters 1000 and 4 year end Number 1 finishes. However somehow this is the one big title which has eluded him. He reached the finals in 2010 and 2013. However in 2010, Roger Federer stopped him in 3 sets while in 2013, his other great rival Novak Djokovic won in straight sets. While it will not make any difference to his legacy, Rafa was certainly hoping to win the title at least once before he hangs up his tennis rackets. This year, unfortunately he had to back out due to abdominal pain and ankle surgery.
Del Potro entered the O2 arena for the 1st time since 2013 and 5th time overall when he defeated Karen Khachanov to reach the China Open Quarter finals. He became the 4th player to qualify. At London, DelPo has once reached the final, in his 2nd attempt in 2009 when he lost to Davydenko. His other three attempts in 2008, 2012 and 2013 were not too fruitful. He was hoping to pose a few questions this time around. Sadly he bowed out after one set in the Shanghai Masters semi finals and later it was diagnosed that it was a patella fracture and he would miss the rest of the season.
The tournament starts on 11th. If things go to form it could be a Novak-Roger final again. Novak has defeated Roger 4 times in a row now, 1st time in their rivalry. Roger will take heart from his recent defeat at Paris where he competed well and was not broken once to lose in a 3 hour 15 minute battle ending in a 3rd set tiebreak. Therefore it could be a terrific end to the year.
London, here we come.
The blogger, Ritesh Misra, is an IRS Officer currently based in Mumbai. He tweets @riteshmisra. His hobbies are sports, films and music.
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