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The Top 5: Surprise title runs at the ATP Finals
Will the upcoming 2022 year-end event on the men's tour produce another unexpected winner in Turin?
Published Nov 10, 2022
When it comes to the ATP Finals and its roster of past champions, it’s evident that some players have felt quite comfortable establishing themselves as the best of the best.
The recently retired Roger Federer won the tournament six times in a nine-year span. Five-time champion Novak Djokovic claimed four of his victories in succession. His overall title haul matches that of his idol Pete Sampras, who came in first on five occasions during the 1990s.
Of course, there have been some breakthroughs over the years, and this year’s field seems primed for one. Rafael Nadal will be motivated to win the one major title that’s eluded him, while two-time Slam finalist Casper Ruud, as well as Felix Auger-Aliassime and Taylor Fritz—both newcomers to the tournament—will look to cap career-best seasons.
Those four, as well as Andrey Rublev, will be out to shake up the event with a title like their fellow competitors Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas did when they first won. Here’s a deeper dive into some of the surprise championship runs over the years.
At the 1996 US Open, Sampras' path to his fourth title was nearly derailed by Corretja in the quarterfinals before the American escaped in a fifth-set tiebreak. When they next met, in the semifinals of the season-ending championship in 1998, it was Corretja's time to flip the script as he topped the American in a third-set tiebreak. From there, the Spaniard went on to face his countryman, Carlos Moya, who had defeated him in the French Open final that year. After dropping the first two sets, Corretja rallied to win 7-5 in the fifth set, and in the process, became the first champion to triumph who had never captured a Grand Slam singles title.
Making his second appearance in three years at the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup, Nalbandian opened up play with a three-set loss to Federer, a rival since their days as juniors. The Argentine bounced back to defeat his countryman Guillermo Coria and Ivan Ljubicic, both in straight sets, to reach the semifinals. After topping Nikolay Davydenko, also in straights, Nalbandian squared off against Federer once again and the world No. 1 took a two-sets-to-love lead behind a couple of tiebreak wins. Nalbandian turned the tables the next two sets to force a decider. It would come down to another tiebreaker, but this time, it was Nalbandian who was victorious, as he picked up the biggest title of his career.
As the 2009 season wore on, Davydenko appeared to be getting stronger in the final months of the season. Immediately after the US Open, the Russian triumphed in Malaysia for his third title of the year, then soon followed that up with another trophy lift in Shanghai for his third career Masters victory. There, he defeated Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in his last two matches. Djokovic topped Davydenko in the opening round-robin match at the ATP World Tour Finals, but the world No. 7 then went on a tear, beating Nadal again for the second time that fall, stopping Federer in the semifinals and posting a straight-sets victory over the reigning US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro in the final.
Closing out his 2017 campaign with his first appearance at the ATP Finals, Dimitrov had already recorded the best season of his career, one that saw the Bulgarian win three titles before the year-end championships. Dimitrov’s solid form was evident throughout round-robin play as he went a perfect 3-0 to reach the semifinals, where he would go on to top Jack Sock in three sets. In the final, Dimitrov beat the player whom he had been going neck and neck with all year, David Goffin, in three sets for his fourth crown of 2017. The win took Dimitrov to No. 3 in the ATP Tour rankings, a career high.
No one can blame Tsitsipas if he felt like life was in fast-forward from the end of 2018 to the last days of the 2019 season. The young Greek went from winning the Next Gen ATP Finals in the former year to clinching a spot in the ATP Finals field 12 months later. In London, Tsitsipas beat two of his fellow future stars, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, in round-robin play before knocking off Federer in the semifinals. Dominic Thiem, whom he recently lost to in the China Open final, awaited in this championship bout. Battling to a third-set tiebreak, Tsitsipas came through in the clutch to become the youngest winner of the season-ending tournament in nearly 20 years.