November 14, 2020

A Final 50 Years in the Making

What a long and winding road it's been this year, huh? And against all odds, we're finally here at the last men's tournament of the season -- one we were doubting could possibly happen just a few months ago. But after all was said and done, the eight best players on tour this year are in London for the 50th anniversary of the ATP Finals, set to kick off their quests for a trophy that will cap off the strangest year in way more than half a century of tennis.

In the pack are a couple of year-end regulars and a handful of past champions, but if history is any guide experience isn't necessarily an advantage in London. Year-end #1 Novak Djokovic hasn't won the title here in five years, and shockingly Rafael Nadal has only ever made the championship match twice and lost both of them. Meanwhile defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas was able to win the whole thing on his first attempt last year. Does that bode well for this year's newbies? Well, they certainly hope so.

Group Tokyo 1970

The first round robin group, named in tribute to the first Masters event won by Sam Smith, is headlined by Novak Djokovic, who put together an astounding 39-3 record this year (with one big asterisk next to one of those losses). With four titles in 2020 and a 12-4 record against his groupmates, he's, as usual, the favorite for this title even with the relative drought he's had here. Still, he is coming off a pretty surprising loss to Lorenzo Sonego in Vienna, so there's more than enough opportunity for one of the new guys to step up.

Daniil Medvedev is the next highest-ranked player in the group, passing Roger Federer to become the #4 player in the world after his title in Paris. He went winless in his debut here last year, kind of surprising considering how strong his finish to last season was -- outside his courageous showing in the 2019 U.S. Open final, he also picked up Masters titles in Cincy and Shanghai -- so he'll certainly want to make up for that disappointing showing. A couple weeks ago, I might not have given him much of a chance, but that title in Bercy could help boost his confidence.

He got that win, after all, over another in this group -- Alexander Zverev, who claimed the championship here in 2018. He's actually the only player other than Djokovic in this group with a combined winning record against his opponents, and he's been, somewhat irritatingly, on a hot streak this fall. Since making his first Grand Slam final in New York -- and taking a 2-0 set lead in it -- he picked up two straight titles in Cologne before coming in second in Paris. And while the allegations from his ex may be all that's on our minds, he seems undistracted by anything going on off-court.

Rounding out the Tokyo Group is Diego Schwartzman, who is making his post-season debut at the ripe old age of 28. The 2014 champion at the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, Schwartzman really graduated to the big leagues in the last few months of the year, stunning Rafael Nadal in Rome and then fighting through a grueling five-setter to beat Dominic Thiem at the French Open. He hasn't lost to anyone outside the top ten since September, which may not be the most impressive stat, but certainly shows how he's upped his game recently. Still, he has by far the worst record against his opponents of anyone in London, but he's shown he's got what it takes to turn things around.

Group London 2020

The second half of the draw is led by Rafael Nadal who, in his tenth appearance at this event, is incredibly trying to capture one of the few titles missing from his trophy shelf. He has a decent draw to make it out of the round robins, with a 15-6 record against his opponents, and with a solid showing on hard courts this year, he might be able to come out on top. But, as always, the challengers will be tough.

Dominic Thiem is playing his fifth year end championship, and like Rafa has never come away with a trophy, losing in the final last year. But he's also never gone in as a Grand Slam winner, either. Will that give him a confidence he hasn't had before? It certainly could. After all, after getting OHSOCLOSE to winning the title in Australia at the start of the year -- having already beat Nadal in the quarters -- he was able to take it all in his next Major outing. He might be able to make lightning strike twice here too.

Of course, he'll face off early against the man who beat him here last year -- Stefanos Tsitsipas is back for the second straight year. But the Greek 22-year-old has been a little hot-and-cold this season. After early losses in Melbourne and New York, he was able to make his first Slam semi at Roland Garros, pushing Novak Djokovic to five sets to do it. But he lost early in his next two events, going 1-2 over the last few weeks. His biggest advantage, though, might be the element of surprise -- we weren't expecting much from him last year, and look at what he was able to do with it.

But the biggest wildcard at this event may be Andrey Rublev, who's got a tour-leading five titles this year. Playing at the tour finals for the first time, he's certainly a long shot for a title, but unlike the other newbie, he has a decent 4-5 record against his group opponents -- two of those wins came against Thiem and Tsitsipas on the way to two of his trophies this season. He's also gone on a couple of long win streaks in 2020, kicking off the season with eleven straight match wins, and repeating that run after the French Open, where he incidentally made his first Slam quarter. I wouldn't be surprised if he scored a few more victories and at least made his way to the semis.

However this event plays out, we can be sure of one things -- the best talents in men's tennis certainly made the best of what they could during this season. It may not have gone through the way we wanted, and there's still a lot more uncertainty ahead. But if these guys can keep up their best levels, we'll at least be able to end this year on a strong note.

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