The rivalries which have defined the 2021 hard-court season are taking centre stage once again in the climactic rounds of the Nitto ATP Finals.
Novak Djokovic faced Alexander Zverev in the closing stages of the Australian Open, the Tokyo Olympics and the US Open – now the two will clash in Turin as the World No. 1 targets his eighth appearance in the final of the season-ending championships.
Should Djokovic reach that final, he could face Daniil Medvedev for the fourth time in 2021 after they played in the finals of the Australian Open, the US Open and the Rolex Paris Masters. That is, if Medvedev gets past the challenge of Casper Ruud, the only one of the four semi-finalists who is not a former Nitto ATP Finals champion.
Djokovic will be aiming to avoid a repeat of last year’s tournament, when he was edged out of the season finale at the semi-final stage. He could hardly have advanced through the group stage more cleanly, defeating Ruud 7-6(4), 6-2 and Andrey Rublev 6-3, 6-2 to win the Green Group. But Zverev should be a much tougher challenge. Djokovic leads the ATP Head2Head 7-3, but their past four matches have gone past straight sets.
This will be the third clash between them at the Nitto ATP Finals, where Zverev memorably defeated Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 to claim the title in 2018 after losing to the Serb during the group stage. Djokovic defeated Zverev 6-3, 7-6(4) in the group stages in 2020.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Zverev said. “It’s always interesting and close when we play each other, so I’m expecting another tough one… There will be a lot of long rallies, we will run a lot more and suffer, in a way, a lot more as well.
“I think every single match we have played has been close. We’ve needed to be at our best and one or two points decided the matches. I expect no different here as well.”
There’s less history between second seed Medvedev and Ruud, who have played each other twice, Medvedev winning both matches in straight sets. But history is no guarantee of future success. Just ask Ruud, who was 0-4 and on a nine-set losing streak against Rublev when he came back from 2-6 down to win 2-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) and reach the semi-finals on his Nitto ATP Finals debut.
“It is going to be another tough battle, different kind of player from today, but one of the best in the world,” Ruud said. “He has proven himself as one of the best over the past two or three years. I have played against him a couple of times and lost both, but I know a little bit about what I am going to face and it is going to be a fun challenge.”
Ruud will be up against an even more formidable streak – Medvedev’s eight-match winning streak at the Nitto ATP Finals. After going 0-3 on his debut in 2019, Medvedev has not lost a match, claiming the title unbeaten in 2020 and he is now 3-0 in Turin. The Russian had already won the Red Group by beating Hubert Hurkacz 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4 and Zverev 6-3, 6-7(3), 7-6(6) when he faced Jannik Sinner on Thursday night, and looked set for an early night when he led 6-0. However, the young Italian – and the passionate crowd – wanted more. They got it, as Medvedev finally overwhelmed Sinner’s resistance after two hours and 29 minutes, 6-0, 6-7(5), 7-6(8). The World No. 2 will not be short of winning momentum to bring into Saturday’s semi-finals.
In the doubles, World No. 1 pairing Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic will meet the British-American duo of Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury. The British-American duo had to beat the experienced Colombians Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah to clinch their place in the semi-finals but rose to the occasion, winning 7-5, 2-6, 11-9 to go 3-0.
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert will be looking to reach their third season-ending championship final as a team after winning the title without dropping a set in 2019. Their route through the group stages has been more dramatic this time – they lost 11-13 in the Match Tie-break to Ram and Salisbury – but not as dramatic as that of their semi-final opponents Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos, who saved four match points as they came back from 4-6, 1-4 down to defeat Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek.
But all the remaining players can put the qualification scenarios and hypotheticals of round-robin play behind them. When they take to the court at the Pala Alpitour on Saturday, there are only two possibilities left – lose, and go home; win, and reach Sunday’s final.
ORDER OF PLAY – SATURDAY, 20 NOVEMBER 2021
CENTRE COURT start 11:30 am
 R. Ram (USA) / J. Salisbury (GBR) vs  N. Mektic (CRO) / M. Pavic (CRO)
Not Before 2:00 pm
 D. Medvedev (RUS) vs  C. Ruud (NOR)
Not Before 6:30 pm
 M. Granollers (ESP) / H. Zeballos (ARG) vs  P. Herbert (FRA) / N. Mahut (FRA)
Not Before 9:00 pm
 N. Djokovic (SRB) vs  A. Zverev (GER)