What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both missed the ATP World Tour Finals, having cut short their seasons because of injury. Andy Murray had just replaced Novak Djokovic as world No 1 and beat the Serb in the final here to finish the season at the top of the rankings.
It felt like the start of a new chapter in men’s tennis, but how wrong that impression proved to be. This year it is Murray and Djokovic who are the long-term absentees from next week’s rebranded Nitto ATP Finals, neither man having played competitively since Wimbledon because of injury, while Nadal and Federer, back at No 1 and No 2 respectively in the world rankings, will aim to bring a fitting finale to a season which they have utterly dominated.
The 31-year-old Spaniard and the 36-year-old Swiss have shared the season’s four Grand Slam titles and won five of the nine Masters Series events. Federer’s total of 9,005 ranking points is more than double that of the world No 3, Alexander Zverev.
It is all the more remarkable when you consider where the two great rivals were at the end of last year. Nadal was ranked No 9 in the world, having not won a Grand Slam title since 2014, while Federer, the world No 16, had not won one since 2012.
Perhaps the most telling factor this year has been their fitness. While Federer has played a limited schedule, the only tournament from which Nadal withdrew was last week’s Paris Masters following a recurrence of his knee problems.
Nadal thinks that where he had been unlucky with injuries in 2016, fortune has been on his side this year. “Sometimes players suffer more injuries,” he said here on Friday. “We are playing in a sport that is very demanding, a sport where you need to be 100 per cent fit to be competitive, and a sport, if you want to be high in the rankings, where you have to play the whole season.”
Because of his knee issue Nadal has been cautious in practice ahead of his opening match but insisted: “I am here. I’ll try my best. If I didn’t believe I would be ready for Monday I wouldn’t be here.”
He added: “Of course being here is important, but probably for me the most important thing is playing all year in the tournaments, playing almost every week at a very competitive level of tennis. When that happens and you are able to practise in a way that you want, your chances are a little bit higher.”
Even if Federer reaches the final here on Sunday week, in just his 12th tournament of the year, the Swiss will have played only 58 matches, which is nearly 40 fewer than he sometimes played in his twenties.
Federer, who faces Jack Sock on the opening day on Sunday, skipped the entire clay-court season this year and does not rule out doing the same in 2018.
“Of course, I'm hoping to play, but I’ve got to be very cautious about my decision-making,” he said. “I just cannot play 25 tournaments any more. I could, of course, but I don’t know what the outcome will be. I just choose to stay healthy and injury-free.”
Federer said it had been “a good achievement” to make the field here given that he had gone into 2017 targeting a world ranking of around No 8 by the end of Wimbledon. He actually rose to No 3 after becoming the first player in history to win the men’s singles title at the All England Club eight times.
“I was very happy with the way I played throughout the entire season,” said Federer, who has suffered only four defeats all year. “I was pretty much injury-free apart from a back issue in Montreal that carried over for a bit. I played great. I’m very happy to be here again and to get a chance to compete with the best. Playing here is one of the big highlights of the year.”
This is one of the few titles Nadal has failed to win. He has reached only one final in his previous eight appearances. The Spaniard has qualified for the tournament 13 times but did not play because of injury on five occasions. Federer, in contrast, has won the title a record six times in his 14 appearances. As Nadal is quick to point out, the tournament has always been played on hard courts, which clearly favours the Swiss.
Federer has also won all four of his meetings with Nadal this year (which has cut the French Open champion’s lead in their head-to-head record to 23-15), though they have all been on hard courts. Federer won in five sets when they met in the Australian Open final in January and in straight sets in Indian Wells, Miami and Shanghai.
Nadal, nevertheless, does not see any need for a confidence-boosting victory over Federer. “I’ve won enough matches for my confidence,” he said. “It would be great to finish the year playing against him again and to give me another chance, but that’s it.
“You cannot forget that we played all the time on surfaces that he likes more than me. I just accept that and find different ways to approach the match. If that happens and I am healthy enough, I hope to have my chances.”
Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem are the only other men in the field who have previously qualified for this tournament, which brings together the eight players who have earned the most ranking points in the year. With Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic having joined Murray and Djokovic on the sidelines because of injury, younger players have been given the chance to step up.
Zverev, Sock and Grigor Dimitrov are all playing here for the first time, while David Goffin’s only previous appearance was last year, when he played one match as an alternate.
In another age a player of Dimitrov’s ability would surely have qualified on several occasions. The 26-year-old Bulgarian admitted that competing in the era of the so-called “Big Four” has had its frustrations for players of his generation.
“When you think you’ve put a lot of work into it you then find there’s still that much to go,” he said. “While we’re working, they’re working as well. But it’s certainly a very special era to play with them. Being here with them, it’s something that can help you grow. It gives you great experience.
“You also see players playing some of their best tennis in their late twenties or early thirties today. I think that gives you something to look forward to.”
Dimitrov said what Nadal and Federer had achieved this year was “pretty amazing” and added: “They have proved themselves over and over again and that’s the true definition of champions.”