Another ATP Tour Finals, another first-time winner. On Sunday, Daniil Medvedev defeated Dominic Thiem 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 to lift the year-ending trophy, becoming the fifth player in as many years to win the tournament for the first time.
While Andy Murray was a made man when he won in 2016, the champions since — Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and now Medvedev inevitably triggered talks of changing guards and hopes of a new world order.
This time around, the hype is two-fold. During the group stages not only did champion Medvedev beat Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal this week, the runner-up Thiem did so too.
The results though haven’t come out of the blue. Medvedev has now won three of the last four meetings with Djokovic. And while the win over Nadal on Saturday was the Russian’s first, he pushed the Spaniard to three sets in London last year and to five in the US Open final.
Thiem too has beaten Djokovic thrice in the last four matches. All four contests stretched to deciding sets and Austrian’s only loss came in the Australian Open final in January. Against Nadal, he is 6-9 overall, with wins on indoor and outdoor hard courts as well as clay in the last two years.
Is it really surprising then that the top dogs of the men’s tour lost to the third and fourth-ranked players? And what exactly do Medvedev’s title win, and Thiem’s second runner-up finish, say about tennis’ future?
Where does the tournament fit?
Played since 1970, the year-end tournament has undergone several revisions; namely the ‘Masters Grand Prix’, ‘ATP Tour World Championships’, ‘Tennis Masters Cup’, ‘World Tour Finals’ and now ATP Finals. The concept though has remained largely consistent. Top eight players converge in a season-finale of sorts and an undefeated champion can rake in $1,564,000 in prize money and 1500 ranking points.
Roger Federer says he will go to the moon to play the Tour Finals. Djokovic calls it “the most challenging tournament of the year or of the season” because it “makes us all go into this competitive mode right away, from the first point.” But despite the high-octane tennis and a bevy of stars, the tournament isn’t even regarded as the fifth Slam — that distinction is reserved for the Indian Wells Masters — and is generally placed between the Grand Slams and Masters titles in terms of prestige.
Thiem’s wins over Nadal and Djokovic, Medvedev’s win over the Spaniard were highly competitive clashes, drawing praise from losing veterans. But these were still three-set matches. It is in the best-of-five world of Grand Slams that men’s tennis yearns for breakthroughs.
Also, the top players are physically, if not mentally too, winding down by November. The prominent narrative thread this week was whether Nadal would be able to win his first Tour Finals. The 34-year-old has competed at ten Tour Finals, finishing runner-up twice in 2010 and 2013. Six times, however, Nadal qualified for the event but withdrew after taxing year-long efforts.
The round-robin format, and the fact that a player can walk away with a title despite an early loss, also dissociate the event from the do-or-die stakes of other events.
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Coronation, sign of things to come… or just another title?
Federer and Djokovic utilised most of their year-end titles as a means to underline dominance. Federer won his six Tour Finals titles between 2003 and 2011, at the peak of his power. Djokovic’s run from 2012 to 2015 added heft to his GOAT contendership. But their first wins were extended coronation. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam at 2008 Australian Open and proved he is no one-hit-wonder with the Finals triumph the same year. Similarly, in 2003, Federer won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon and the Finals tournament.
“Qualifying for the Tennis Masters Cup (that year) was a huge deal,” Federer told the ATP website. “It opened my belief that I could beat the best baseline players from the baseline. 2003 was a true breakthrough tournament for me at the time.”
“I don’t know if I have the potential to improve, but I’m satisfied if I can maintain this level,” Federer had told reporters. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Compare that to the last five winners. Murray was already a three-time Grand Slam champion when he won the year-ending title in 2016. The next year, his battles with injuries worsened and the Brit hasn’t won a Major since. Dimitrov, Zverev and Tsitsipas are yet to back up their triumphs with Major success. Which is not to discredit Medvedev’s win.
Medvedev is the first player in 13 years to beat the entire top 3 in the same event. Only other 3 players did it in the last 30 years.
Nalbandian Madrid’07: Federer, Nadal & Djokovic
Djokovic Montreal’07: Federer, Nadal & Roddick
Becker Stockholm’94: Sampras, Ivanisevic & Stich
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) November 22, 2020
The 24-year-old is a feisty character unafraid to antagonise opponents and crowds or to switch up gameplans. Facing a top baseliner in Thiem on Sunday, Medvedev disrupted his opponent’s flow and shortened the points. Thiem meanwhile has already broken through with the US Open title this year and looks set to build on that in the coming years.
Their Tour Finals run might galvanise them with momentum and self-belief, but it’s hardly a gauge of quality.
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