11/19/2011 4:00:00 PM
by Steve Flink
When the eight best players in the world start combating each other tomorrow at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, it will be an opportunity for all of the competitors to salvage something of lasting value at the end of another long year. Mardy Fish will be as inspired as anyone when he makes his debut in the prestigious season-ending event. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is back in the field, making only his second appearance, looking to make his presence known after his most reliable campaign yet. Tomas Berdych is among the elite in London for the second year in a row, hoping he can impose his big hitting game with more authority than he did in 2010. And Spain’s David Ferrer—one of the game’s ultimate professionals—will put everything he has into all of his matches in a full-fledged effort to conclude the year on his terms.
I have no doubt that those four men will all have their shining moments in London. But I can’t see any of those distinguished players securing the title. It seems certain that one member of the sport’s “Big Four” is going to win the tournament on November 27. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer have set the gold standard all year long in tennis, and for a lot longer than that. In the 22 ATP World Tour events played this year when at least one member of that esteemed foursome has been in the field, they have taken the title 21 times. Djokovic, of course, has had the banner year, capturing ten titles and losing one final in 2011, winning 69 of 73 matches, sweeping three of the four Grand Slam events, and securing five Masters 1000 championships. He would surely like to finish 2011 with another important tournament victory, as if to underline his supremacy.
Some critics might contend that Djokovic and all of the other leading competitors are playing too many tournaments, but the facts refute that claim. London will be only the 15th tournament for the Serbian in 2011. He played 19 tournaments in 2010, 22 in 2009, and 19 in 2008. Looking at his record strictly in terms of matches, Djokovic will play no more than 78 this year. He played 79 matches in 2010, 97 in 2009, and 81 in 2008. Those numbers are high but not unreasonably so. Nadal will be playing his 17th tournament of 2011 after appearing in the same number of events the previous two years. In 2008, Nadal played 19 tournaments. Nadal will not compete in more than 84 matches this year after playing 81 in 2010, 80 in 2009, and 93 in 2008.
Let’s look at Federer and Murray. London will be Federer’s 16th tournament of 2011 and he can’t exceed 76 matches this season. In 2010 he played 18 tournaments and 78 matches. His 2009 numbers were 15 tournaments and 73 matches, while in 2008 the Swiss appeared in 19 tournaments and played 81 matches. Murray will be competing in his 18th tournament of 2011 at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and his maximum number of matches for the year will be 73. In 2010 he played 19 tournaments and 64 matches. He appeared in 18 tournaments and 77 matches across 2009, and played 22 tournaments and 74 matches during the 2008 season.
The numbers for all four of these leading players are revealing. They are playing essentially the same number of events and matches year after year, taking the same rest periods for the most part, and they have made certain not to overtax themselves. I stand by my criticism that Djokovic made a few bad choices this fall when he knew his body was betraying him, but he has acted responsibly almost across the board, as have Nadal, Federer and Murray. That is why they all—with the possible exception of Djokovic—should be ready to compete at full force in London. These men have largely paced themselves admirably.
Rafael Nadal has been very wise with his schedule this year, and has put up some impressive numbers himself across 2011, winning 66 of 79 matches, reaching ten finals, and winning three tournaments—including his sixth French Open. Nadal has essentially dominated against every chief rival with the exception of Djokovic, who has toppled the Spaniard all six times they have clashed in 2011. All of those meetings were on big occasions. Djokovic defeated Nadal twice in hard court finals of Masters 1000 events, at Indian Wells and Miami. He stopped the Spaniard in consecutive Masters 1000 clay court tournaments at Madrid and Rome. And he beat his primary rival in the finals of the game’s two most significant events at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Losses of that magnitude have weighed heavily in the heart and mind of Nadal, but he is everlastingly pugnacious while remaining realistic about his challenges, especially regarding Djokovic. Nadal has won all three of his 2011 appointments with Federer to raise his winning record over the Swiss to 17-8, and he has won four of five 2011 meetings against Murray, including victories over his adversary in the last three Grand Slam championships. While Djokovic captured the ATP World Tour Finals back in 2008, Nadal has not yet won that estimable prize. Remarkably, Nadal has taken only one indoor tournament title across his illustrious career, but he played well in London a year ago, reaching the final by upending Murray in an epic semifinal, losing the final to Federer in three sets the following day. Nadal is a singularly determined and obstinate individual. He much prefers the sun and the heat of outdoor competition over the more somber and static indoor atmosphere, but the fact remains that is willing to fight his way through and past anything or anyone.
Murray has had an eventful 2011, reaching the final of the Australian Open but losing in straight sets to a top of the line Djokovic, falling into a brief but dismal slump, rising to reach the semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and then playing his finest tennis of the season in winning Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai to move past Federer to No. 3 in the world. Murray’s 17 match winning streak was halted by Berdych in the quarters of the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris, but he will be raring to go in London after his late season exploits. Murray carries only a 710 point lead over Federer in the race to finish the year at No. 3. That has been his goal all autumn long. His versatile and crafty game is well suited to the indoor conditions in London, and a triumph there could propel him toward a first Grand Slam tournament victory next year. He will be brimming with intensity all week long in Great Britain.
