Soulless feel is not the finish London’s ATP Finals deserves

Dominic Thiem springs out wide to the tramline and lets rip.

His one-handed backhand, one of the most watchable strokes in tennis, connects sweetly and the ball whistles up the line beyond his helpless Greek opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Rather than the usual volcanic roar that would typically meet a ferocious winner in the darkened O2 Arena, it is instead met with some tepid applause from a single member of his team.

This is the first point of what should be a hotly anticipated match. A repeat of last year’s final, which was one of the best matches of the 2019 season. But with no crowd, it’s hard to capture the same magic.

‘You have to bring it up yourself during the match. I think today was like two hours 20 or something. You have all the time to push yourself, give yourself energy. Yeah, that’s exhausting.’

The big difference between this match and their 2019 final for Tsitsipas? ‘People in the stands.’

The usual fanfare of loud music greets the players on court – “Champion” by “Bishop Briggs” is this year’s walkout tune – but it’s all rather soulless.

In better times, the O2 would be rocking. In the 11 years it has hosted the ATP Finals prior to this, 250,000 fans would come through the doors throughout the week.

In locked-down Britain, it’s a privilege to be one of the few allowed on site to watch live sport but for a tournament many will hold close to their hearts, this is a disappointing goodbye.

The ATP Finals couldn’t be more different to the London-based tennis events it’s sat alongside. The in-your-face, blaring music at changeovers is a far cry from the well-mannered, tradition-first approach adopted at Wimbledon and Queen’s.

London has been fortunate enough to host this event – which heads to Turin next after previous stints in Shanghai, Houston, Sydney and Lisbon since the turn of the millenium – during the best years of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, tennis’ three greatest players.

It’s also coincided with Britain’s finest talent. Few moments will be better remembered than Andy Murray’s famous 2016 win over Djokovic where he clinched the year-end world No. 1 ranking.

Fellow former British No. 1 Tim Henman agreed, ‘The tear he went on to win those tournaments at the end of the year and then for it to go down to the final match to decide not only the champion but also the world No. 1 was very special in front of his home people as well.’

There is a sense of disappointment that there are no fans are here – Nadal, while fully appreciating the gravity of the coronavirus situation, described their absence as ‘not fair’ – but the players are, by and large, used to the “new normal”.

‘I think by this time we are all kind of used to it,’ said Djokovic on Friday. ‘We played many tournaments without the presence of many crowds. That’s something that will help us kind of accept the circumstances of this situation as it is.

‘This arena was a wonderful setting for this event over the years, it’s definitely one of the most successful arenas to host ATP Finals in the history of its existence. It’s going to be strange giving a farewell year to this arena without crowds.

‘Nevertheless I think we’re all grateful and lucky to be able to have the chance to play this tournament here.’

Rusedski – who is working as a pundit for Amazon Prime this week – thinks fans watching at home have got used to the exprience, too.

‘I think they’ll create the atmosphere. They’ll still have the walk ons, they’ll still do the lights show, they’ll be able to darken out the crowd as they’ve done most years,’ he said. ‘I think from a television point of view, it’ll be a good spectacle for people at home.

‘I think it’s still going to be a great event. It’s great for people at home to watch sports because there’s nothing much any of us can really do in the UK at the moment.’

That may be the case and it is true that, in these times, we should be grateful that such events can go ahead. But it’s still a crying shame that this is it for tennis at the O2.

Unlike other standstill tennis events, there’s no repeat next year (or whatever year it will be when true normality returns). No chance for this loyal crowd to get one last glimpse of what has become one of the best slots in the calendar. It’s a stale finish that this tournament doesn’t deserve.

With a strong field, the tennis – as it was in its opening match – will still likely be of a high standard. But it will be impossible to match the glory of yesteryear without the animation of the vociferous O2 crowd.

Compared to Thiem’s gorgeous backhand winner in the first point, the match finished with a whimper as a tame Tsitsipas backhand floated wide. That perhaps serves as a better metaphor for the week to come.

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