Winning on the ATP Tour means surviving perpetual battles of endurance inside a war of attrition. Relentless baseline rallies lead to longer, more draining matches in a season that runs nearly year-round.
There was additional concern that after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, this year’s schedule might take an even greater toll as players get back into shape.
“Our season is too long given the physicality of today’s tennis,” the third-ranked Alexander Zverev said in late October. “We don’t really have time to let our injuries heal.”
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem were sidelined by injuries this year, and at the Paris Masters last week, the fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas retired with a nagging arm injury. Tsitsipas said he dropped out to preserve his shot at an even bigger prize, the year-end Nitto ATP Finals.
The finals, which moves this year to Turin, Italy, from London, is what the game’s elite have been grinding to reach. The tournament has the game’s top eight players split into two groups of four that confront each other in a round-robin format before two from each half advance to the semifinals.
Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst, said the move to Turin should not impact the style of play because, like London’s O2 Arena where the event was played last year, it is indoors with a hard court made by GreenSet, which has produced relatively slow, low-bouncing surfaces.
“So we could have more long rallies,” he said. He said that the week off between the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals should benefit the players if there were long points. (This final does not even end the season, with the Davis Cup Finals coming a few days later.)
Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Federer and is a Tennis Channel analyst, said the players who made it to the ATP Finals feel a sense of accomplishment. “They understand the magnitude of this event, featuring the best of best, so they’ll do whatever they can to win.”
The players said that they would indeed play through their fatigue after a grueling season. Zverev, Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev also said they would not change tactics with bigger serves or ground strokes, more drop shots or a race to get to the net — just for the sake of ending points quickly.
“I’ll play the way I play,” Zverev said, who at the United States Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic won a 53-shot rally in a game where the other five points averaged nearly 20 shots each.
Tsitsipas said his game had not changed just because of the time of year, so the players strategies would not budge much either. “If there’s some sort of difference it will be very small.”
Rublev said that Tsitsipas, who had the ability to charge the net and the finesse to win on drop shots, was perhaps best suited to change his game if the match demanded it, whereas he was set in his ways. “I’m an aggressive player, and I like to be the one to lead the rally, to dictate the point,” Rublev said. “This is the goal for all the matches.”
The home crowd should give an advantage to Matteo Berrettini, ranked No. 7 in the world, the only Italian in the final.
“Berrettini has a huge serve and a huge forehand, so he can keep points short,” Annacone said. “And this is a new event for Italy, featuring one of their top young superstars, so I expect the crowd to sound like a concert of Italian fanatics. Berrettini could be right there with the top players.”
Annacone said Daniil Medvedev and Zverev had a strong shot at winning because they had proved their stamina, playing excellent tennis since the summer, adding that they had big serves and first strikes so they could shorten points without changing tactics.
And Zverev proved his staying power in those long U.S. Open rallies, while Medvedev thrived on counterpunching and could wear tired opponents down, Annacone said. By contrast, Tsitsipas and Rublev have faltered in the second half of the season, making them less likely to survive this gantlet.
Still, Djokovic, the world No. 1, remains the favorite. While second-ranked Medvedev beat him in the finals of the U.S. Open on a hard court, and indoors in last year’s ATP Finals, Djokovic has not lost an ATP match in the last two years to any of the other competitors. (Zverev beat him in the Olympics.)
Djokovic also took time off after the U.S. Open, meaning he may be fresher than his rivals, which Annacone said could prove crucial.
“It will come down to who is freshest and healthiest,” he said, “and can find their form that week.”