LONDON — For the first time since 2007, and only the second time in the ATP Finals’ 49-year history, only one American player competed in singles or doubles at the elite year-end event.
He was not John Isner, the highest-ranked American man in singles, who played in the tournament last year. He was not Jack Sock, a singles semifinalist two years ago and a winner in doubles in 2018.
He was not Bob or Mike Bryan, members of the most successful men’s doubles team ever. They qualified for the tournament for the 17th time, but opted not to play.
Of the 24 players competing at the O2 Arena this week, the only American was Rajeev Ram.
And he knows that he can go virtually anywhere in the world and remain entirely unrecognized.
When it was suggested that nine out of 10 Americans have no idea who he is, Ram, 35, said: “Ninety percent is being generous. I find that people in other cultures have heard of my name more than Americans. At home, they have to be real hard-core tennis fans.”
The lack of Americans at the ATP Finals reflects the state of the men’s game in the United States. The eight singles qualifiers — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Matteo Berrettini — represent eight European nations. It is the first time since 2016 that no American has competed in singles, and the last American to win the tournament was Pete Sampras 20 years ago.
(Though the present and future of American women’s tennis are strong, only one woman from the United States participated in the WTA Finals two weeks ago: Sofia Kenin, who played as an alternate when Bianca Andreescu withdrew with an injury.)
“Americans are spoiled because we were so lucky to have so many great players compete at the majors for, like, 25 or 50 years,” said Ram, who was ranked a career-high No. 9 in doubles earlier this year but has never been ranked within the top 50 in singles. “Now there’s been a serious shift to where we’re no longer a powerhouse. We’re doing our best, but there are just so many more people we have to compete with. Our attitude of entitlement really needs to change.”
Ram and his partner, Joe Salisbury of Britain, were eliminated from the doubles tournament on Thursday with a loss to Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo in round-robin play.
Ram, who has reached the ATP Finals three times in his 15-year pro career, teamed up with Salisbury, 27, at the beginning of this year after playing with 11 partners in 2018.
“I really like his athleticism and his demeanor on the court,” said Ram, who also won the 2019 Australian Open mixed doubles title with Barbora Krejcikova, his only Grand Slam title. “I’m not that exuberant off the court, but I have a great desire to compete and still get better in doubles. In doubles, you look for a partner who can fill the holes and Joe does that really well.”
Ram spent two and a half years with Raven Klaasen, a five-title partnership that ended after the 2017 season. They were runners-up to Henri Kontinen and John Peers at the 2016 ATP Finals.
Ram estimated that he had had 25 to 30 doubles partners over the course of his career. He was not even close.
In truth, Ram has played with 99 different partners at the ATP, Challenger and Futures levels. He has won 19 tour titles with 11 men. He also won two singles titles, and a silver medal with Venus Williams at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Salisbury, whose career-high singles ranking wasn’t even in the top 500, agreed with the yin-and-yang template that he and Ram have orchestrated.
“I’m probably stronger and more athletic, but he’s a smoother player,” Salisbury said. “He strikes the ball so well. He also stays calmer in a lot of situations and keeps things in perspective.”
Ram has no illusions that doubles players will ever garner the attention or adoration that singles players do. He bows his head to the Bryan brothers, who have won 118 titles together, including 16 majors and four ATP Finals. Together, the Bryans, 41, have finished the year ranked No. 1 a record 10 times and, through their charismatic play and on-court demeanor, have brought a new generation of followers to doubles. They announced on Wednesday that they would retire after the 2020 U.S. Open.
“Tennis has been better off for every extra day that the Bryans have played,” Ram said. “We owe them a debt of gratitude for everything they have done to put doubles on the tennis map. We have all learned from them, and that has made the rest of us better. If not for Bob and Mike, doubles would be in a much more precarious position.”
Roger Federer finally found a way to put Novak Djokovic away, beating him, 6-4, 6-3, Thursday to reach the semifinals.
It was Federer’s first win over Djokovic since 2015. He had lost their last five meetings, including an epic five-set Wimbledon final in July.
This was their first match since then, but it had little of the same drama as Djokovic gave up three easy service breaks and Federer gave him no chance to get back in the match.
The result means Djokovic was eliminated with a 1-2 record in the group stage, and ensures that Rafael Nadal will keep the year-end No. 1 ranking. Djokovic had a chance to overtake Nadal and equal Pete Sampras’s record of finishing the year as No. 1 for a sixth time by winning the tournament. (AP)