When Matteo Berrettini reached the semifinals of the United States Open in September, it signaled a new phase in his career. But it also symbolized how wide open the fight would be for the final two spots in the ATP Finals in November.
Held at London’s O2 Arena, it is the most prestigious tournament outside of the Grand Slams, usually featuring the year’s top eight men’s players. No surprise that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic locked up their spots easily.
Daniil Medvedev laid claim to a spot with his torrid summer performance, which culminated in an epic battle against Nadal at the U.S. Open final. And by mid-September, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas had essentially secured their slots. That left just two up for grabs in the season’s homestretch, which culminates with the Paris Masters, a crucial tournament that begins Monday, with 1,000 ATP points at stake.
Among those seeking a slot was the ATP Finals defending champion, Alexander Zverev. He struggled through much of this year, losing his first match at several major tournaments, including Wimbledon. By late September, it seemed unlikely he would even qualify for the season-ender.
At that point, Roberto Bautista Agut and Berrettini were in line for the final two spots, just ahead of the injured Kei Nishikori. Zverev had fallen to 11th, passed by Gael Monfils. David Goffin, Fabio Fognini, Diego Schwartzman and Stan Wawrinka were also in the hunt.
Zverev had more at stake than the others, said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst. “If he makes the ATP Finals, it resurrects his season, but if he doesn’t then it punctuates the disappointment.”
For most of those other players, simply reaching the tournament is a thrill, said Jimmy Arias, a Tennis Channel analyst. For young players, it validates their rise and can provide confidence next season, while for veterans, it can be a capstone on their career.
Goffin, who reached the finals of the 2017 London tournament, felt fortunate to be in the race after changing coaches and battling injuries. He acknowledged that just returning to the O2 Arena would be satisfying. “It would mean a lot to qualify again,” he said.
But Arias cautioned that while players need that hunger to drive them at year’s end, when they are banged up and exhausted, they must not put too much pressure on themselves. “It can’t be so important that it paralyzes you.”
Fortunes can change in a hurry at this time of year. Several players fell apart with back-to-back poor performances in late September and early October, including Monfils, Schwartzman and most notably Bautista Agut, who fell from seventh to ninth after losing to Berrettini in Shanghai.
At the same time, Fognini and Goffin inserted themselves into the race with strong showings in Asia before they too hit a wall, suffering early round upsets as the tour returned to Europe.
After his U.S. Open run, Berrettini seemed headed for London. Then he lost to the unseeded Andy Murray in his first round at the China Open, and suddenly he was down in ninth. After righting himself at Shanghai, beating Bautista Agut and Thiem to reach the semifinals, he returned to eighth place, with a slight lead.
“No one on the planet would have predicted this for Berrettini at the beginning of the year,” McEnroe said.
No one symbolized the roller-coaster ride better than Zverev. Everything seemed to improve at the Laver Cup in late September. On the second day, Zverev collapsed in a third-set super tiebreaker, falling 10-1 to John Isner. On the final day, the fate of Team Europe rested with Zverev, who seemed about to let his match against Team World’s Milos Raonic slip away. Before the super tiebreaker, Federer gave Zverev, 22, an expletive-laced speech, telling the youngster he needed to carry himself like a winner and to shed his defeatist attitude after losing points. Federer and Nadal told him a tiebreaker win could turn his season around.
Zverev crushed Raonic 10-4 and began his resurrection. At the China Open, he reached his first semifinals since July, moving into eighth in the Race to London. In Shanghai, he beat Federer, then Berrettini to reach his first finals since May. He lost to Medvedev, but the Race to London had shifted. A week before the Paris Masters, Zverev was in seventh place, with a chance to do more than just qualify.
“Some of those other guys in the running would be happy just to make the ATP Finals and maybe win a match in the round robin, but Zverev is the one guy in this group that could win it all,” McEnroe said.
The roller coaster took another plunge at the Swiss Indoor Basel, when Zverev lost his first-round match to Taylor Fritz. Berrettini reached at least the semifinals at the Vienna Open. Bautista Agut is still in ninth, but indoor surfaces do not fit his style, while Monfils, who plays well indoors, and Schwartzman kept London in sight with strong runs in Vienna. Zverev still control his own destiny as the Paris Masters begins, but the pressure is heightened.
“I think Berrettini will hold on because he’s young and confident with a big game suited well for indoors,” Arias said. “If Zverev loses in the first round in Paris and a couple of guys pass him, that would leave a bad taste in his mouth for this year.”
Despite the tumult in Zverev’s performances, McEnroe said he still believed Zverev would turn things around once more. “He is still in control of his own destiny in Paris,” McEnroe said. “I think he makes it back to London to try to defend his title.”
Source : NYtimes