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TennisBalls • ATP Tour Finals • London 02 Arena • Favorites Roger, Rafa, Novak And The Puppies • All 8 Players From Europe

Photo by Rafael Nadal via Instagram

By Alix Ramsay 

After 11 months of competition, we are now into the last 10 days of the ATP’s 2019 season and there is still barely a cigarette paper between them: two grand slam titles for Novak Djokovic, two grand slam titles for Rafa Nadal.

Until Monday of this week, Djokovic had been on top of the world for exactly one year (to add on to the 233 weeks he had been top dog in the previous seasons); as of Monday of this week, Nadal rules the roost. He is 640 ranking points ahead of Djokovic which means that if he reaches the final unbeaten, he will end the year as world No.1.

Djokovic, meanwhile, needs to get to the final to have a chance of overhauling his old rival. And given that they are both in different groups for the round robin phase of the tournament, the battle for the top spot could be decided in a semi-final showdown a week on Saturday. Suffice to say, it is very, very close.

Rafa has arrived, safe and sound, in London and on Thursday he had his first crack at serving for almost a week. Just before his semi-final at the Rolex Paris Masters, he pulled an abdominal muscle and rather than risk further injury, he withdrew from the tournament. Since then, he has been at home in Mallorca trying to get himself fit enough to compete in London (hence the serving ban until now).

The ATP Finals is the one major trophy Nadal has never won and he would dearly love to be holding the big, silver trophy next Sunday together with a fifth end-of-year top ranking. At the moment, the Nadal camp is upbeat; the man himself thinks he will be ready – but how long that ailing muscle with hold up is anyone’s guess.

“It’s the right moment in your career to define your personal goals,” he said. “My personal goal is to try and stay here, to compete here as long as possible. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying to be No. 1 – not at all. But I’m not following that goal. Things I’m doing, I’m in the position I am today, fighting for it – great!

“I’d love to be equal with Roger and with Novak with the five No.1 spots for the end of the year. It would be something fantastic for me but, honestly, I can’t complain. I need to be focused with my real goal. The goal is to put me in a position to play 100 per cent. If that happens my goals will be very different.’

In other words: wait to see what happens on Monday (when Nadal plays his first match against Alexander Zverev in the Andre Agassi group) and depending on how he pulls up after that, let’s talk again about goals and ambitions.

Djokovic, who is in the Boris Becker group with Roger Federer, is clearly zeroed in on winning his sixth title in London. He came close last year but ran out of puff against Zverev in the final; this year, he has planned well and thinks he is ready for one last effort in the coming 10 days.

“In my personal opinion it’s one of the two biggest achievements you can have as a professional competitor and tennis player – winning a Grand Slam and being No. 1 in the world at the end of the season,” he said.

“So I’m really pleased to be in the position but, at the same time, I’m trying to understand that longevity as well is something I’m valuing even more.”

Ah, yes, longevity. That would be Federer’s specialist subject. At the age of 38, he is in town with his eyes on the title. He pulled out of Paris in order to be rested and raring to go for the Finals and, these days, he is happy to admit that he has his own priorities and if they do not marry up with the tour’s priorities, tough noogies.

When he announced that that he would not be taking part in the new ATP Cup at the start of next year, Federer came in for a bit of stick. He said at the time that he wanted to spend more time with his family but his critics pointed to his busy exhibition schedule in the off-season – a tour of South America and Mexico this month and a trip to China two days after Christmas – and questioned Federer’s logic. Surely his published plans were a direct contradiction to his claim to want to be at home with the wife and kids.

Unused to such criticism – Fed has not faced much flak in his 21 years on tour – he was at pains to point out exactly how, why and when he had made his decision.

“When we had to sign up for the ATP Cup it was shortly after Wimbledon,” he began, “and for me it was always a logical decision to play the first week [of the season].

“The south American exo tour was already long in the scheduling – something I wanted to do for a long time but I couldn’t because of my knee, I couldn’t do it because of the birth of my children, I couldn’t do it the year after, two years after, just because it was going to be too much. So South America became a priority for me and ATP Cup, too, to play the first week.

“But then when I realised that Stan was also not going to play, the family was not going travel to Sydney, honestly, I said I’d rather be home with the family, take it easy, train some more and make the priority the Australian Open and the World Tour Finals.

“And also having the dream match with Rafa in South Africa on February 7, one that I’ve been trying to get a date from Rafa basically for the last two or three years, it was going to be a priority for as well and something had to give. And that was the ATP Cup which I just felt like I was going to be very happy to play but it just wasn’t at that level of importance for me. So, that was that.

“Together with my wife, we tried to come up with a really good schedule for the kiddies and going to Sydney in the end was just one we were not ready to do. We wanted them to be in one place for a longer time. That’s why I don’t think it’s contradictory at all.”

And then there was a wonderful moment of #awks. As the press conference fizzled out, one last question came from the back of the room. Fed’s last match with Djoko had been the Wimbledon final and that had been a cracker. But on that day, the interrogator went on, around 80 per cent of the crowd had been cheering for Fed and not Djoko. Did Fed like that and what was he expecting in the coming week?

Now, given that Djoko was sitting beside Fed at the time and there was no hiding place for either man, this made an embarrassing moment all the more difficult. “Er, well, it’s very nice…I appreciate all the support…” Rodge burbled and bumbled trying to move on swiftly while Djoko sat with a face like thunder.

To be fair, the Serb was trying to employ his poker face but, really, it wasn’t working. And Djoko knows that he may have to play Fed twice in front of a pro-Fed, London crowd if he is to win his sixth title and claim his coveted sixth year-end No.1 ranking. That’s not awkward at all, is it?

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