World Tour Finals Preview: Djokovic and Federer Headline 8-Man London Field, Nadal out injured

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The draw for the 2018 ATP World Tour Finals took place earlier today, with both finalist from last year’s edition – Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin – failing to even make the cut. But while Dimitrov won’t be around to defend his title, there are some welcome returns to the O2, namely 5-time champion and new World #1 Novak Djokovic, and 2014 and 2016 semifinalist Kei Nishikori, who both failed to qualify last year due to injury.

Unfortunately, Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, #2 and #4 in the world, had to withdraw from the event due to injury. The absence of two of the best and most popular players in the world is certainly a big blow to the tournament, but their replacements – Kei Nishikori and John Isner – have an excellent chance to make a real impact in this tournament.

The Lleyton Hewitt group will kick off the proceedings on Monday and it features 6-time champion Roger Federer, Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson, Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem and Kei Nishikori – the only player in the field who hasn’t won a tournament in 2018. On paper, you’d expect Federer and Nishikori to advance to the semifinals, given that Anderson and especially Thiem have been known to struggle on (slow) indoor hard courts while Nishikori and Federer tend to thrive on them. You can’t fully discount Anderson and Thiem’s chances though; despite having the worst record against top 10 players out of all participants by a distance, Anderson has beaten Federer this year at Wimbledon from 0-2 down and has also beaten Nishikori in Vienna a few weeks ago (Nishikori beat him the following week in Paris Bercy) and Thiem has shown some signs here and there that he might eventually get a big result on hard courts. Thiem also leads Federer head to head (2-1), but all matches came in 2016, where the Swiss was struggling with his health and eventually had to shut down his season after Wimbledon. If matchup trends prevail, Federer will win this group with Nishikori getting the second semifinal berth.

On Monday, it’s time for the Guga Kuerten group to take the stage, with world #1 and 5-time World Tour Finals champion Novak Djokovic, Madrid champion Alexander Zverev, Australian Open finalist Cilic and Miami champion John Isner, who’s one of two debutantes in the ATP’s showpiece event along with fellow big server Kevin Anderson. This group has a clear favorite in Novak Djokovic, the world’s best player whose game thrives more than anyone else’s on this surface and venue. The Serb was reportedly struggling with a flu last week in Bercy though, so it is possible that he’s not in prime condition next week, which would open things up even more in this group. Between Zverev, Cilic and Isner, it’s hard to pick a favorite; like in 2017, Zverev has failed to maintain his level in the final stretch of the season and he looked to be struggling physically in Bercy. Cilic’s season took a downturn after his shocking loss to Guido Pella at Wimbledon, with the Croat constantly struggling to close matches, losing from winning positions to much inferior opposition on a consistent basis. The Croat also has a 1-8 record at the O2, with the only win coming in a dead rubber against Nishikori in 2016, so it’s safe to say this isn’t really a good tournament for him. With Karlovic never having qualified, John Isner is undoubtedly the best server ever to play this tournament and with his incredible serve he’ll inject a lot of intrigue and drama into the tournament; on his day, he can beat anyone, but all his matches are likely to come down to one or two key points in tiebreaks so you can’t really make any solid predictions. If you’re into gambling and want to bet on tennis at 888 Sport, his matches are ones to avoid.

All in all, the groups are pretty balanced and interesting. Federer and Djokovic look like near-locks to make the semifinals, but that’d have been the case regardless of the draw. It was always going to take upset results to keep them from meeting in the final. That said, every player in the draw has a decent chance to at least make the semifinals and while the final might look predictable on paper, no one was expecting Goffin to beat Federer in the semis last year so you never really know.

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