To the casual tennis fan, this year’s ATP Finals can probably be described as “Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and…everyone else.” Each of the tournament’s two group consists of one very famous player (Federer or Nadal) and three relative unknowns. The rest of the ATP’s ruling establishment—Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori—has been wiped out by injury.
For non-casual fans, though, the next week will be an opportunity to watch a fresh crop of players compete for this most prestigious of non-major titles. Alexander Zverev, Jack Sock, and Grigor Dimitrov will make their London debuts, while David Goffin and Dominic Thiem will be in action at the O2 for just the second time. They may not be legends, but they can all be entertaining, and we’ll almost surely be seeing more of them in the future. It will be interesting to see which, if any, can get a foothold in this tournament, and close the season on an upswing.
Here’s a look at Group Pete Sampras, and what we can expect to see from each player.
Group Pete Sampras: Rafael Nadal, Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin
Rank: No. 1
Record vs. group: 17-3
The ATP Finals is the biggest title that Nadal has never won. The indoor conditions, the sometimes-fast courts, the time of year, and the presence of Federer and Djokovic have all conspired against him. This will be the 13th time Rafa has qualified, but just the eighth time he’s been able to play.
It was touch and go this year as well, as Nadal was forced to default from his last event, in Paris, with a knee issue. But he has the go-ahead for London, and with his 17-3 record against his group-mates, he’ll be heavily favored to reach the semifinals, even on an indoor hard court he doesn’t love. Still, Dimitrov, Thiem, and Goffin have all pushed Rafa in the past, and he won’t be able to count on beating any of them without something approaching his best.
Rank: No. 4
Record vs. Group: 7-13
It feels like we’ve been asking this question of Thiem since May, but it’s time to ask it again: How much does he have left in the tank? Despite assuring us that he would try to play less in 2017, he has still managed to play more than anyone else in the Top 20. This will be Thiem’s 27th event, and the wear and tear has shown: He’s 2-5 since the US Open, and he hasn’t made it past the fourth round of any tournament since the French Open. Thiem does have two wins over Nadal, and a 2-1 record against Dimitrov, but he’s 3-7 against Goffin, and his indoor hard-court record in 2017 is just 4-4.
Rank: No. 6
Record vs. Group: 8-13
The last, and only, time Dimitrov was in London for this tournament, in 2014, he declined to make himself available as an alternate. So he should be eager to put that questionable decision out of people’s minds with a strong performance this week.
His group will give him a chance. Dimitrov has had a decent fall, reaching the final in Stockholm, and the semis in Beijing; and compared to Nadal and Goffin, who has been nursing a leg injury since spring, he’s healthy. Dimitrov’s career record against Goffin is 6-1, and while he’s just 1-10 against Rafa, he has already taken him to a third set twice this fall. Which means the key for Dimitrov could come in his meeting with Thiem. The last time they played was in Madrid, and Dimitrov lost 11-9 in a third-set tiebreaker after holding match points. Let’s hope this one is as fun to watch as that one was.
Rank: No. 8
Record vs. Group: 8-11
It’s hard to know which Goffin we’ll see in London. On the one hand, he’s been on a terrific run this fall, winning back-to-back titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo, and he comes in with a 50-22 record on the season, including a 13-6 mark on indoor hard courts. On the other hand, he’s been struggling with a balky knee that he hurt way back at Roland Garros, and which visibly hampered him last week in Paris. With that in mind, Goffin will have to gauge how much he wants to give at the O2, considering that he still has the Davis Cup finals—a more important event, likely, in his mind—to play the following weekend.
Prediction: Nadal and Dimitrov advance