After one of the strangest and most unpredictable years in modern history, we’ve made it to the end of the 2020 tennis season.
The coronavirus pandemic stopped the ATP and WTA seasons in March. Following months of uncertainty, tour-level competition resumed in August. The WTA was forced to cancel its year-end tournament due to restrictions in China, but the ATP Finals will go on in London despite a nationwide lockdown in England.
Eight men, determined this year by ATP ranking, will compete for the year’s final singles trophy at the storied O2 Arena. Divided into two groups, each player will face everyone else in their group in a round-robin format when play gets underway on Sunday. Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Diego Schwartzman are in Group Tokyo 1970, and Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev are in Group London 2020. Roger Federer, currently ranked No. 5, is not playing as he continues to recover from surgery on his right knee.
There will be two matches every day through Friday, and the top two players from each group will advance to Saturday’s semifinals. The final will take place on Sunday, Nov. 22. The top eight doubles teams will also compete for their own trophy at the event.
If you haven’t been paying attention to tennis lately or need a brief refresher, we’ve got you. Here are the major storylines to watch going into the year’s final event.
Held at London’s O2 Arena with a capacity of about 20,000, the ATP Finals will be played without fans this year. Although it isn’t the first event of the season played without spectators, it is the first to go on in the middle of a nationwide lockdown. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson put into effect another month-long quarantine earlier this month after the United Kingdom surpassed one million cases of COVID-19.
Not quite what the ATP had in mind for its 50th edition of the event and its final staging in London before moving to Turin, Italy next year, but the organization is determined to play.
“The Nitto ATP Finals will continue as planned behind closed doors at the O2, London,” the ATP said in a statement shortly after the lockdown was announced. “We will continue to work with all relevant authorities, both at a national and local level, to ensure that all necessary measures are put in place to ensure the safety of all those involved in the tournament.”
As with several of the previous tournaments since the restart, the players will be confined to a bubble and have to follow strict protocols. The players — eight in singles and 16 in doubles — are all staying in a hotel directly by the arena and will be immediately disqualified if they leave the bubble at any time. They were tested upon arrival and quarantined until they received a negative result and will be tested again only if they appear symptomatic. There will be no line judges, instead the event will rely solely on Hawk-Eye technology to help reduce the number of people on court and on site.
“It’s going to be very different,” said Zverev last week about the conditions. “I mean, the atmosphere and the stadium is actually the thing you always look forward to when you play at the O2. It’s special. It’s 20,000 people, indoor stadium, which is iconic because there is a lot of concerts, a lot of events happening, a lot of people that you usually look up to that have been at the O2.”
The one that got away
Nadal has won an astounding 20 major titles, held the world No. 1 ranking for 209 weeks, earned an Olympic gold medal and recently notched his 1,000th career victory. He has accomplished virtually everything there is in the sport — except an ATP Finals title.
Nadal has never won the year-end event despite qualifying for it the past 15 seasons and playing in it on nine previous occasions. He made it to the final in 2010 and 2013 but fell short in both tries, losing to Federer and Djokovic, respectively.
Nadal was baffled by his struggles at the tournament when asked about it earlier this month.
“I don’t know,” he said during a news conference at the Paris Masters. “That’s part of the game. In some places you have more success and others a little bit less. Yeah, [it] is true that of course at the end of the year in the past I arrived sometimes very tired physically and sometimes mentally, too.
“And at the same time in indoor courts I need to be fresh, I need to be in full conditions, no? Is probably the surface that I need to be playing better to try to have success. … But in the world finals I have been there a lot of times in semifinals and final a couple of times. I didn’t win. It’s a tough tournament to win, playing against the best players in the world under difficult circumstances.”
Nadal is coming off a semifinal run at the Paris Masters, and his record-tying title at the French Open last month. Momentum is on his side, and physically his body shouldn’t be feeling the toll quite as much as it has in previous years due to the break. If there ever was a season to win the elusive title for Nadal, this might just be it.
Djokovic goes for six
No one had a better start to the 2020 season than Djokovic. He won the Australian Open and was undefeated entering the unexpected break. When the season resumed, he picked up where he had left off, storming through the field at the Western & Southern Open to become the overwhelming favorite to win the US Open.
