The men’s tennis season culminates each November with the ATP World Tour Finals, an elite tournament featuring the eight singles players and doubles teams who have had the best results over the last year. Held in London’s iconic O2 Arena since 2009, it is second only to the Grand Slams in terms of status and prestige.
In 1970, Tokyo was the first city to host a season-ending championship for men’s tennis. Originally part of the Grand Prix Tennis Circuit, the event was in fact run by the International Lawn Tennis Federation, and in the following years was held in cities as diverse as Stockholm, Melbourne and New York. Although the tournament was one of the highlights of the tennis season, with generous prize money on offer, it did not award ranking points to the participants.
In 1990, the Masters became the ATP Tour World Championships, and moved to Frankfurt for the next five years before switching to Hanover for the rest of the decade. However, another lucrative season-ending event, the Grand Slam Cup, had also been taking place throughout the 1990s, which detracted somewhat from the prominence of the World Championships. In 1999, it was announced that both tournaments would be discontinued, and the Tennis Masters Cup was created. Lisbon was the first city to stage the restyled competition; it then moved to Sydney, Houston and Shanghai.
One more renaming took place in 2009, when London was awarded the right to hold the tournament until at least 2015. Now known as the ATP World Tour Finals, the event is regarded as even tougher to win than a Grand Slam, as the round-robin format means there are no easy matches for any player.
As befits a tournament of such importance, all but three of the past champions are Grand Slam winners. Unsurprisingly, Roger Federer heads the roll of honour with six titles, eclipsing Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, each of whom hoisted the trophy five times. Ilie Nastase dominated the event in the early 1970s, and was victorious on four occasions, while Boris Becker and John McEnroe are both three-time winners.
But several of the sport’s all-time greats never managed to win the distinguished event: Arthur Ashe, Jim Courier and Mats Wilander were all runners-up during their prime. And although Rafael Nadal is one of the few men to have completed a career Grand Slam, the Spaniard has never ended his year with victory at the World Tour Finals. He came closest in 2010 when he lost in three sets to arch-rival Roger Federer.
Sampras def. Becker, 1996 final:
Pete Sampras and Boris Becker were familiar foes by the time they faced off at the 1996 ATP Tour World Championships, and their rivalry was becoming more intense with every match they played. Becker had edged the American in two close tie-breaks during the round robin stage of the tournament, and had also beaten Sampras in a five set classic in Stuttgart just a few weeks earlier. The German’s famous “boom boom” serve was on song at the start of the showpiece match in Hannover: he served four aces in a row in his first service game, and then broke Sampras to take the opener 6-3.
As the Tennis Dome echoed with the sound of powerful serves and cleanly hit volleys, the second set went to a tie-break. This time, it was Sampras who prevailed, putting away yet another crisp volley to even the match and subdue the raucously pro-Becker crowd for a game or two. The lightning-quick tennis continued in the third set, but neither man could manage to break his opponent’s serve. In the second consecutive tie-break, Sampras carved out a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead, only for Becker to erase it with some courageous hitting. However, an inopportune double fault handed the advantage back to Sampras, who sealed the set with a sublime backhand pass.
Becker, down to sets to one, could have been forgiven for losing heart, but instead he continued to thrill the home fans with pinpoint serving and net-rushing heroics. As the fourth set entered yet another tie-break - the fifth in the last six sets the pair had contested - the tension became unbearable for many of those watching. Sampras held two match points, but went long on both. Four set points for Becker also came and went, but when Sampras overcooked a volley at 11-12, the crowd erupted.
The rallies lengthened in the deciding set, as each man lunged and sprinted in search of the elusive break of serve. At 4-all, Becker saved two break points, but Sampras converted the third with a magnificent backhand pass. An exhausted Becker hit a final backhand into the net in the next game, and Sampras, having clinched his third World Championship title, raised his arms in elation. It was one of the hardest fought, highest quality ATP finals of the decade, and a match neither player would ever forget.
Video: Sampras v Becker, 1996
Nalbandian def. Federer, 2005 final:
Roger Federer is often lauded for his ability to avoid injuries, but the Swiss entered the 2005 Masters Cup in Shanghai having hurt his right ankle just a few weeks prior. That said, even a hobbled and unprepared Federer is too much for most players, and he made it through the round robin undefeated. The final was a rematch with one of the men he beat at that stage, David Nalbandian.
Although short of his best form, and run ragged by a crafty and energetic Nalbandian at the beginning of the match, Federer still managed to sneak the first two sets in tie-breaks. The first was close, but the second was a knife-edge affair, vacillating between set points for both men before the Swiss snatched it 13 points to 11. With a two sets to one lead, it looked as though the Wimbledon and US Open champion was headed for a tough but decisive victory.
But Nalbandian, the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up, didn’t flinch. When Federer double faulted to hand him the opening game of the third set, the Argentine proved a strong frontrunner, and he secured another break on his way to taking it 6-2. Three games into the fourth, Federer required treatment for his injury, and his movement suffered noticeably thereafter.
A cunning Nalbandian capitalised with a series of deft drop shots, and raced through the remainder of the fourth set. With Federer continuing to struggle in the decider, Nalbandian won his tenth game in a row to open up a seemingly unassailable 4-0 lead. However, a further twist was in store, as Federer began to go for broke on his shots and his opponent succumbed to nerves. After coming out on top in some breathtaking rallies, the world number one fought his way back to 4-all, and broke for 6-5 to give himself a chance to serve it out.
But as the crowd roared their approval, this most fluctuating of contests took another turn for the unpredictable, and Nalbandian broke back immediately. In the fifth set tie-break, the eighth seed finally wore down his weary and wounded rival, and he sunk to the floor when Federer’s final forehand hit the net. It was a brave and spirited performance from the Swiss, and only his second defeat at the event, yet Nalbandian had hung on just enough to win the biggest title of his career.
Video: Nalbandian v Federer, 2005
- The legendary team of John McEnroe and Peter Fleming won seven consecutive doubles titles at the Masters Grand Prix from 1978 - 1984.
- Ivan Lendl reach nine consecutive finals from 1980 - 1988.
- Although Andre Agassi won the event in 1990, he lost his next three finals in straight sets.
- The doubles competition used to be held the week after the singles tournament.
- Although the singles event features eight players, they do not necessarily have to correspond with the ATP rankings. If one of the year’s Grand Slam winners is ranked outside the top eight but inside the top 20 at the time of the World Tour Finals, he will take the place of the eight-ranked player.