LONDON -- The ATP World Tour Finals begin on Sunday but the tour's Elite Eight sat down with the press in advance of the tournament to talk about everything from the 2014 season to babies and dinner companions. Here's what Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and the rest of the field had to say before the final event of the ATP season.
Federer opens his tournament against Milos Raonic on Sunday. As the most experienced player at the tournament -- he's qualified 12 times -- he knows the first round-robin match is crucial. "You definitely don’t want to lose the first one," he said. "The pressure increases and you don't even know if it's in your hands anymore. From that standpoint you go out with the mentality of being in a knock-out system. If you do lose one, you feel like it is the end of the world but it is, to be honest. I have never felt good in losing but still being in the tournament. It feels very odd, because in tennis you lose, you leave. You go round by round clearly, but the first one is crucial.
"Then you go from there once you're in the tournament. Because usually the first round is so difficult as it is because you don't know the conditions quite so well yet and everyone struggles in the first rounds. It's like the Friday in Davis Cup as well. Everyone expects you to play a final-like level of match. It's just not possible. That's where it's so hard for all eight of us guys to play another top 10 player in the first round. That's why I do believe it's crucial, that first win."
Murray is playing in London for the first time since his controversial tweet supporting Scottish independence. Is he prepared for a backlash from English fans? "The crowd has always given me very good support when I've played here and when I've played at Wimbledon and Queen's throughout my whole career," he said. "So I hope that will be the same this week. If not, I'll do my job. I'll give my best effort and hopefully win back some fans."
U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic is still getting comfortable playing with a bullseye on his back. "I feel the other players respect my tennis more. I believe they respect me, too. I played some matches after the U.S. Open where the guys are swinging more, playing much more risky. Players are going to play, I feel, all-or-nothing in the matches. That's a positive part for me, that I know guys need to play their top level to beat me but it's not easy to confront match after match. The best guys are dealing with it really well and you can't really see from outside that it's anything different, but it is."
Djokovic says he expected the surge of younger talent into the top 10 to come earlier. "I think this something to expect after many years of Federer-Nadal dominance and then Murray and myself got into the mix," he said. "It was expected to have younger players who are capable of fighting for major titles. I think that's what happened this year. I think we expected it a little bit earlier as well. I thought we were going to have some younger players who are talented and also able to challenge the best players. Now we have more interesting Grand Slams."
Kei Nishikori may be the quiet "Gentleman Warrior," but never doubt his ambition. "If I can play good tennis for five matches, I will have a chance to win the whole thing," he said. "I just need to believe in myself. For next year the goal is a little bit higher than this year. Try to be top five all the time and maybe No. 3 or No. 2, you never know."
Raonic's last gasp, Federer-beating run to the Bercy final earned him the last qualifying spot in London. "I think it's great the things I was able to produce in Paris with my back up against the wall," he said. "Knowing that I was behind and I had to fight my way through to give myself a chance to be here. So I'm very happy with that. But for me the main focus which is quite different from any other week is finding my best tennis from my first match."
For all the talk of the younger generation breaking through, there's still a chance that Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray will finish ranked in the top four. So are the Big Four still better than the rest? "The rankings prove that at the moment that might be the case," Federer said. "But then again, I think the margins are so small that I feel like we have to prove ourselves time and time again."
Murray agreed. The gap is getting smaller but Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal still rule the tour with an iron fist. "There's been a lot of 'firsts' for the younger guys," he said. "They've improved, become more consistent, and getting into their peak. That's completely natural. But the guys you mentioned are some of the best players of all time. Regardless of how much the younger guys have improved you're talking about some of the best player that have ever played the game. So even if they improve it's not going to be that easy to knock them off and that's proved to be the case this year."
Said Raonic: "I think there are guys knocking on the door in a lot of ways but nobody's kicked that door open, that's for sure."
Tomas Berdych has qualified for his fifth ATP World Tour Finals. He points out that the feat is made even more difficult given the ATP's Golden Era of talent. "It's an extremely tough era with the best players that we ever had in our sport," he said. "Not only one, if you look at Novak and Rafa. It's extremely tough to be a part of that. Maybe if there was only one of them there would be a few different Slam winners, different results. But it's not. So I have to deal with it."
How does Berdych assess his chances in Group A, which includes Djokovic, Wawrinka, and Cilic? "With having Novak in the group it's pretty much one spot already taken and we all are going to fight for the other spot."
