In Indian Wells, with wins over two young players vying to be the future of tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have set up another battle in a long line of duels.
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At the ATP Finals starting in London on November 11, the top eight tennis players in the world will battle it out to end the year gloriously.
The eight are divided into two groups and these groups are named after two former champions; this year it’s Guga Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt.
In the Kuerten group, we have Novak Djokovic, Sascha Zverev, Marin Cilic and John Isner.
In the Hewitt group, we have Roger Federer, Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori.
Day one will have Novak playing Isner and Roger playing Nishikori.
Let’s take a look at the road traversed by the eight players to qualify this year, in the order in which they qualified and how they have fared in earlier editions of the event, as well as so far in 2018.
The first to qualify was Rafael Nadal, who is not playing, and about whom we will specifically discuss later.
Second to qualify was Novak Djokovic. Who would have believed that he would be the second to qualify?
Novak was seemingly down and out and had slipped to world number 22, his lowest rank in almost 12 years. He roared back to win his 13th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon 2018.
He continued his resurgence by defeating Roger Federer in the final of the 2018 Cincinnati Masters tournament, thereby becoming the first player to win all the nine Masters at least once.
Novak qualified when he won the 2018 US Open semi-final over Kei Nishikori. He went on to win the US Open and Shanghai Masters as well.
Novak has won the year-end title five times, in 2008 and from 2012 to 2015.
In 2016, he lost to Andy Murray in the final, which was a breathtaking end to the year since it was a winner take all scenario. Murray won and became world no. 1.
Novak already has five year-end number ones – will he complete a round half-dozen to join Roger Federer with six?
He certainly will be the favourite.
Novak, by qualifying, also ensured his great rival Roger Federer qualified as well, due to a complicated Grand Slam champion rule.
As per this rule, a Grand Slam Champion who is ranked between eight and 20 will qualify for the WTF by virtue of winning a Grand Slam. Of course, Federer later qualified by finishing world no. 3.
Roger won the Australian Open this year and two other titles. He has claimed the no. 1 ranking thrice, only to give it back.
At this tournament, it will be his 16th appearance. He has won six times and finished as runner-up four times, which includes three defeats to Djokovic.
He certainly will be the second favourite to win an unprecedented seventh time.
Sascha, by reaching the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters, qualified for the second year in a row.
Last year he won one match and lost two. This year he would be hoping to improve and do better.
It will certainly not be easy to do so of course with Novak, Cilic and Isner as opponents.
The giant South African qualified in style, by winning the Vienna ATP 500 tournament with a straight-sets win over Nishikori in the final.
This is his first entry and he is only the second South African to qualify, after Wayne Fereira in 1995.
That year Wayne won a solitary match versus Yevgeny Kafelnikov and lost to both Pete Sampras and ultimate champion Boris Becker.
Kevin would be hoping to do better this time and win two of his three matches against Federer, Thiem and Nishikori.
Cilic qualified for the fourth time in the last five years and for the third time in a row. He and Thiem qualified at the same time during the Paris Masters.
For Thiem too it is his third participation in succession.
Cilic has a career high of world number three and has won one Grand Slam.
In 2018, his major achievements include winning the Queens Club and reaching the Australian Open final.
He would be hoping to at least reach the semi-finals, if not more.
Thiem, who reached the finals of the 2018 Madrid Open and French Open and almost upset Nadal at the US Open, would be hoping to leave a mark as well at the year-end tournament.
Kei Nishikori was first alternate for Juan Martin Del Potro and Isner was second alternate for Nadal.
Ironically, when Nishikori lost to Federer in Paris, his defeat ensured the qualification of both Cilic and Thiem.
Nishikori too qualified when Del Potro backed out. This is his fourth qualification after a terrific year for him which started by missing the Australian Open and Indian Wells due to injury and even having to play challengers.
London has been a happy hunting ground for him with two semi-finals. He would be hoping to repeat the show.
Isner was the final and eighth to qualify after Rafa backed out. This was his first qualification in his more than 12 seasons as a pro.
This was also his best season ever and his marathon Wimbledon semi-final against Kevin will be in memory for a long long time.
Isner is excited to play the finals and he has the toughest task of them all; a first up match with Novak Djokovic.
Isner says he has nothing to lose and everything to gain and promises to give his best.
The article would be incomplete without mentioning Rafa and Del Potro, who qualified easily but had to bow out due to injury.
At the Rogers Cup 2018, the world no. 1 player Rafa not only won his record breaking 33rd ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title, but also clinched his ATP spot for the 14th year in a row.
Nadal has a glittering resume which includes 17 Grand Slam titles, 33 Masters 1000 and four year-end number one finishes.
However, somehow this is the one big title that has eluded him.
He reached the finals in 2010 and 2013, however, in 2010, Federer stopped him in three sets, while in 2013 his other great rival – Djokovic – won in straight sets.
While it will not make any difference to his legacy, Rafa was certainly hoping to win the title at least once before he hangs up his tennis rackets.
This year, unfortunately he had to back out due to abdominal pain and ankle surgery.
Del Potro entered the O2 arena for the first time since 2013 – and fifth time overall – when he defeated Karen Khachanov to reach the China Open quarter-finals.
He became the fourth player to qualify. At London, Del Potro has once reached the final, in his second attempt in 2009 when he lost to Nikolay Davydenko.
His other three attempts, in 2008, 2012 and 2013, were not too fruitful.
He was hoping to pose a few questions this time around. Sadly he bowed out after one set in the Shanghai Masters semi-finals and later it was diagnosed that it was a patella fracture and he would miss the rest of the season.
The tournament starts on the 11th. If things go to form it could be a Novak-Roger final again.
Novak has defeated Roger four times in a row now, for th first time in their rivalry.
Roger will take heart from his recent defeat at Paris where he competed well and was not broken once to lose in a three-hour, 15-minute battle ending in a third-set tiebreak.
Therefore, it could be a terrific end to the year.
London, here we come.