Stefanos Tsitsipas and Stan Smith had never met before they were brought together by the ATP Tour for a virtual interview two weeks ago. All Tsitsipas, 22, knew was that Smith, 73, a former Wimbledon and United States Open champion and a world No. 1, was a legend. And that he is the namesake behind famous green and white Adidas sneakers that are worn worldwide.
But Tsitsipas and Smith have something very important in common. Smith was the winner of the ATP’s first year-end championship in 1970, then called the Grand Prix Masters. Tsitsipas, 22, was last year’s champion of what is now the Nitto ATP Finals. When Smith won in Tokyo, he earned $15,000 in prize money. For his final victory over Dominic Thiem, Tsitsipas was awarded $2,656,000.
This week, as the year-end championship for the game’s most elite players celebrates its 50th anniversary, it will be contested at London’s O2 arena for the 12th and final time. Next year, it moves to the Pala Alpitour stadium in Turin, Italy, for five years. That stadium was the Olympic hockey venue for the 2006 Winter Olympics and is Italy’s largest indoor sporting arena. It seats about 15,000, making it smaller than London’s 20,000-seat O2 arena. It will be the first time the ATP Finals will be held in Italy.
The ATP Tour said Turin was chosen for its proximity and similar time zone to the rest of the fall European indoor hard-court events, as well as for the financial investment by the Italian Tennis Federation and Sport e Salute SpA. Total prize money for the 2021 tournament, expected to be played next November, will be a record $14.5 million.
“I was always a proponent of the world tour finals traveling more,” said Novak Djokovic, who has won the championship five times, most recently in 2015. “London, and the O2 arena, was a terrific venue, but there are so many cities around the world that would love to host such an event. I feel like three, four years max, should be a cap, because it’s the best possible promotion of the ATP and men’s tennis as a whole.”
Begun as the apex to a series of tournaments by former player and entrepreneur Jack Kramer as a way to keep top men from signing pro contracts with the rival World Championship Tennis, the event has traversed the world, including 13 years at Madison Square Garden in New York. Roger Federer has won a record six times, and Djokovic, Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras each have five titles.
There have been memorable finals, such as when Boris Becker outlasted Lendl in five sets in 1988. And when David Nalbandian broke serve while Federer was two points from a five-set victory in 2005 and then went on to win the match. Most striking was when Lendl came back from two sets down to beat Vitas Gerulaitis in the final of the 1981 Volvo Masters, a match in which Gerulaitis tried to come to the net to hit a volley only to have Lendl drill a forehand into his forehead, knocking him to the ground.
This year’s ATP Finals — a round robin until the semifinals and finals — will be played without spectators, as were the Paris Masters a week ago and the U.S. Open. Because of the loss of ticket revenue, prize money has been curtailed for the eight eligible singles players and eight doubles teams. Total compensation is down to $5,700,000 from $9 million in 2019. The singles champion will take home $1,564,000.
Federer, the world No. 5, is not competing. He has played just one tournament in 2020 — a straight-set loss to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open in January — before undergoing knee surgery and taking the year off.
Djokovic, ranked No. 1, is there this year, as is Rafael Nadal, 34, the world No. 2. Nadal has qualified for this tournament every year since 2005 but has never won, reaching the championship match three times. Last year, despite round-robin victories over Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev in London, he failed to advance to the semifinals.
“It’s part of the game; in some places you have more success and in other places a little less,” Nadal said. “It’s true that at the end of the year in the past, I arrived sometimes very physically tired and sometimes mentally, too. In indoor courts, I need to be fresh, I need to be in full conditions.”
Last year, three of the eight players in the ATP Finals — Tsitsipas, Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini — played the tournament for the first time. This year, Tsitsipas and Medvedev are back, as are Thiem and the 2018 champion Alexander Zverev, 23. Newcomers are Andrey Rublev, 23, and Diego Schwartzman, 28.
After losing back-to-back finals to Nadal at Roland Garros in 2018 and ’19 and then falling to Djokovic in five sets in the championship match at this year’s Australian Open, Thiem beat Zverev to finally win his first major at the U.S. Open in September. He is ranked a career-high No. 3.
After a groundbreaking 2019, in which he reached six straight tour finals, including his first major at the U.S. Open, Medvedev, 24, seemed to stall this year. But then he won the Paris Masters, beating Zverev in three sets and ascending to No. 4 in the world.
Zverev reached the semifinals at the Australian Open, the final of the U.S. Open and is trying to repeat his 2018 win at the finals.
“London is a very special place for me, especially the O2 arena, because I won the biggest title of my career so far there,” Zverev said. “The atmosphere, with 20,000 people, is what you look forward to. This year will be different, but it is the new normality for us, and we need to adjust to it.”
With Rublev qualifying alongside Medvedev, there are two Russians in the tournament for the first time since Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov made the field in 2000.
Schwartzman, the final qualifier, grew up watching the championships on television from his home in Buenos Aires. When he earned his spot during the Paris Masters, he credited hard work during the lockdown for his success.
“This year has been totally crazy,” said Schwartzman, who notched his first career win over a top five player when he upset Nadal en route to the final in Rome, then lost to him in the semifinals at the French Open. “It hasn’t been easy for anybody, sad for the whole world. I’m just doing my best to bring joy to the people through my tennis.”