ATP: Stars align in Beijing

With one notable exception, the world’s top players are gathering in Beijing for a China Open that promises to be very keenly contested.

Daniil Medvedev & Carlos Alcaraz / Demi-finale US Open 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Romain Vinot

With the US Open behind us and Novak Djokovic’s 23rd Grand Slam title safely in his possession, the Tour’s leading lights are in Beijing, as the run-in to the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin begins in earnest. Though the world No.1 will not be in the Chinese capital, there is still an awful lot at stake, with his closest pursuers in the ATP Rankings coming together in a star-studded main draw.

Zverev and Khachanov have the momentum

While some have opted to recharge their batteries after a physically and mentally challenging last Grand Slam event of the season, many have remained in action, playing Davis and Laver Cup ties or appearing in the opening events of the Asian leg of the season, hoping to stay in the groove as the end of the 2023 campaign comes into view.

It is a strategy that has paid off for Alexander Zverev. The winner of an epic last-16 tie against Jannik Sinner at the US Open, the prelude to a quarter-final defeat to Carlos Alcaraz, the German maintained his form by winning the Chengdu Open. Facing an on-song Roman Safiullin in the final, Zverez edged another long battle, winning 6-7(2) 7-6(5) 6-3 in two hours 59 minutes to collect his 21st career title and the first on hard court since the 2021 ATP Finals.

Zverez, who served for the first set at 5-4 and came within two points of defeat in the second-set tie-break, showed no little determination and resilience and was full of praise for his opponent after the trophy presentation. “He’s playing the best tennis of his life for sure,” explained Zverev. “The way he was winning this week, I think he beat a lot of great players quite easily, so I knew that he was playing well. Obviously, I’m happy to be able to come back and to win this title.”

Staying in China, Karen Khachanov claimed the fifth title of his career at the Zhuhai Championships, nearly five years after the fourth. A winner in Chengdu in 2016 and in Marseille, Moscow and at the Rolex Paris Masters in 2018, the current world No. 14 was back to his powerful best, hitting 34 winners, including nine aces, to get the better of Yoshihito Nishioka 7-6(2) 6-1 in one hour 42 minutes. Knocked out in the first round in New York on his return from a stress fracture in his back, Khachanov was making only his second appearance in a singles main draw since Roland-Garros and could well upset a few well-laid plans in the ATP Race to Turin.

Alcaraz and Medvedev reacquainted?

The No.1 seeds in both those ATP 250 events, Zverev and Khachanov will not have the same honour in Beijing, where they will respectively face Diego Schwartzman and Lorenzo Musetti. Zverev is one of eight members of the world’s Top 10 who will be in action at the China Open, adding prestige to the ATP 500 tournament. The headliners are Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev, who, given their hard court form and their ambition, have every chance of meeting in the final.

Having been relieved of his New York crown by Djokovic and knocked off his perch as No. 1 in the process, the man from Murcia is now 3,260 points adrift of the Serbian in the ATP Rankings but can claw back 315 points in the Race to Turin should he win a seventh title of the season in the Chinese capital.

As the Spaniard explained, he is intent on regaining his place at the top of the ATP pile, having ended 2022 there: “Novak is the No. 1 right now. I’m coming here with extra motivation to try to recover it in the Race, of course, in the ranking. As I said, it’s something that I have in my mind every time that I practice, in every tournament Is not obligatory for me to recover that, but of course you have to put the goals in the year. So for me No. 1 spot is one of the main goals for me. In these great tournaments, I’m looking to do great to be able to be close or recover that number.”

The Spaniard’s return to the competitive arena promises to be a tough one, with Khachanov or Musetti and then Casper Ruud, Holger Rune and Jannik Sinner potentially lying in wait for him before he can even think about what would be a dream final against an out-and-out hard court specialist. Thirty-eight times a winner on the surface already in 2023, Medvedev has won four titles and reached two other finals, including the US Open, in a superb season packed with masterful performances, chief among them the four-set defeat of Alcaraz in the semi-finals in New York, his air of invincibility only punctured by the most successful player the game has ever seen.

With his ticket to Turin already safely in the bag, the world No. 3 is under no pressure but will no doubt to be keen to add some more silverware to his collection for the year and close the Rankings gap to Alcaraz. He will begin that quest with an appetising first-round clash against Tommy Paul on Friday.

First-round ties to savour

Aside from Medvedev’s opening match and Alcaraz’s meeting with Yannick Hanfmann, the high-quality entry list has thrown up several other unmissable first-round ties. Holger Rune and Felix Auger-Aliassime have both experienced a dip in form of late, which ups the ante for their encounter, especially as both have lots of points to defend in the coming weeks.

Another big name with doubts in his mind following his early elimination at the hands of rising star Dominic Stricker in New York, Stefanos Tsitsipas comes up against a tricky opponent in Nicolas Jarry. And last but not least, Andy Murray has a 0-4 head-to-head record to contend with when he takes on in-form Aussie Alex de Minaur, who is very much in contention for a debut appearance at the Tour Finals. Bring it on!