As we approach the long-awaited ATP World Tour Finals 2013 in London shortly, it is worth looking back at the origins of the event and some of the main highlights of its history.
After a long regular season marked by the four Grand Slam high points, this end-of-season event adds a final bit of spice as we enter the dark winter months. Being selected to play in the eight-man singles event is an honour in itself and the winner usually comes away with their end-of-year standing enhanced. For Tour points alone, it counts for a lot.
Over the years, the winner has usually been one of the very top tour-ranked players, but not always. The event has produced its Federers and Djokovics with multiple wins, but has also thrown up winners such as Gustavo Kuerten and David Nalbandian. With a ‘round robin’ format in the preliminary stages of the event, it lends itself to such potential outcomes. Also including the top eight doubles pairings of the season, the event provides a showcase of the very best of tennis on the Tour.
The ATP World Tour Finals owes its origins to the advent of Open tennis in 1968 and the subsequent founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1970. The title of the event has gone through several iterations since 1970 when it was known as the Masters Grand Prix. In that year, the singles event held in Tokyo was won by the American Stan Smith, a player who up until then had had a stellar Davis Cup career and was to go on to win both Wimbledon and the US Open. Four of the next five years’ events were to be won by the mercurial Romanian, Ilie Nastase. In subsequent years, the honour roll of winners reads like a Who’s Who of world tennis. All the great names of tennis of those years feature as winners: Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, Hewitt, Federer and Djokovic. Conspicuous so far by his absence has been Rafa Nadal who will be determined to remove that blemish in 2013 after an outstanding comeback year on Tour.
For the last five years, the Finals have been played in London’s O2 Arena and the ATP contract with London ensures that it will remain there until 2015, a welcome boost to the British tennis public. Over the years, however, the event has tended to take a fairly nomadic passage through the major cities of the world.
With a view to encouraging the development of the game in the ever-expanding Asian market, the event was held in Shanghai in 2002 and between 2005 and 2008. That decision appears now to have been quite prescient as the Shanghai Open tour event has gone from strength to strength, placing it among the top Tour events. Prior to that, the Finals moved between a wide number of venues, including Houston, Hanover, Sydney, Lisbon,, Frankfurt, New York, Stockholm, Melbourne, Boston, Barcelona, Paris and Tokyo – a truly global outreach. It has been that global outreach which has helped the expansion of the game to a wider international public.
Mention should also be made of the doubles component of the event, often the ‘poor relation’ of the main singles event. Over the years, it has also been the showcase of the very best of talent on Tour. Famous pairings on the roll of honour include: the Bryans (3 time winners); the Woodies, Eltingh and Haarhuis and Edberg and Jarryd (all twice each). By far the most illustrious pairing over the years, was the seven year in a row winners, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming. Their consecutive wins between 1978 and 1984 eclipse all other achievements in the event. This year, the perennial Bryans will be the main contenders seeking to secure their reputation among the best pairings in history.
This year’s selected players thus follow in an illustrious tradition. In the singles, predictably we have Nadal, Djokovic, del Potro, Ferrer, Berdych, Federer, Wawrinka. Nadal is clearly the player in pole position, keen to add the Tour Finals to his stellar record. It is comforting to see the inclusion of Federer who through indifferent form through much of the season, began to worry the pundits about his future. His form has taken a recent boost and he now equals the record of Ivan Lendl of 12 consecutive appearances in the Finals. Interestingly, Andre Agassi holds the record of number of appearances in the Finals (at 14), but in terms of Tour Final match wins, Federer holds a comfortable 42-9 or .824 percentage win record.
At one level, it could be argued that the ATP World Tour Finals has unofficially taken on the mantle of a ‘fifth Grand Slam’. After the four Grand Slam events, it is the one that the top players want to win most and which attracts the most interest from the tennis public. By its positioning at the tail end of the season and several months after the dust has settled following the last Grand Slam of the year in September, its status as an event is unquestioned. The winner of the event also ends the season as the ‘man of the moment’ and well positioned for the first Grand Slam event the following year in Melbourne. Its truncated format of eight top players also gives it a more gladiatorial quality than regular tournaments and the round robin element, a chance for players to get over initial hiccups. This year’s event should be exciting for a variety of reasons – a real feast of tennis to come.