LONDON -- As the ATP Finals tournament prepares to say goodbye to London and move to Turin, Italy, next year, four challengers hoping to get their name on the trophy remain -- with three aiming to win the tournament for the first time.
The tournament is being played in an eerily quiet -- and fanless -- O2 Arena. The surrounding pubs and restaurants are all shut, with the United Kingdom in lockdown until Dec. 2 due to COVID-19. It's a jarring experience to watch from afar. Usually it is a jamboree of pumping music, strobe lights, Swiss flags and overpriced food.
Although we are down one Grand Slam this year with Wimbledon cancelled, there will be no asterisk against this year's winner. It will come down to a mastery of the mind as much as the court. The players have spoken this week about how tough the off-court moments are, holed up in their hotel rooms and unable to mix with friends and family outside of the tennis bio-bubble. Even though their hotel is just 200 yards from the arena, they must take a car. It's restrictive but essential to allow this event to take place.
After the eight original challengers, just four remain. Both Dominic Thiem and surprise package Daniil Medvedev will look to get their name on the trophy for the first time, while Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal hope to finish their years on a high note.
Dominic Thiem vs. Novak Djokovic
Thiem has long been a contender in men's tennis and was first to qualify for the semifinals, having beaten last year's ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, and Nadal 7-6, 7-6. With his powerful ground strokes and comfortable control of the baseline, Thiem, now 27 years old, is finally hitting his peak in a year that saw him win his maiden Grand Slam at the US Open to become the first male born in the 1990s to win a major singles title.
His win over Nadal this week was especially impressive. His lethal backhand darted down the line and kept Nadal pinned back.
"I knew that if I want to have a chance, this shot has to go in, the backhand down the line, if I take it early. Luckily it worked out well," Thiem said.
This will prove crucial in the semifinal, as will his ability to hit clean winners -- he hammered 37 winners past Nadal along with six aces. Thiem rated his own performance in that second group match as better than the standard he reached at the US Open and compared it to a group-stage win over Djokovic in this tournament last year.
"I think that today ... was maybe the best match for me since the restart of the tour. That makes me super happy," he said after dispatching Nadal.
His final group-stage match was less impressive, as he lost to Andrey Rublev 2-6, 5-7. Thiem said after the defeat that it was difficult to keep that amazing intensity he had during the first two rounds, and he hopes his semifinal against Djokovic will go more like the Nadal match than Rublev one.
Fate in these ATP Finals is smiling on him. The past four winners have all been new names on the trophy. Thiem is now well-placed to follow in Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Tsitsipas' footsteps to become a fifth first-time champion, but he will not have it easy against the world No. 1.
Djokovic has had a turbulent year. He won the Australian Open in February, and after contracting COVID-19 during the suspension of the ATP Tour due to the pandemic, he picked up where he left off, approaching the US Open in superb form. Then came his infamous default after hitting a linesperson with a ball. Next came the French Open, where he stormed through to the final only to hit the Nadal barrier. Despite all of this, he's still ranked No. 1 in the world and knows that a triumph in London will see him match Roger Federer's record of six ATP Finals titles.
In London, Djokovic opened with a commanding 6-3, 6-2 win over Diego Schwartzman, then suffered a surprise loss to Medvedev, teeing up a straight shootout with 2018 winner Zverev for a spot in the semifinal.
He didn't hang around against Zverev, storming to a 3-0 lead in the first set and closing that one out 6-3. Despite Zverev showing better rhythm and cutting edge in the second, Djokovic went through in straight sets 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).
Djokovic was frustrated after the defeat to Medvedev, saying he lacked rhythm, tempo and fitness, while bemoaning his 24 unforced errors and five double faults. But the win over Zverev saw him back on an even keel as he saluted the empty stands.
"I felt great, I managed to serve well in important moments and found the right shots at the right time," Djokovic said after beating Zverev.
Djokovic still goes through his usual celebratory salute of pushing his arms out from his chest to all four sides of the arena.
"That's my celebration. I mean, that's my also gratitude to the court and to this opportunity to be able to compete," Djokovic said. "You know, even though it might sound like a phrase, but I try to remind myself that don't take things for granted, and that's kind of one of the routines that reminds me of the things that I have to be aware of."
Djokovic has two more opportunities to do that routine in London. Djokovic faces Thiem on Saturday with the head-to-head record of 7-4 in his favor.
"Being one of the hardest workers and most dedicated players, Dominic's found his A-game on other surfaces [apart from clay]. Hopefully we can have a great match," Djokovic said.
Daniil Medvedev vs. Rafael Nadal
World No. 4 Medvedev is finding his peak form at just the right time. His group-stage 6-3, 6-3 win over Djokovic was a performance he attributes to playing without self-doubt and proof he is playing some of the best tennis of his career. He came to London off the back of a mixed year. He crashed out of the Australian Open in the fourth round to Stan Wawrinka, then -- after tennis' hiatus due to COVID-19 -- he reached the semifinals of the US Open where he lost to Thiem, and won the Paris Masters, beating Zverev 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 in the final.
After beating Djokovic on Wednesday, Medvedev was asked who he'd like to face in the semifinals.
"Of course, I want to get a win against Rafa," Medvedev said. "I still don't have one."
If Medvedev is to knock off Nadal, he will need to serve like he did against Djokovic -- winning 61% of his second-serve points to Djokovic's 43% along with 10 aces. He put that win over Djokovic down to "playing safe enough in the most important moments." He's now aiming for a spot in ATP Finals history as he looks to become the fourth player to win the title off the back of a winless debut year (he lost to Zverev, Nadal and Tsitsipas during the group stage in 2019).
Nadal has qualified for the past 16 ATP Finals, but to date his best results are finals defeats to Federer in 2010 and Djokovic in 2013. This could be his best chance. Due to the enforced break, Nadal's body had time to rest. And he is still riding the wave of his triumph at the French Open -- his 20th major title -- in October.
In London, Nadal started strong with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Rublev. He then fell to Thiem 6-7, 6-7. He said after the defeat he had no negative reflections and was happy with how he played. He seemed content and calm, and that carried through to his impressive three-set victory over Tsitsipas on Thursday. Nadal now looks to carry that momentum into Saturday's knockout match against Medvedev, knowing that he has won all three of his previous encounters against the Russian.
What was so impressive about Nadal's win over Tsitispas -- alongside the usual traits we've come to expect from the Spaniard -- was his serve. He managed to hit eight aces. But with just one single indoor hard-court triumph to his name -- the ATP Masters 1000 Madrid title in 2005 -- he knows he will have to be at his best to defeat the plucky Russian who he feels has "plenty of confidence" and is "playing great."
Nadal, speaking after his win over Tsitispas, reeled off Medvedev's recent form from the past two years as if he had been studying him closely, predicting they would eventually meet.
"[Medvedev] has plenty of confidence. Yeah, I know [it's] gonna be a tough one," Nadal said. "I know I need to play at my highest level. If not, it's almost impossible. But I hope to be ready to make that happen."