Newcomers eager to make mark at ATP Finals
LONDON (AP) Not long ago at Wimbledon, Milos Raonic had to tell journalists how to pronounce his name. Less than five months later, things have changed dramatically for the big-serving Canadian, one of the three newcomers playing at the ATP World Tour Finals.
At 23, Raonic is now a well-known name on the tour, and the youngest player in the field at the O2 Arena in London - where the eight best players of the year, minus the sidelined Rafael Nadal, have gathered for the season finale.
The two other new faces at the indoor tournament are U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic and Japan's Kei Nishikori, the first Asian player to qualify for the event.
Although the top-ranked Novak Djokovic, 17-Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and Nadal continued to dominate the tour this season, 2014 has seen two new Grand Slam champions and a bunch of new talents emerging.
''It's nice to see new faces out there with Raonic, Cilic and Nishikori,'' Federer said. ''We'll see how it plays out this week.''
Raonic had a breakthrough at Wimbledon, where he reached the semifinals following an early season marred by a left ankle injury. The big-serving Raonic, who was born in Montenegro when it was still part of the former Yugoslavia before his family left for Canada when he was 3, sealed his spot at the finals last week at the Paris Masters after defeating Federer in the quarterfinals.
Cilic had an even better season, surprisingly winning his first Grand Slam title after beating Nishikori in a U.S. Open final that few had predicted.
''I think this year has been the best year of my career with a lot of great tournaments, especially a big success at the U.S. Open,'' said the 26-year-old Cilic, who climbed from No. 37 to No. 9 in the ATP rankings. ''I feel that opens a little bit of a door for the other guys, for us from the second line. It shows that tennis is expanding a little bit. And for sure it means there will be a bigger intensity next year and the upcoming seasons, as we're going to see in tennis, maybe new Grand Slam winners.''
Still, the old guard is not ready to surrender. After recovering from back problems, Federer has been enjoying a superb season, losing to Djokovic in the final at the All England Club and claiming five titles. As a result, the Swiss still has an outside chance of beating Djokovic to the year-end No. 1 spot.
And Djokovic, seeking a third consecutive title at the O2, added six titles to his collection as he looks to finish the season at the top for the third time in four years.
''It had been a few seasons since you had four (different) Grand Slam winners,'' Djokovic said. ''There is some change in professional tennis in terms of new players and a new generation challenging the top four, who have been winning most of the major titles. But I think this is something normal to expect after many years of Federer vs. Nadal dominance and (Andy) Murray and myself.''
The 27-year-old Murray, who qualified for the tournament after pocketing three titles this autumn and is gradually making his way back among the elite, also warned the young guns they will need to fight hard to take over from their elder colleagues.
''There has been a change, but it is not drastic,'' Murray said. ''The young guys are improving a lot. A guy like (Grigor) Dimitrov, obviously as well, who just missed out on being here. There have been a lot of firsts for those guys. But the guys you mentioned are up against some of the best players of all time, regardless of how much the younger guys have improved. So it's not going to be that easy to just knock them off.''
Raonic, the first player born in the 1990s to qualify for the finals, could not disagree.
''I think these guys are knocking on the door, but nobody has kicked that door open, that's for sure,'' he said.