Surprisingly, Djokovic was disqualified from the tournament in the fourth round after hitting a linesperson with a ball. He won his next event at the Italian Open but fell in the final of the French Open in straight sets to Nadal. He lost in the quarterfinals at Vienna in his lone appearance since Paris.
Despite the setbacks, by his standards anyway, he still managed to clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking for a record-tying sixth time earlier this month — a feat he called “one of the hardest things to do in the sport.” But knowing the ultra-competitive Djokovic, that still won’t be quite enough for him. He will undoubtedly like to end his season with a victory and his sixth ATP Finals crown, which would match Federer for the most titles at the event.
ATP Finals first-timers
World No. 8 Rublev and No. 9 Schwartzman both qualified for the first time after stellar seasons and will make their debuts at the year-end tournament.
The 23-year-old Rublev won the Vienna Open earlier this month to clinch his berth, and earn his third title since the restart and fifth of the year. While fighting for one of the final spots, Rublev told the ATP he didn’t think he would even have had a chance to play at the event this year, but his recent résumé very much says otherwise. He opened the year ranked at No. 23 and has steadily worked his way up the rankings and into contender status everywhere he plays.
Schwartzman, 28, nabbed the very last spot after a career-best season, which included a semifinal run at the French Open and three final appearances. Having played on the tour for over a decade, he broke into the top 10 for the first time in October following his impressive stint in Paris. He needed to beat Medvedev in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters to secure his ticket to London, and when he was unsuccessful, he had to wait for the result of the Pablo Carreno Busta-Nadal match. Thankfully for him, Carreno Busta lost and the spot was his. He seemed overjoyed by the long-awaited opportunity.
LONDRES 🚶♂🚎🚄✈️ alla vamos!!!
— diego schwartzman (@dieschwartzman) November 6, 2020
Both players will look to make their mark at the event, and take home the biggest title of their career. As Tsitsipas won the event in his very first try last season, and considering this is 2020 after all, that might not be too far out of the realm of possibility.
There will be four players — Medvedev, Rublev, Tsitsipas and Zverev — who are 24 or younger playing in the event for the second straight year. The last time that happened was during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, when Djokovic and Nadal fit into that category.
With Thiem becoming the first men’s player born in the 1990s to win a major this year at the US Open (the women, by contrast, already have had two players born in the new millennium emerge victorious at a Slam), it’s the latest sign that the future is slowly becoming the present in the ATP. Of course, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are still very much at the top of the game, but that won’t last forever, and this new, young crop of talent continues to look for their breakthrough moment.
Tsitsipas, 22, won the event in 2019, marking the biggest moment of his young career to date. As the No. 6 seed, he beat Federer in the semifinals and Thiem in the finals, and proved anyone in the final eight is capable of winning in the three-set format. Tsitsipas will certainly be looking for the repeat in London, and Medvedev, Rublev and Zverev are hoping to make history of their own.
Or, in Medvedev’s case, just do better than he did last year. After his impressive 2019, which saw him play in the US Open final and take home two Masters trophies, he lost in all three of his round robin matches. Now just days removed from his latest title at the Paris Masters, he has a modest outlook for his final tournament of the year.
“Just won the tournament, going to have a few days off,” he said on Sunday. “Come to London, practice good. Hopefully can get some wins there. No other goal than just to get some wins.
“That’s the most important thing. No goal to really like win the tournament or anything. Just to win matches.”
Despite Zverev’s recent professional success — he has advanced to three straight finals after winning back-to-back tournaments in Cologne, Germany — it has been a tumultuous stretch off the court. The 23-year-old was accused of domestic abuse by his former partner, Olga Sharypova, in an interview with Russian sports website Championat. He responded to the interview on social media, writing that he has known Sharypova since they were children, but he rejected the claims of abuse.
Zverev again denied the allegations during the Paris Masters, where he advanced to the final.
“Look, right now, as I said, I have said everything on my Instagram,” he said following his first-round victory. “Yeah, there is nothing else I can add right now. I’m here. I’m here to play tennis.
“I mean, the relationship, as I said, has been over for a very long time. I’m enjoying my time on court. I have said everything. They are not true, and there is nothing more I can say right now.”