In a year of pandemic pandemonium, the men’s tennis season came to an end at the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena in London. Daniil Medvedev slipped past Dominic Thiem 4-6, 7-6, 6-4.
With the title, he gave Russia its second tournament championship. Nikolay Davydenko won the first in 2009 defeating Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, 6-3, 6-4. US Open titlist Thiem is now “0” for “2” in London having come up 7-6, 2-6, 6-7 short last year against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.
In an appropriate conclusion, Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Nikola Mektić of Croatia defeated Jürgen Melzer of Austria and Édouard Roger-Vasselin of France, 6-2, 3-6, 10-5 for their first title as a doubles team.
The first ATP final was called the Grand Prix Masters Cup and it took place fifty years ago in Tokyo. In 1970, both the singles and doubles were round-robin competitions (and the same format was used the next year).
Giving due credit, the initial event should have been called the Smith Cup, since Stan Smith was the singles winner and shared the doubles title with US compatriot Arthur Ashe.
Smith then returned to lose back-to-back finals in 1971 and ’72. Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia became a back-to-backer in 1983 and ’84. Boris Becker of Germany joined the all-star group in 1985 and ’86. Jim Courier of the US followed in 1991 and ’92. Roger Federer of Switzerland was the last to earn the back-to-back distinction in 2014 and ’15. Relative newcomer, Thiem has now become a member of an exclusive club.
(As it turns out, Austria is still waiting for a win in year-end title rounds. Thiem has two losses in the singles’ finals. Melzer added to his country’s losses with his doubles’ defeat. In 2007, Julian Knowle became the first Austrian to be on the losing end of a trophy battle when he was a finalist with Simon Aspelin of Sweden.)
Smith remained the only double title winner until 1978 when John McEnroe claimed the singles and the doubles with US countryman Peter Fleming. The duo did it again in 1983 and ’84. Even more extraordinary, Fleming and McEnroe owned the doubles trophy from 1978 until 1984, winning seven straight titles.
Last year, Medvedev, who now has nine career titles including three Masters 1000s, didn’t win a match in group play. This time, he was magic, claiming his most significant trophy to date.
Looking back, and this is completely subjective, others have had “Magic Moments” at the year-ender. Alex Corretja outlasted fellow-Spaniard Carlos Moya 3–6, 3–6, 7–5, 6–3, 7–5 in 1998. I vividly remember the championship. Nightly, after the matches finished, journalists waited outside the arena in Hanover for tournament transportation to return us to our hotel.
Often snow was falling and it was so cold that walking back and forth did nothing to create warmth. During these frigid times Gianni Clerici and Rino Tommasi, the two legendary Italian journalists, regularly entertained us by singing Italian arias. Their voices matched their award winning writing skills as they entertained a collection of individuals who were about to become “snowmen”.
As unlikely as the Hanover trophy clash between two clay courters was, nothing could match the 1974 title round in Melbourne. In the encounter, Guillermo Vilas of Argentina escaped with a 7-6, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 decision over Ilie Năstase
It was Vilas’ eleventh title of the year, but what was more astounding was that the tournament was contested on grass, (and Vilas was the first “Nadal” on Terre Battue before the present day Spaniard dominated on the surface).
One of the most fitting results took place in Lisbon. In 2000, the Tennis Masters Cup was held in an arena near the “old city” famous for its pastel colored buildings. There was nothing pastel about Gustavo Kuerten’s performance. The dynamic Brazilian, spurred on by the cheers of fellow Portuguese speakers, defeated Andre Agassi of the US, in a best of five, in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 for the title.
But there was much more to the story. The victory was truly momentous because Kuerten finished the year No. 1 in the rankings, and with that he became the first South American to do so.
More often than not, the expected happens at the year-end championships. Still, there have been surprises. In 1976, Manuel Orantes of Spain outlasted Wojtek Fibak of Poland in a bingo like score 5-7, 6-2, 0-6, 7-6, 6-1 final in Houston. Five set survival told the tale of David Nalbandian’s 2005 triumph. The Argentine overcame Roger Federer of Switzerland, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 7-6 to win the first year-end final held in Shanghai.
When it comes to repeat victories Năstase had a 1971-73 three-peat. Lendl did the same from 1985 to ’87. Djokovic is the leader in the repeat winner category having been the champion from 2012 until ’15.
When it comes to country totals, the US leads with eleven singles winners. Serbia and Switzerland (a.k.a. Djokovic and Federer) each have had six champions. Czechoslovakia, (meaning Lendl), before it became the Czech Republic, has been in the winner’s circle five times. Romania (Năstase) has claimed four trophies.
As far as locations, the singles championships have been played in fourteen countries. The doubles, which on a number of occasions was a stand alone tournament, has taken place in twelve countries (and was not held from 1971 through ’74).
Many hoped the last stand in London would be a No.1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia against No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain feature. But the semifinals quashed that hope resulting in the future actually being the present in both cases. Medvedev downed Nadal 3-6, 7-6, 6-3 and Thiem sideswiped Djokovic 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.
After eleven years at the O2 Arena, Turin, the capital city of Piedmont in northern Italy, will step into the spotlight. The Pala Alpitour, the largest indoor sports arena in the country, which was built for the 2006 Winter Olympics, will be the site for the 2021 ATP Finals and “le aspettative di successo sono ineguagliabili” (the expectations for success are unmatched).
Title photo by Roger Parker