When the eight best players in men’s tennis gathered on the southern bank of the Thames on Friday, the three greatest of them – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – looked and sounded a little more weary than the young contenders trying to supplant them at the summit of the game. Nadal, who leapfrogged Djokovic to No 1 in the world despite pulling out of the semi-finals in Paris last week with an abdominal injury in a season of many highs and lows, is the most vulnerable.
The 33-year-old has withdrawn seven times in 15 visits to the ATP Tour Finals, the game’s season-ending showcase, and has not played the event for the past three years, although he was obliged to sound upbeat about reaching the starting line against the defending champion, Alexander Zverev, on Monday night.
“I’m confident I can be competitive but in this tournament you need to be 100% ready from the beginning,” he said. “I started [practising again] yesterday, very slow. For me the main goal is to be healthy for Monday.”
Nadal denied his participation in the Davis Cup finals in Madrid the following week would influence his decision about playing in London. “No, this is such a big event,” he said. “The Davis Cup is another big event. I’m doing what the doctors tell me to do. I’m trying to be ready for everything. I just try to do my calendar, to do the things that work best for me. Playing here is always very special. I’m excited to be in London. Davis Cup? We’ll look at that after here.”
Federer – who opens against the world No 5, Dominic Thiem, on Sunday night – also has to prioritise events in his schedule at 38, and defended his decision to withdraw “for family reasons” from the inaugural ATP Team Cup, which starts in Australia on 3 January.
Instead, he will play several lucrative exhibition tournaments this month in South America as well as in China before the Australian Open, followed by a non-Tour match against Nadal immediately afterwards in South Africa on 7 February.
“When we had to sign up for the ATP Cup it was shortly after Wimbledon and it was logical to play the first week [of 2020],” he said. “The South America exhibition tour was a long time in scheduling. I couldn’t do it because of my knee, because of the children … it was going to be too much. South America was a priority for me. Then, when I realised Stan [Wawrinka, his Swiss teammate] wasn’t going to play [in the ATP Team Cup, against Great Britain in Sydney], I decided I’d rather stay with my family and make the Australian Open a priority.
“I’ve got a dream match with Rafa, and have been trying to get that date for the last two years. Something had to give. That was the ATP Cup. It wasn’t that level of importance for me. My decision was also connected to announcing I would play in the Olympics [in Tokyo in July]. We try to come up with a schedule for the kids. I don’t think it’s contradictory at all.”
Perhaps not – although those fans who were persuaded to buy tickets to see Federer play in a rare visit to Sydney in January might see it differently.
Djokovic, meanwhile, remains committed to regaining the No 1 ranking and opens the tournament on Sunday afternoon against Matteo Berrettini, the first Italian to make the finals.
“That serves as a great motivation,” said the five-times winner of this title. “We all work very hard in the longest season of all sports to qualify for the season’s finale. Historically, I’ve played well in the indoor season.”
Berrettini, eighth in the world, said: “I didn’t expect to be here at the beginning of the season or even a few months ago. The US Open [where he reached the semi-finals, losing to Nadal] changed it.”
Djokovic and Berrettini are in the Bjorn Borg Group with Federer and Thiem, while Nadal and Zverev compete in the Andre Agassi quartet alongside the sensationally in-form Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. The challenge for the Big Three once was to conquer each other; now it is to survive until the final weekend.