LONDON – As the ATP Finals tournament prepares to say goodbye to London and move to Turin, Italy next year, there are four hopefuls left waiting for their name to appear on the trophy, with three of them aiming to win the tournament for the first time .

The tournament is played in an eerily quiet O2 Arena with no fans. Surrounding pubs and restaurants are closed, with the UK locked in until December 2 due to COVID-19. It is a jarring experience to see her from afar. Usually it’s a spree of music, strobes, Swiss flags, and expensive food.

Although we have lost a Grand Slam this year with Wimbledon canceled, there will be no asterisk against this year’s winner. It will all come down to the domain of the mind as well as the court. Players have spoken this week about how difficult times are off the court, locked in their hotel rooms and unable to mingle with friends and family outside of the tennis bio-bubble. Even though their hotel is only 200 meters from the sand, they must take a car. It is restrictive but essential to allow this event to take place.

After the original eight challengers, only four remain. Both Dominic Thiem and surprise package Daniil Medvedev will be looking to put their name on the trophy for the first time, while Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal hope to end their years on a high note.

Dominic Thiem vs. Novak Djokovic

Thiem has long been a contender in men’s tennis and was the first to qualify for the semi-finals, having beaten last year’s ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 and Nadal. 7-6, 7-6. With his powerful groundstrokes and comfortable baseline control, Thiem, now 27, is finally reaching his peak in a year that saw him win his first Grand Slam at the US Open to become the first man. born in the 1990s to win. a major singles title.

His win over Nadal this week was especially impressive. His deadly backhand went down the line and kept Nadal pinned.

“I knew if I wanted to have a shot, this shot had to go in, backhand on the line, if I took it early. Fortunately it worked well,” Thiem said.

This will prove crucial in the semi-final, as will his ability to hit winners clean – he defeated 37 winners over Nadal along with six aces. Thiem rated his own performance in that second group match as better than the standard he reached at the US Open and compared it to a group stage win over Djokovic at this tournament last year.

“I think today … was perhaps the best match for me since the restart of the tour. That makes me super happy,” he said after dispatching Nadal.

Their last match of the group stage was less impressive, as they lost to Andrey Rublev 2-6, 5-7. Thiem said after the loss that it was difficult to maintain that incredible intensity that he had during the first two rounds, and he hopes his semi-final against Djokovic will be more like Nadal’s match than Rublev’s.

Fate at these ATP Finals is smiling at you. The last four winners have been new names to the trophy. Thiem is now well placed to follow in the footsteps of Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Tsitsipas to become the fifth champion for the first time, but it won’t be easy against the world No. 1.

Djokovic has had a turbulent year. He won the Australian Open in February, and after contracting COVID-19 during the ATP Tour suspension due to the pandemic, he picked up where he left off, approaching the US Open in excellent shape. Then came his infamous foul after hitting a linesman with a ball. Then came the French Open, where he stormed to the final only to hit Nadal’s barrier. Despite all this, he remains ranked number one in the world and knows that a win in London will see him equate Roger Federer’s record of six ATP Finals titles.

In London, Djokovic opened with a resounding 6-3, 6-2 victory over Diego Schwartzman, then suffered a surprise loss to Medvedev, playing in a straight shootout with 2018 winner Zverev for a place in the semi-final.

He did not stay with Zverev, taking a 3-0 lead in the first set and closing that 6-3. Although Zverev showed better pace and edge in the second, Djokovic passed in straight sets 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).

Djokovic was frustrated after the loss to Medvedev, saying he lacked pace, tempo and fitness, while lamenting his 24 unforced errors and five double faults. But the victory over Zverev saw him back in balance as he saluted the empty stands.

“I felt great, I managed to serve well in important moments and I found the right shots at the right time,” Djokovic said after beating Zverev.

Djokovic still performs his usual celebratory salute of pushing his arms from his chest to all four sides of the arena.

“That is my celebration. I mean, that is also my thanks to the court and this opportunity to be able to compete,” Djokovic said. “You know, although it may sound like a phrase, but I try to remind myself that I don’t take things for granted, and that’s one of the routines that reminds me of things that I need to be aware of.”

Djokovic has two more chances to do that routine in London. Djokovic faces Thiem on Saturday with a 7-4 head-to-head record in his favor.

“Being one of the hardest working and most dedicated players, Dominic’s found his A game on other surfaces [apart from clay]. Hopefully we can have a great match, “said Djokovic.

Daniil Medvedev vs. Rafael Nadal

World No. 4 Medvedev is finding his best shape at just the right time. His 6-3, 6-3 group stage victory over Djokovic was a performance he attributes to playing without question and proof that he is playing some of the best tennis of his career. He came to London after a mixed year. He crashed at the Australian Open in the fourth round to Stan Wawrinka, then after the tennis hiatus due to COVID-19, he reached the semi-finals of the US Open, where he lost to Thiem, and won the Paris Masters. , beating Zverev 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 in the final.

After beating Djokovic on Wednesday, Medvedev was asked who he would like to face in the semifinals.

“Of course, I want to get a win against Rafa,” Medvedev said. “I don’t have one yet.”

If Medvedev is going to defeat Nadal, he will have to serve as he did against Djokovic, winning 61% of his second serve points to Djokovic’s 43% along with 10 aces. He attributed that victory over Djokovic to “playing safe enough in the most important moments.” He is now aiming for a place in ATP Finals history as he looks to become the fourth player to win the title after a winless debut year (he lost to Zverev, Nadal and Tsitsipas during the group stage in 2019).

Nadal has qualified for the last 16 ATP Finals, but his best results to date are final losses to Federer in 2010 and Djokovic in 2013. This could be his best chance. Due to the forced pause, Nadal’s body had time to rest. And he’s still riding the wave of his triumph at the French Open, his 20th major title, in October.

In London, Nadal started strong with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Rublev. He then fell to Thiem 6-7, 6-7. He said that after the loss he had no negative reflexes and was happy with how he played. He seemed happy and calm, and that carried over to his impressive three-set win over Tsitsipas on Thursday. Nadal is now looking to carry that momentum into Saturday’s knockout match against Medvedev, knowing that he has won all three of his previous meetings against the Russian.

What was so impressive about Nadal’s win over Tsitispas, along with the usual traits we expect from the Spaniard, was his serve. He managed to hit eight aces. But with only one indoor hard court win to his name, the 2005 Madrid ATP Masters 1000 title, he knows he will have to be in his prime to defeat the brave Russian who feels he has “a lot of confidence” and is “playing very good”.

Nadal, speaking after his win over Tsitispas, brought back Medvedev’s recent form from the past two years as if he had been studying him closely, predicting that they would eventually meet.

“[Medvedev] has a lot of confidence. Yes I know [it’s] it’s going to be difficult, “Nadal said.” I know I need to play at my highest level. If not, it is almost impossible. But I hope I’m ready for that to happen. “