07:00 AM GMT November 14, 2017
First-match nerves on debut are compounded for Alexander Zverev on a stage as big as the O2 arena for the Nitto ATP Finals. For Roger Federer, these debut nerves came 15 years ago.
The then No. 6 in the Emirates ATP Rankings opened his season-ending campaign in Shanghai in 2002 against the World No. 4 – the Spaniard who now coaches Zverev – Juan Carlos Ferrero. For the record, the Swiss won that battle and on Sunday, he claimed his opening round-robin clash with American Jack Sock.
Hours later, Zverev won his debut match at the season finale eking out a three-set victory over Marin Cilic. For the 36-year-old Federer, a six-time Nitto ATP Finals champion, experience has taught him how tricky that opening match in the season finale can be, against a fellow Top-10 competitor.
“You can't expect to play your best against the best players in the world in that first match,” Federer said. “At the end you're just happy to be serving well. Focus on that first, and then on the return game sort of try your best, try to keep the ball in play, and go from there.
“I think that's the difficulty in a first round usually at any tournament. Here it's amplified because it's against a fellow Top-10 player. It just makes things really, really difficult sometimes.”
While Federer secured a relatively straight-forward 6-4, 7-6(4) victory over the American, Zverev had to dig deep to peg back a 1-3 deficit in the deciding set of a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory over Cilic. After his fourth FedEx ATP Head2Head win in five meetings with the Croat, Zverev admitted to those first-time nerves.
“It is different walking on here than any other stadium. The crowd, the atmosphere is amazing. The show before we walk on is something special,” he said. “There were a lot of nerves involved in my first match. Obviously I'm happy that's behind me. I'm happy that I won. I think the next matches will be not different but from a nervous perspective it will be much different for me.”
Expect the German to come out with a nothing-to-lose approach. He has won five titles this season, including ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles in Rome (d. Djokovic) and Montreal (d. Federer). In denying Djokovic in the Rome final and Federer for the Montreal title, he become the youngest since Djokovic a decade earlier to win two Masters 1000 tournaments in a season. He is closing in on becoming the youngest to finish in the Top 3 since the Serb in 2007.
“I think anyone beating Federer in this group has a good chance of passing,” he said. “But he's the favourite, definitely, in all of the matches he plays. I played him a few times this year now.
“I played him three times, if you count the Hopman Cup match we played. Obviously, all of them were great matches. Hopefully it can be another one.”
World No. 2. Federer has won an ATP World Tour-best seven titles for the season. He is an impressive 11-1 against Top 10 opponents this year, with his lone defeat coming to Zverev in that Coupe Rogers final.
Where Zverev has struggled since the US Open, reaching just one semi-final in Beijing, Federer has claimed an ATP Masters 1000 title in Shanghai and an eighth title on home soil in Basel. Year-end No. 1 may be off the cards but his sights are still firmly fixed on a record seventh Nitto ATP Finals title.
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