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Christmas Countdown: Why are the ATP Finals so dull?

Hannah Wilks in Opinion 3 Dec 2018
  • The ATP Finals haven't provided scintillating tennis in recent years
  • What's to blame for the lacklustre quality at the showcase event of men's tennis?
  • Should the tournament relocate from the O2 Arena?
Novak Djokovic during his defeat to Alexander Zverev at the Nitto ATP Finals in 2018 (Photo by Linnea Rheborg/Getty Images)

Why are the ATP Finals so boring – is it the event, the players or the length of the season? is celebrating the off-season with a Christmas countdown series of articles in which our editors give their take on the burning questions facing tennis in 2019, from the stars to the schedule to the sport’s very structure. You can find the master list of articles here – and feel free to join in the debate via our Twitter and Facebook pages!

They’re supposed to be the pinnacle of the ATP Tour season, bringing the tennis year to a thunderous climax as the eight best players face off in a bespoke event that showcases everything great about men’s tennis.
And yet, I can’t be the only one who’s increasingly found the ATP’s year-end championships – currently known as the Nitto ATP Finals – a bit of a drag: Suffocated by the sameness of the mise en scène, with the biggest stars only sporadically present and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu hanging over the whole thing.

Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic after the 2018 final (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) 
My time as a professional tennis writer has coincided with the ATP Finals’ sojourn at London’s O2 Arena, which began in 2009 and is set to continue until at least 2020. I remember how cool and exciting it all seemed – the music! The graphics! That heartbeat sound when someone challenged a call! – in 2009, a different and potentially more contemporary take on tennis than the other tournaments you could go to see in the UK. Nine years later, the novelty has definitely worn off, and the tournament hasn’t evolved. At all. 

The question of whether it should move to a different city and venue beyond 2020, as advocated by Novak Djokovic, is already a hotly-debated one, but most opinion-formers seem to take the same view of it as Roger Federer, which can broadly be expressed as ‘If it ain’t broke …’ Declining attendance figures reported in 2018, however, and a record number of straight-sets matches suggest that even if it isn’t broken, some cracks are starting to show.

The fact that it was Alexander Zverev, the youngest man in the field, who lifted the ATP Finals trophy this year after back-to-back victories over Federer and Djokovic had the effect of obscuring just what a dull, plodding business the first eight days of the tournament were. Eleven of the 12 round-robin matches were settled in straight sets, and overwhelmingly, these were not fun straight-sets matches either. Djokovic had looked like he was guaranteed to win the tournament before it started and eight days in, it still looked that way. You shouldn’t have to wait eight days for a tennis tournament to get even vaguely interesting – and when more surprising results emerged, they didn’t exactly manifest through great matches. Ultimately, a pretty good Zverev beat a mediocre Federer and then a low-energy Djokovic in straight sets. It was fun because it wasn’t supposed to happen, but is a mild sense of surprise really worth the (high) price of admission?

The 2018 ATP Finals saw a record number of straight-sets matches (14 of 15 total), and while the 2017 edition bucked the trend – 11 of 15 matches went the distance – the last few years have also seen a preponderance of straight-sets matches: 10 of 15 in 2016, 12 of 15 in 2015, 10 of 12 round-robin matches in 2014 (the semifinals were great and then the final was a walkover). 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with straight-sets matches and length is no guarantor of quality – but these are supposed to be the absolute best players in the world facing off. Shouldn’t they be able to last more than an hour?

What’s the problem? Is it the tournament, or the players – or a bigger issue with the sport in general, the length of the season?

Roger Federer takes the stage at the O2 Arena  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
The ATP Finals has established a brand identity in London which is understandably popular with the money men, who favour hegemony and consistency above all else. But there is an argument that organizing an event where ticket-buyers only get one singles match and one doubles match for their money might not be the best idea if the quality of the singles matches is so dire. The WTA Finals Singapore (relocating to Shenzhen from 2020) has prominently featured legends of the game, coaching clinics and rising stars alongside the main event; unlikely though is that the ATP would ever lower themselves to take a cue from their female counterparts, could the ATP Finals incorporate and showcase some more aspects of the game? What about wheelchair tennis? How about incorporating the Next Gen ATP Finals with the ATP Finals, so that ticket-buyers got a shorter-format contest featuring all the ‘innovations’ before the biggest stars took the court? What about expanding the field to 16 players and making it a straightforward elimination format again, thus getting rid of the meaningless matches and sets and the pervasive sense of déjà vu created by watching the same players play each other for a week? 

And for those who would object to the last idea by pointing out that in such a format, Federer would have been out of this year’s tournament on day one, consider this: Like it or not, the ATP is moving out of an era dominated by a handful of superstars, because those superstars are getting old and as yet, they have no feasible replacements. Maybe it’s time to celebrate parity.

That brings me to the second potential explanation for the dullness of the ATP Finals: The players. The divas are ageing – we haven’t seen all of the ‘Big Four’ at the O2 since 2014, and the tournament has only seen one match between any of them in the past three years, the 2016 final – and the supporting cast, to put it bluntly, are not what they once were. Pining for the era of David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga et al might seem a bit strange, but when the alternative is the likes of Marin Cilic (two wins in four years at the O2), Dominic Thiem (one round-robin win on each of his three appearances) and John Isner, most famous for playing matches you’re glad you didn’t watch, is showcasing this second string, whether playing each other or being thumped by the ageing superstars, really what you want to build your event around?

Then there’s the third factor – the length of the season. Zverev got roundly pilloried by some for suggesting that an 11-month season was ‘ridiculous’ and too long after his round-robin defeat to Djokovic, but even though this particular edition of the ATP Finals didn’t see too many players swathed in bandages and needing the trainer, the matches featured plenty of lackluster tennis and wild swings in quality from match to match (step forward, Kei Nishikori) which was redolent of extreme physical and mental fatigue. That’s without the fact that two players who should have been there, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, couldn’t even make it to the O2 – a situation that’s been all too common in recent years. Couple that with the slew of retirements and walkovers at the Paris Masters, and it’s clear that the physical toll modern tennis takes on the players is just too great to expect those who have played the most matches to perform their best in mid-to-late November.

It’s difficult to understand how to make the season shorter – indeed, one can only conclude that it’s impossible, as tennis authorities try to load more and more events into it – and the ATP Finals can’t control the players that qualify for it. But they can reimagine and reinvent the event – even if they don’t relocate it – to offer something more to spectators, at the O2 Arena and elsewhere, and lessen the overwhelming pressure on matches that aren’t delivering.

Check back tomorrow for the next in our Christmas countdown series!

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Christmas Countdown: Why are the ATP Finals so dull?

From 1-24 December, we count down the days of the off-season with articles on some of the burning questions facing tennis as it heads into 2019. Today's question: Why are the ATP Finals so dull – is it the event, the players or the length of the season which is to blame?

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