Ace tennis star Novak Djokovic.
Npvak Djokovic

It will not be the party envisaged as London bids farewell to the ATP Finals but despite the strangest of circumstances the season-ender should provide an upbeat note on which to finish a difficult year for tennis.

The ATP’s blue-riband event has proved a huge success since it switched to London’s cavernous O2 Arena in 2009, drawing sell-out crowds to watch the world’s top eight singles players and doubles pairs go head-to-head.

Last year nearly 250,000 fans flocked to the Thames-side dome over the eight days of the tournament won by Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas. This time, with London in COVID-19 lockdown, the 20,000-seater arena will be eerily empty, barring the players, their coaches, tournament officials and a smattering of media.

Players must live in a strict ‘bubble’ and even line judges will be missing, replaced by the Hawk-eye live system used recently at the U.S. Open.

In these straitened times prize money has also been slashed from last year’s total pot of $9 million to $5.7 million with an undefeated champion to pocket $1.56 million compared to the $2.6 million Tsitsipas earned despite losing one round-robin match.

Not that cash will be the motivator for world number one Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and debutants Andrey Rublev and Diego Schwartzman when the tournament’s 50th edition starts on Sunday.

Serbian Djokovic, 33, is guaranteed to end the year as number one for a sixth time, equalling Pete Sampras’s record.

But the last of his five titles at the year-ender came in 2015 and, after his recent default in the U.S. Open and thrashing by Nadal in the French Open final he will be eager to put the year to bed with a powerful statement.

Djokovic, denied the chance to defend his Wimbledon title this year when it was cancelled for the first time since World War II, can match the absent Roger Federer’s six ATP Finals titles. Nadal, incredibly, still awaits his first.

The Spanish 20-times Grand Slam champion has a relatively mediocre record in the event, his best runs being two runner-up finishes in London in 2010 and 2013.

His last two appearances ended in round-robin stage exits.

“Of course I wanted to win the tournament, but it’s always difficult,” Nadal, who has never had the benefit of contesting it on his favoured clay, said.

After the domination of Federer and Djokovic, who won 11 of the 13 editions between 2003 and 2015, the last three years in London has seen first-time winners in Grigor Dimitrov, Zverev and Tsitsipas and that sequence could continue.