It's been a season of massive highs -- winning the Australian Open and Monte Carlo -- and some soul-searching lows for Stan Wawrinka. No matter how hard you try to fight it, success changes you. "It's never easy to know exactly why [I've been inconsistent]," Wawrinka said. "But for sure, winning a Grand Slam, a Masters 1000, being top-3, top-4 in the world changes your life. It changes the way you see things. You need to find the way to feel good and to play well at all the tournaments. It took me a few months. I hope next year I can have better results in every tournament and not just up and down."
Cilic is just starting to deal with the change in expectation and pressure. "For me it's a new situation," he said. "Of course it's a huge motivation to be pushed forward and to be compared to the best guys. I'm always trying to be at the end of the tournaments, trying to play the tennis that I played at the U.S. Open, and to be moving forward week after week. But of course there are many other guys that are playing really well too. So it's always a battle to keep going with your expectations and your level. I think it's a positive part for me and my career, but it's going to be really interesting for me in the next year how I deal with it."
And then there are other changes. For Djokovic, fatherhood has been pretty good to him so far. ""First tournament after [my son was born] was Paris and I won it without dropping a set. We should be making more kids, I guess," he said, laughing. "[My wife] wouldn't like that I said that."
Djokovic has been getting parenting advice from Federer. "We spoke in Paris and he’s one of the first players that congratulated me and wished me all the best,” Djokovic said. “He can identify with what I’m going through. I’m still far from him with four kids. It’s pretty amazing to still play at such a high level as he does with four kids. I understand what an effort it is with one. With four I can’t imagine. We talked in China, in Paris about what it takes to be traveling. He advised me and I’m taking it into account. Hopefully I can organize my life as well as he did."
How does Federer do it? By doing a lot of juggling. ""I'm very busy and very active and try to balance it as well as I can," he said. "When I'm on the massage table I might be holding Leo for half an hour. Then I'll hold Lenny for half an hour while I'm getting massaged. So anything is possible really. It just really depends on how tired I am and how everyone else is feeling around me."
It's hard to ignore the strong presence of players, coaches, and physios from the ex-Yugoslavia in London this year. "Goran [Ivanisevic] was saying how in his time he was basically the only one from the ex-Yugoslavia," Cilic said. "He had difficulty finding people to practice with or speak Croatian with except his coaches. Now we have 10 or 15 guys who are speaking Croatian. [Ivan] Ljubicic with Milos, his fitness trainer, Ivan Dodig is here and his fitness trainer too. It's amazing for the countries that we are coming from. Not too many options for tennis, difficult the financial part. But the athletes are finding a way, somehow, to make it."
Nishikori is the first Asian-born player to qualify for the Finals and he understands how important his success is for tennis in Asia. "I think the best thing for [Asia] is that I do well, not just here but on the tour,” Nishikori said. “I think they need to believe themselves they can also do it. To win a Grand Slam, like Li Na did, even for me I got a lot of motivation from her. So it was sad to see she is retiring. Hopefully I can be the next one. I do not know why Asian players are not getting to the Top 100, Top 50, but I think they are getting better now."
Djokovic was impressed by his neighbor Caroline Wozniacki's New York City Marathon effort. He says he sees her running all the time in Monte Carlo. Just don't count on seeing him wear a bib soon. "I do want to run one day, I don't know which city," he said. "But I think it will be after my career is over. During my career? I have to say chapeau to her because it's pretty amazing she ran 42 kilometers after an exhausting season."
Murray offered some interesting insight into his decision to play six tournaments in six weeks this fall. "It was my idea," he said. "I said to Dani and Amelie after New York that I wanted to play tournaments. I wanted to try and play matches and get back to winning matches. I told them I didn't care if it was futures or challengers. I wanted to get back to winning tournaments again and having that feeling again. I didn't decide exactly what tournaments I was going to play. Obviously I spoke to them about that. Looking at the balls and conditions and how that would affect my game and which conditions would suit my game."
Which of the other seven players at the Finals would Raonic want to go to dinner with and why? "Probably Roger," Raonic said. "I would ask him about stories about early on in his career. Because when I came on tour he's always had a family. He's always been on the outside of things because he's always had his family with him. So you don't always get to hear some of the exciting stories."
With the Davis Cup final looming after London, Federer says his focus remains on the O2. "The only time where I could potentially see that slightly creeping into my mind is if I make it into the semis or the finals here because then Davis Cup is close," he said. "But still right now it feels so far away and during the round robin matches there's no way it will distract me."