To beat the best at the ATP Finals, players may have to mix things up
By Stuart Miller
The ATP Finals, which opened Sunday and runs through Nov. 19, is more than the most prestigious men’s tournament outside of the Grand Slams, it is also an existential conundrum.
The exclusive singles draw features the eight best players in the world, leaving no easy wins and raising the question of whether a player must change his game over the course of the week to best the best of the best.
The answer is a highly qualified “yes,” with a giant “but” attached. Paul Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst who coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, said changes should be minor, especially since the early matches are round-robin, meaning a player can lose one match and still survive.
“I’m a big believer in figuring out your own identity and trusting what got you to the year-end championships,” he said. “Then you just have to do it just a little better than the guy on the other side of the net that day.”
Charging the net, which can shorten rallies and help players take control of the action, is one tactic that the players can use against the game’s best defenders, like Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, or against power sluggers like Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev, but it’s precisely those players’ skills that make coming up to the net after hitting a groundstroke such a risky move.
Still, Jimmy Arias, who is also a Tennis Channel analyst, said it’s one way to survive the week.
“It’s so hard to hit through base liners like Alexander Zverev and Medvedev, especially on a slower court,” he said, “so if you don’t come to the net against Medvedev, you’re kind of an idiot. If he hits a ridiculous passing shot from the stands, just clap and say, ‘Let me see you do that again.’”
The danger comes, Arias says, if you simply try to force your way to the net against an opponent who is dictating the points — although he adds that, given the quality of the opponents in Turin, Italy, that may become the only option.
Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst, agreed, saying that “the ability to finish points, especially at the net, helps exponentially” against such elite defensive players. Medvedev, who is known for stubbornly staying extremely far behind the baseline, gives himself time to reach almost any deep shot. The best plan is to come to the net or hit short-angle balls against him, McEnroe said, but noted that Medvedev succeeds because many players (Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz excepted) cannot execute that tactic well enough to beat him.
McEnroe added that the court in Turin, which is indoors, was low-bouncing (forcing opponents to lift attempted passing shots) and relatively slow, although indoor courts felt quicker because there were no elements like wind.
“That favors the aggressive player, but not to the extent that it did back in the day, so you need more versatility now,” he said. “That’s why Federer and Djokovic have dominated there.” (Federer won six times; Djokovic is seeking his seventh title.)
He emphasized that changing strategies can be more nuanced than simply charging in. He suggested using the forecourt more often and hitting drop shots, low slices and short angle balls.
“It puts the other player in uncomfortable positions and allows you to then take the initiative on the next shot,” he said, adding that this is something they now stress at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, the school launched by his brother, where he is co-director.
“This is the biggest thing that has changed with Carlos Alcaraz, who has been playing those shots at least since he was 13,” Patrick McEnroe said. “He has the huge firepower and athleticism that these other players do, but now you’re seeing the need to move better and use that part of the court strategically. You’re seeing shots you never thought about, and players are using them consistently.”
Arias said that breaking down an opponent by making him change his positioning so he felt uncomfortable — something Federer would do with a short, low slice and that Alcaraz does with the drop shot — was essential.
“It’s not just needed for this tournament, but to beat the best you need that all year, but it’s something that’s slightly lacking in the game today,” he said.
While Zverev and Medvedev tend to camp at the baseline and let it rip, the analysts cite Rublev, whom Annacone called “so dominant from the back of the court,” as the most one-dimensional of the top players. Arias said Rublev and Sinner “play straight ahead, hitting it hard without opening the court much.”
But Annacone and McEnroe said Sinner was improving in this regard because of his coach Darren Cahill. “He’s getting better at playing with subtlety and nuance,” McEnroe said, adding that Holger Rune also “has the potential to play that sort of game.”
All three analysts say that when Stefanos Tsitsipas is in top form, he is versatile and one of the better volleyers.
Annacone said that a player like Sinner or Rublev could win most matches during the year with their firepower, but that “each of these top players, aside from Novak, can be vulnerable on any given day against other elite players.”
Djokovic, as always, remains the exception, even among the exceptional. He has lost just five times this year and is 33-1 on hardcourts; since 2012 he is an astounding 108-15 indoors. (Alcaraz would have slotted in there with Djokovic, but he has scuffled a bit since Wimbledon.)
So Annacone acknowledged that while players can’t overhaul their identity for this tournament, when they reach the semifinals and possibly face Alcaraz or Djokovic, “you need to be creative and think outside the box,” adding that changing tactics midmatch was easier now that coaching is allowed between points.
“You have to be confident enough to do things a little differently, to adjust and adapt on your feet,” he said. “Try it, sometimes you’ll miss, but that’s life.”