Decades of Drama at the ATP Finals
When Stan Smith won the ATP’s first year-end finals in December 1970, the tournament was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.
The arena was unheated, prompting Japanese fans to wrap themselves in blankets, fur coats and scarves, but there was a small gas heater in the locker room, installed so the players wouldn’t have their muscles tighten up before matches.
Smith was awarded $15,000 for winning the event, but had little time to celebrate. He had to fly to California to report for service in the Army.
Much has changed since Smith’s inaugural win, when the tournament was called the Pepsi-Cola Masters. The name of the event, the sponsorships, and the venues have changed, with the event landing in 15 cities over the years, before ending up at the Pala Alpitour in Turin, Italy, in 2021.
The eight players in contention this year are the world No. 2, Rafael Nadal, who has never won the year-end championship; Novak Djokovic, a five-time winner; the 2019 champion Stefanos Tsitsipas; Daniil Medvedev, the 2020 winner; Casper Ruud; Felix Auger-Aliassime; Andrey Rublev; and Taylor Fritz. The world No. 1, Carlos Alcaraz, withdrew with an abdominal tear. Holger Rune, who beat Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters, is the first alternate.
The winner of the tournament, if undefeated in all five of his matches, will take home $4,740,300, the largest individual prize ever awarded in tennis.
Despite the changes over the last 52 years, one thing has remained constant. Players, often fatigued after 11 months of travel and competition, still produce brilliant final matches.
Here are five of the best finals.
1982, New York: Ivan Lendl Beats Vitas Gerulaitis
Before he became world No. 1 and a three-time French, three-time United States and two-time Australian Open champion, Lendl, then 21, won his first Volvo Masters title with a come-from-behind victory over Gerulaitis. The season-ending match was played in mid-January 1982, because the Australian Open was held from late November through early January that year.
Facing a match point in the third-set tiebreaker, Lendl hit three big forehands and then an overhead. But the crucial point came earlier, with Lendl down 2-0 in the third game of the third set. Gerulaitis approached the net as he had been doing successfully throughout the match. This time Lendl drilled a forehand smack into Gerulaitis’s forehead. The crowd gasped and Gerulaitis stumbled and appeared shaken. Lendl held serve and Gerulaitis never fully recovered, later saying that the shot gave him “a little headache.”
“He was crowding the net, so I went straight at him and he couldn’t get out of the way,” Lendl said by phone from his Florida home last month. “It was a close match, a big match, the finals. But after the match we both laughed about it in the locker room.”
1988, New York: Boris Becker Beats Lendl
Becker and Lendl played for four hours and 42 minutes in a match that was largely even throughout. In the end, Becker won 28 games and 164 points, while Lendl took 27 games and 162 points.
What was most astounding was that Lendl played at all. The then-28-year-old had had shoulder surgery after losing to Mats Wilander in the final of the U.S. Open three months earlier, and was training for a return to the Australian Open in January. But having reached the final match at the Masters nine consecutive times (he won in 1981 and 1982 and in 1985-87), Lendl took a chance on playing and didn’t hold back.
With Becker leading 6-5 in the final-set tiebreaker, the two sustained a 37-stroke rally, only to have Becker hit a backhand that caught the top of the net and dribbled over for a winner.
“The whole thing was weird,” Lendl said. “I had lost my first round-robin match to [Jakob] Hlasek, and then I beat [Andre] Agassi. Honestly, I was just tickled to be back, healthy and able to play.”
The victory was the first of three for Becker at the Masters, but by far the most grueling.
“At the end I was just playing and running, playing and running,” Becker told atptour.com in 2016. “I didn’t even know the score.”
“Physically, it was one of the hardest matches of my life.”
1996, Hanover, Germany: Pete Sampras Beats Becker
With 15,000 German fans rooting against him and his opponent hitting four straight aces to start the match, Sampras was feeling “a little lonely out here.”
But after dropping the first set to Becker, Sampras grabbed the next two, quieting the crowd.
Sampras was two points from the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, but Becker hit a service winner, a solid volley and an ace to escape. Sampras then held two match points in the tiebreaker, but couldn’t convert. Becker finally took the set on his fifth set point when Sampras punched a volley long. The fifth set was almost as dramatic as the fourth, but Sampras ultimately won on his fifth match point when Becker ended an extended rally with a meager backhand into the net.
“Two heavyweights, playing great at the same time, and it came down to the wire,” Sampras, now 51, told atptour.com late last year. “One of the best matches I’ve ever been a part of, a match I’ll never forget.”
2005, Shanghai: David Nalbandian Beats Roger Federer
Roger Federer was supposed to win, David Nalbandian wasn’t even meant to play. Federer had lost only three matches all year (he ended the season with an 81-4 record), had won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and entered the final on a 35-match win streak.
Nalbandian got in as an alternate when a number of other players, including then-No. 2 Rafael Nadal, pulled out with injuries.
“They called me at the last minute,” Nalbandian said this month in an interview. “I had jet lag, and it was very tough. But after I lost my first match, I started getting more rhythm.”
But after dropping the first two sets, Nalbandian made the most of his opportunity in the finals, stymieing Federer with slice backhands and drop shots that left Federer, the world No. 1, exhausted. After winning just three games in the third and fourth sets combined, Federer roared back from 4-0 down in the fifth set. He served for the match at 6-5, 30-0 but couldn’t convert, sending the set into a deciding tiebreaker. When Federer netted a forehand on match point, Nalbandian dropped onto his back — almost as much in disbelief as in exultation.
“When I was two sets to love down, I told myself that I could be two sets to love up because it was very close,” he said. “I was still fighting and believed I could win it. It was an amazing match. I have very good memories of it.”
2019, London: Stefanos Tsitsipas Beats Dominic Thiem
In 2008, the ATP Finals went from best of five sets to best of three. The best of those was the 2019 final between Tsitsipas and Thiem. In the end, Tsitsipas became the first player from Greece to win the title and the youngest, at 21, to capture the event since Lleyton Hewitt won in 2001.
After Thiem won a 65-minute first set, Tsitsipas roared through the second and held a 3-1 lead in the third. But Thiem came back and led 6-5 before Tsitsipas forced the tiebreaker. After Thiem rebounded from 1-4 to 4-4, Tsitsipas won the match when Thiem hit a forehand return wide.
“Holding this trophy feels amazing, just unbelievable,” Tsitsipas told the crowd. “I’ve never received so much support in my life.”