We analyse Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the end-of-season event, including their head-to-heads and the impact of the conditions.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic first all competed at the ATP World Tour Finals in 2007. With many years of success on their belts, it’s quite possible that the 2019 edition of the tournament will be the last one to feature all three of tennis’ greatest players. The trio have played 16 matches and 32 sets against each other at the season-ending event. Between them, they have won 11 titles, and helped to transform the tournament from an end-of-season hit into one of the sport’s most sought-after titles.
We take a look at their head-to-head numbers below and analyze whether they have dominated the Tour Finals like they dominate the Major events.
Federer, the oldest at 38, had three attempts at winning the ATP Tour Finals (winning twice) before either Djokovic or Nadal were involved, so it is no surprise the Swiss has won it more than his other two main rivals. The fall-of-famer has played this event 14 times overall, winning on six of those attempts (42.9 per cent) as reported by Betway Tennis.
Djokovic’s numbers are even better, winning the title on five of 11 attempts
All of those victories came when Federer was competing, though Nadal was only featured in two of them.
Nadal, surprisingly, has not won the event in eight attempts, leaving the ATP Finals as the only major event he has never captured. Although he has never competed in one when either of the other two have been missing.
Federer has won three of the six Tour Finals that the trio have all played in, with Russian baseline wizard Nikolay Davydenko winning the other in 2009.
Djokovic’s head-to-head record stacks up for individual matches as well. The Serb has clearly always been dynamite in the Tour Finals. The 16-time Grand Slam winner leads Federer 4-2 in match-ups at this event, though one of those was the 2014 final when the Swiss pulled out beforehand because of injury.
Djokovic also beats Nadal on head-to-head in the Tour Finals, 3-2 in this instance, and has won both of their meetings since 2010. Djokovic’s baseline game is trailer made for hard-courts and that expertise has always showed against his main rivals throughout the years.
Taking all of this into account, Djokovic should be considered the greatest player of the three in the year’s culminating event.
Djokovic also boasts a superior head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal in hard-court majors, suggesting that suitability to the surface is the biggest deciding factor in winning the Tour Finals. As mentioned, the Serb’s pedigree on hard-courts is second-to none, even against the likes of Federer and Nadal.
The Serb leads Federer 6-4 in head-to-heads at the US Open and Australian Open combined, and owns a 3-2 lead against Nadal across the same events.
The impact of the Tour Finals being an indoor tournament is proved by Federer’s head-to-head record against the Spaniard, though.
The Swiss is renowned for his impressive indoor record. The lack of wind ensures that conditions remain consistent, so hitting through the line of the ball and hand-eye co-ordination are attributes that are well rewarded in a sterile environment.
This face clearly explains why he trails Nadal 3-1 in hard-court Majors but has defeated hims four out of five times in the Tour Finals.
It should also be noted that Nadal, who has struggled mightily with injuries throughout his career, is affected the most by the indoor conditions that the Tour level finals presents.
The Spaniard suffers from a disorder called Kohler’s feet – an irregularity in growth and development of the tarsal navicular bone in the foot – as well as suffering from chronic knee issues. He also underwent ankle surgery in November 2018.
At the end of a long season, those issues rise to the forefront of the Spaniard’s list and that also explains why he has only competed in eight Tour Finals – Federer has played in 14 and Djokovic in 11 – and never won the event.
The domination that Federer and Djokovic have enjoyed in this competition since 2003 is shown by comparing it to the last 16 years.
In the period between 2003-2018, just seven players won the Tour finals, with David Nalbandian, Davydenko, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev capturing the title on one occasion each.
Federer and Djokovic’s superiority was even more impressive after the 2015 edition of the tournament, when they had won 11 of the last 13 available trophies.
In the previous 16 years between 1987-2002, there were nine different champions. Pete Sampras won it five times, but defended it on one occasion, while Boris Becker won on three occasions.
Four players won it in five years between 1998-2002, but it took another seven years for another four – Federer, David Nalbandian, Djokovic and Davydenko – to lift the title.
Whether the Tour Finals should always be played on an indoor hard court is a question that has been raised on many different occasions.
The last time that the event was not played on hard court was in 1974, but the question intensified in 2013 when Federer and Nadal went public in their disagreement on which court surface should be used.
Nadal – whose favorite surface is clay – challenged the status quo, saying: “A good player has a chance to qualify for the Tour Finals four or five times in his career.“If during this four years you have a different surface every year, a minimum one time he will have the chance to play on his favorite surface”. This analysis by Nadal was clearly a valid one.
There are however drawbacks to the Nadal’s train of thought. Players would have to immediately acclimatize to clay after months of playing on a hard surface but these challenges would be the same for all players across the board.
Federer – an indoor, hard-court specialist – went in the other another direction. “I just feel indoors don’t have enough play,” he said. “The indoor season is small. I believe indoors deserves a huge event, which this one is.”
That said, indoor courts don’t have feelings, Roger, but ticket-holders for the 2014 final did. Federer pulled out of that match against Djokovic with a back injury, apologizing in person to the crowd at the O2 Arena. “I’m sorry I’m not fit to play,” he said. “I did everything I could. I took pain-killers, had rest until the very end, but I just cannot compete at this level with Novak. “At my age it would have been a risk.”
So it was a surprise to see the Swiss Star representing Switzerland at the Davis Cup just five days later, playing six singles sets and three doubles sets in three days to help them win the competition for the first time.
Andy Murray rushed to the O2 to replace Federer and take on Djokovic in an exhibition set for the crowd that Sunday, and was rewarded by the tennis gods when he ended the trio’s monopoly on the No. 1 world ranking just before the Tour Finals two years later.
The Scot was already top of the pile heading to London, but would have surrendered the position had he lost the final against the Serb. A two-set victory ensured that he ended 2016 officially as the best player on the planet, although all three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have since reclaimed the crown.