As for Federer, he is the most in form player of the elite eight in London. It had been an arduous and largely distressing campaign for the Swiss all through 2011. He won his opening tournament at Doha but had a 12 tournament losing streak thereafter, a stretch which lasted all the way into the first week of this month, when he lifted his game and his morale considerably to take the title in his hometown of Basel. The following week, he won the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris with victories over Berdych and Tsonga. He had lost twice to Tsonga in 2011, most notably in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon after leading two sets to love. Moreover, Federer had been beaten in three of his last four duels with Berdych. Federer clearly altered his outlook decidedly with his Basel and Paris tournament wins. He is the defending champion in London, and has the chance to become the first man ever to secure the season-ending event six times. Federer will be unwavering in his pursuit of that goal. Of all the great players in the field, he is the most comfortable indoors, the player most at ease with a roof over his head.
The way I look at it, Federer is the slight favorite to win this week, with Murray not far behind him. Djokovic would have clearly been the man to beat after his outstanding year, but even his biggest boosters must be apprehensive about his chances. Ever since late in the summer, his body has been breaking down alarmingly. Facing Murray in the final of Cincinnati, Djokovic retired at a set and 3-0 down with a shoulder injury. He made it through the U.S. Open, but hurt his back during his final round win over Nadal, and was fortunate that the injury did not cost him the title. One week later, he was persuaded to play a Davis Cup match for Serbia against the daunting Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina. He lost a tie-break in the first set, trailed 3-0 in the second, and stopped right then and there. Djokovic’s back was problematic again. He should have turned down that request to represent his country.
The world No. 1 did not play again until Basel, but his shoulder hindered him again as he lost tamely 6-0 in the final set against Kei Nishikori in the semifinals. Djokovic’s body was talking to him again, telling him to slow down. He refused to listen, and played in Paris the following week. He did manage to carve out two match victories, but he could not continue, defaulting his quarterfinal with Tsonga. The hope here is that Djokovic has had time over the last ten days to recover, and the schedule in London will work in his favor since he will have days off after his first two round robin matches. But can he deal with such a tough week of competition against the best players in the world after so many physical difficulties as of late? We will find out the answer soon enough.
As for Nadal, he will be rested and eager, but his indoor record speaks for itself. Does he really believe he can win this tournament? He surely has his share of doubts. On the other hand, he is in a group that should be to his liking. In Group B, Nadal is joined by Federer, Tsonga and Mary Fish. He opens against Fish on Sunday. Fish will be a tough man to bring down indoors, but Nadal has a good chance to win that match. The Spaniard has a 7-1 head-to-head edge over Fish. He has always enjoyed playing Tsonga; Nadal leads in his career series with the Frenchman 6-2. And then, of course, we will get the eagerly awaited round robin battle between Nadal and Federer. Interestingly, while Nadal has such a sizeable lead in his overall rivalry with Federer, the Swiss has never lost to his old adversary in three indoor skirmishes.
For that reason, Federer will have a different mindset when he approaches this confrontation with Nadal. Federer surely believes he is simply the better player indoors, particularly on a low bouncing court. But Nadal will be highly motivated to beat Federer this time around, and perhaps the round robin is the best time and place for the Spaniard to take on the Swiss. To be sure, it will be a foreign feeling for both players to meet in a round robin match, but they will both be so highly charged for this battle that it will have the atmospherics of a final. Federer will like his chances, but Nadal will see himself as an underdog, which could make him awfully dangerous, and more willing to take calculated risks.
In any event, that group will be fascinating. Federer and Tsonga will reprise their final of a week ago in Paris and will meet for the seventh time in 2011. Tsonga remains something of a loose cannon, but he has matured over the course of this year. He can worry anyone in his group. The same can be said for Fish. But I still expect Federer and Nadal to move on to the semifinals.
As for Group A, Djokovic is joined by Murray, Berdych and Ferrer. If Djokovic does not find himself physically compromised again, he will make it to the semifinals by winning at least two of his three matches. I would say the same holds true for Murray, although he must watch his step when he takes on Berdych, who played so opportunistically to beat the British stalwart in Paris. Ferrer will not surrender easily against anyone in his group, but it is very unlikely that he can make it out of there safely. Perhaps the Spaniard will win one match, but probably no more than that. Berdych is another story; he has an outside chance to establish himself as a surprise semifinalist. His game is much better suited to the indoor conditions than Ferrer’s. But Berdych can be a fragile competitor. In the end, unless Djokovic has to withdraw from the tournament with an injury, I see Djokovic and Murray moving through to the semifinals.
Thereafter, it is tougher to make the calls. A Murray-Federer semifinal or final would be a beauty. They have not played against each other all year long. They are fighting for that No. 3 ranking. A classic would be in the making. I could envision either man winning in a final set tie-break. All of the matchups would be compelling from the semifinals on. Djokovic and Federer have not played since the Serbian rallied from two sets down and later saved two match points in the fifth set to beat Federer in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Nadal and Murray could conceivably stage another classic like their 2010 London semifinal. Meanwhile, as long as the “Big Four” all get to the semifinals, the tournament will end in style.
Consider all of the possibilities for the last two rounds. Beyond the aforementioned Murray-Federer or Djokovic-Federer matchups, we could have the bright prospect of a Nadal-Murray or Nadal-Djokovic clash for the title. Then again, it is entirely possible that Nadal and Federer could meet for a second time in the championship match, as could Murray and Djokovic.
It all starts tomorrow. Anything can happen, as we saw in 2009 when Nikolay Davydenko struck down Del Potro in championship match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. But I will be astounded this year if one of the top four men does not claim the title. It is very hard to imagine Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Murray not standing alone at the top, recording another important tournament triumph as the curtain closes on a memorable 2011 season, asserting their authority once more at a place of consequence.