The first day of action at the Nitto ATP Finals sees third seed Roger Federer face off with fifth seed Dominic Thiem in Group Bjorn Borg. The Swiss and Austrian are alongside world number two Novak Djokovic and debutant Matteo Berrettini in what appears to be the tougher of the two groups.
Federer's road to the ATP Finals
By his standards, it was a decent year for Federer. He managed to win his 100th career title in Dubai as well as his tenth title in both Halle, knocking off David Goffin and his hometown of Basel, routing Alex de Minaur. He also reached the final of Indian Wells, losing an epic three-setter to Thiem. The majors is where the Swiss will be disappointed.
After being upset by Stefanos Tsitsipas in four sets in the fourth round of the Australian Open, the 20-time Slam champion managed to reach the semifinals at the French Open, getting routed by Rafael Nadal. It was at Wimbledon where Federer will have his biggest regret as he held two championship points in the final against Djokovic only to lose in the first fifth set tiebreaker in tournament history. Following that, he concluded the major season with another upset loss, this one in five sets to Grigor Dimitrov in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
Thiem's road to the ATP Finals
In 2019, the Austrian captured the biggest title of his career when he outlasted Federer in Indian Wells. He also picked up titles in Barcelona, upsetting Rafael Nadal on his way to the title, Beijing, defeating Tsitsipas and claiming the trophies in both tournaments contested in his home country when he beat Albert Ramos-Vinolas in Kitzbuhel and Diego Schwartzman in Vienna.
As for the majors, Thiem again made the final in Paris, losing for the second consecutive year to Nadal. Otherwise, it was a poor campaign, losing in the second round in Melbourne to Alexei Popryin, retiring down two sets and 2-0 in the third, and the first round in both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to Sam Querrey and Thomas Fabbiano, respectively.
The win by Thiem in Indian Wells was his third career victory over Federer in five career matches. The Austrian had claimed prior wins on grass in Stuttgart and on clay in Rome. He added a further win with a tough three-set win in the quarterfinals of Madrid.
Federer's two victories weren't particularly close: a 6-1, 6-4 beatdown in the 2016 Brisbane semifinals and a 6-2, 6-3 rout in the round robin stage of this tournament last year. In three of his four losses to the Austrian, the Swiss won the first set 6-3.
Who will win?
Thiem has the rare career feat of having defeated Federer on all three surfaces and has won both matches against the Swiss in 2019. Oddly enough, both men's last title came in the same week when the Austrian won in Vienna and the Swiss triumphed in Basel. Federer elected to withdraw from the Rolex Paris Masters to rest up for this very tournament.
While both men possess outstanding backhands (with Thiem having a slight edge), one of the differences could be the Federer serve as he has constantly used it to get himself out of trouble throughout his legendary career. He also has great history at this tournament, having won the year-end showpiece a record six times while Thiem has never gotten out of the round robin stage in four previous appearances.
In the end, while this should be a close match (the two men have split 14 career sets), a rested Federer playing in a place he has had great success in with one of the biggest weapons on the court, should prevail and get his quest for a seventh ATP Finals crown off to a good start.
Prediction: Federer in two close sets