Nishikori and Anderson send out signal of intent

We look back at the first stage of the intriguing round-robin at the ATP Finals

Kei Nishikori at the 2018 Rolex Paris Masters©Cédric Lecocq/FFT
 - Alex Sharp
Nishikori a key Challenger

At the start of the season Kei Nishikori opted to skip the Australian Open in order to make his comeback from a persistent wrist injury at the Challenger Tour level.

The Japanese talisman took the title in Dallas, USA, and nine months on has defeated his idol Roger Federer.

Djokovic might have scooped the ‘comeback of the year,’ but Nishikori has posted 20 victories since the US Open, including two finals on tour.

"I'm glad to win, it is never easy to play with my idol, it is always a big challenge against him, so it was great to win," said Nishikori, having grasped his chance at the O2 Arena against an under-par Federer. "I had to change something for sure.”

Federer won their two recent meetings, but Nishikori turned the tables in London with canny use of serve and volley.

One particular astonishing re-directed backhand winner down the line proved the world No.9’s robust defence and searing shot-making was intact.

A bold decision early on

The seventh seed snapped a six-match losing streak against the Swiss maestro 7-6(4), 6-3 to launch into the ascendancy in Group Lleyton Hewitt.

“I'm really happy for him that he qualified for this event - not taking me out today - but I'm happy for him because he started playing challengers,” declared Federer. Hailing his opponent’s 2018 efforts. “That was a bold decision early on. Yeah, that deserves credit and respect. I think we all have that for Kei because he's a great fighter.”

Federer was perplexed by his wayward form, describing his recent practices as “a bit all over the place.” Well, the six-time champion will need an instant response on Tuesday facing Dominic Thiem.

Sing when you’re winning for Anderson

ATP debutant Kevin Anderson put the cherry on top of a memorable day in London with a sing along at the O2 Arena.

The South African demonstrated why he has flourished in 2018, with a performance encapsulating persistence and brave shot choices to nullify the threat of Thiem in a captivating 6-3, 7-6(10) clash.

During his post-match interview Anderson utilised his moment in the spotlight to orchestrate the crowd into singing ‘happy birthday’ for his wife. Ruthless on the court, romantic off court it seems…

Thiem took the honours this season in Madrid and at the US Open facing Anderson, despite losing the opening six times against the Wimbledon finalist. However, this time Anderson hailed a quick and confident start in London.

“I did a really good job of not giving him time. I think that's why he's been such an amazing clay court player because he creates a little bit more time,” stated the 32-year-old. “When he has time, he's just so dangerous.”

True impression

The past two campaigns have catapulted Anderson up the rankings and into Major contention. On Sunday his consistency and resilience were illustrated as the world No.6 saved two set points in the tie-break to seize the initiative.

“Ideally you try to treat every point regardless of what the situation is or where you're playing. Obviously, it's much easier said than done,” explained Anderson, who is adamant he is accustomed to facing the highest calibre of opponent now.

“The more I'm in those positions, I definitely feel more and more comfortable. It's not easy. That's where you talk about routines and rituals, everything you go through to try to put yourself in the best possible spot.”

Thiem went as far to say; “Well, of course, he can win the title here.” We’ll get a true impression of those title credentials against Nishikori on Tuesday.

Zverev sends out a statement

Down a double break at 1-4, Alexander Zverev was berating his player box and struggling to contain Marin Cilic.

However, the 21-year -old, the youngest player in the field, is building an unwavering belief, hence an ATP leading 55 victories for the campaign.

The German toppled Cilic in the round robin stage last year over three sets and booked the ‘W’ with another hard-fought triumph to join Novak Djokovic at the top of Group Gustavo Kuerten.

“Such a hard-hitting player“

“I was just trying to get myself going, trying to get the energy up,” said Sascha, who found his rhythm to power past the 2014 US Open champion 7-6(5), 7-6(1).

“You don’t want to start the group stage with a losing record, so I’m happy with the way I played and I think I can build from here.

“He’s such a hard-hitting player, when he’s building in confidence he’s so tough to face. So, I knew I had to fight,” insisted Zverev, having chalked up a sixth consecutive win over Cilic. “I'm happy to get the win, that's the most important thing. This tournament is big. It is very important to all of us players. Everybody wants to do well.”

Djokovic matches Ronaldo for opening win

Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo is heralded alongside Lionel Messi as the best footballer in the world.

The Portuguese star was courtside to catch a glimpse of another athlete at the peak of his powers on Monday night.

“I had colours of his club on my attire tonight. I'm sure he was happy to see that,” quipped Djokovic. 

“It's great to have big football star, sports star like him, courtside watching tennis. He used to come and watch a lot in Madrid. He's one of the biggest sports stars in the last decade. It's great for our sport to have him there.”

Djokovic lifted the year-end No.1 trophy for a fifth time on Sunday and portrayed to Ronaldo and co that he’s definitely back to his devastating best.

Cilic next

The five-time champion, four in London (2012-15), absorbed John Isner’s power and struck a series of arrowed passing winners to ignite his title charge 6-4, 6-3.

“I just prepared myself well for the match and executed everything really, really well,” said the Serbian, before admitting, “I do fell a little less, so to say, pressure coming into the tournament knowing that I secured the world No. 1 spot.”

Meanwhile Isner, who takes on Cilic next, offered a pretty frank assessment from his duel with Djokovic.

“I got my ass kicked. That was pretty comprehensive out there. Certainly there are some things I have to try and keep improving and the beauty of this format is I'm definitely still alive. I was the underdog tonight and got beat down pretty good,” said the towering American.

“He is No.1 and No.2 and No.3. He's the best returner I've ever faced for sure.”