The ATP World Tour Final (heretofore known as the ATP WTF) is a curious event. The round robin, featuring only the eight highest ranked players in the world, played in London's O2 arena has a jagged history debuting in its present form only in 1999 (versus the legs of the Grand Slam, the youngest of which, the Australian Open, debuted in 1905). Even though this event doesn't necessarily have the history or prestige of the majors, the Davis Cup or the Olympics, the ATP has done a good job of building the WTF into a showpiece for their biggest stars, especially since the event's fortuitous move to London in 2009. How will the ATP WTF play out? Well, we think we have a pretty solid idea.
The top eight players in the world come into London looking for different things:
- World No. 1 Novak Djokovic is looking for the cherry on top of his incredible year
- No. 2 Rafael Nadal is looking to get his game in gear for the upcoming Davis Cup final
- No. 3 Andy Murray is looking for legitimacy against his titanic rivals in the Big Four
- No. 4 Roger Federer is looking to prove, once again, that he's not dead yet
- Everybody else is frankly looking to prove they belong in the mix
Here's the official tournament draw:
(1) Novak Djokovic, (3) Andy Murray, (5) David Ferrer, (7) Tomas Berdych
Djokovic: What a stunning year Novak Djokovic produced. Just as the world had become accustomed to the Fedal hegemony, Djokovic, the simmering heir apparent, bumrushed the duopoly's throne, capturing all but Roland Garros in terms of majors and a record five Masters crowns in one season. The end of his 2011 though, has not been so gilded. Djokovic couldn't lift Serbia back into the Davis Cup final and he hasn't been healthy enough to win a tournament since that awe-inspiring US Open final against Nadal. Back and shoulder injuries picked up around the US Open have hamstrung his year-end plans making him vulnerable as he arrives in London.
Looking at his group, Djokovic is 6-4 against Murray, but won all of their completed contests this year. He has a deceptively tight 6-4 head-to-head against David Ferrer, but 3 of Ferrer's 4 wins were on clay. There's no contesting his dominance of Berdych though, against whom he has 7-1 head-to-head. How Djokovic fares in London will depend on how much his round robin matches take out of his body. He's lucky to open versus his whipping boy Berdych, but should he be unable to quickly overpower the indefatigable Ferrer, or find Andy Murray in British bulldog mode in front of his home crowd, Djokovic will have a tough time reclaiming the crown that accompanied his first Australian Open back in 2008.
Murray: Lost amidst the other storylines in the Big Four, and his own vocal carping about the length of the schedule, Andy Murray has quietly had a very good year on the tennis court. He reached all four major semifinals (losing three to Nadal and dropping the Australian final to Djokovic), won Masters titles in Canada and Shanghai and is in a tussle with Roger Federer over the year end No. 3 ranking, which if achieved, would be his highest ever year end finish after three consecutive years ranked 4th. He also is coming off a career best run in Asia winning three consecutive titles in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai. That said, he did lose a close match to Group A rival Berdych in Paris which may have halted his momentum.
Looking at head-to-heads, Murray has lost every time Djokovic has finished a match against him this year, but he's beaten David Ferrer every time they've played in 2011 (and all five of their career matches off the clay). It will be interesting to see which Murray contends on London's fast indoor courts, the aggressive Muzza that pops up just often enough to remind you of his existence, or the counterpuncher we've all grown to know and commiserate with. The most surprising head-to-head is the usually steady Murray's 1-3 record against the often erratic Tomas Berdych. This is why it's so important for the aggressive Murray to show up, at least versus Berdych, lest he be thwomped by the Czech's big serves and hefty groundies. He might be the form player of the fall in his group, but Murray's success here is largely in the hands of his opposition.
Ferrer: The ATP's resident iron man, David Ferrer has had a more than respectable 56-17, two title season, but the dropoff between the Big Four and the rest of the event's player is rather dramatic and evident looking at No. 5 Ferrer. The Big Four took all eight spots in the four major finals, they won all nine of the ATP Masters titles and have a 6-1 record on the year versus Ferrer (his sole win over his injured compatriot Nadal back in Australia). In other words, he needs to big boys to falter to win this tournament.
That doesn't mean he can't play ball by any means, (he was a finalist here in 2007) and it certainly doesn't mean he can't win his round robin group this year. You don't get to be in the top five just by having a name that my Droid autocorrects as Federer. Ferrer is probably the steadiest player out there and he specializes in taking out the other guy's legs which helps to explain his 5-2 head-to-head vs. the mercurial Tomas Berdych. That said, he's never beaten anyone else in his group off the slow red clay. Ferrer deserves to be here, but winning much on a fast indoor hardcourt will be a challenge.
Berdych: Big Berd (I'm trying to coin a nickname here, just go with it) is the wild card of his group. He can certainly beat anyone, but for all his talent and game, the 26 year old, with titles on all surfaces to his name, is just as inclined to lay an egg. Despite being a finalist at Key Biscayne and Wimbledon in 2010, Berdych won his first title in over two years at Beijing this fall where he was seeded third behind Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils (avoiding the murderer's row that week playing in Tokyo).
On the plus side for Berdych, he has the advantage of a positive head-to-head against Murray, including a win in Paris that's still fresh on their minds. On the negative side, he gets the presumably still ailing Djokovic first, which means the other guys won't have softened up the Serb for him. All fall, Djokovic has seemed to get through a match or two with flying colors before the pain (and/or fatigue) sets in. Berdych will have to bomb away on the serve against Ferrer and keep his psychological edge on Murray in order to advance.
Pivotal Match: (3) Andy Murray vs. (7) Tomas Berdych
Dark Horse: David Ferrer
Semifinalists: Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych
(2) Rafael Nadal, (4) Roger Federer, (6) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, (8) Mardy Fish
Nadal: Rafa Nadal has had perhaps the best terrible season on record, ever. Even surpassing Federer's unfairly maligned 2010 campaign. He won his his sixth Roland Garros crown, his seventh Monte Carlo Masters, made his fifth Wimbledon final in six years, his second consecutive US Open final and is playing for the Davis Cup final next week and will finish the year ranked in the top 2 for the sixth year in a row. Quelle horreur! Of course, Nadal's year both pales in comparison to and was defined by Novak Djokovic's shock-and-awe campaign where Robo-Nole dealt the Spaniard a stunning six consecutive losses in majors and Masters finals. To Nadal's credit though, the road to No. 1 for Djokovic went through Nadal, every big match that Djokovic needed to win, Nadal was there to contest.
Obviously, all eyes are pointed to the Federer/Nadal matchup that will be headline the round robin sessions, but the reality is that Nadal is the only man to have a positive career head-to-head against every other man in the field, he comes in 82-35 overall. He will open against Mardy Fish against whom he has a 7-1 head-to-head, he's 6-2 versus Tsonga, both matches should be wins for Nadal if he indeed enters the tournament both healthy and motivated. He has a mental advantage and a 17-8 head-to-head over Federer, but on an indoor hardcourt and given Nadal's inactivity since Tokyo, the edge is to Federer, especially if Nadal is treating the WTF as a warmup to his Davis Cup final versus Argentina. The question for Nadal is why is he here? Is he playing to win the tournament, or to warm up for Davis Cup?
Federer: What's left to say about Roger Federer? I ask, having dropped a fair number of pixels on the topic in the last few weeks myself. Um, he wins...a lot, 802 times at tour level thus far. He's arguably (because you can't ever definitively make a case for these things, especially across eras) the greatest tennis player to ever grip a racquet. He also likes this event, having won it five times including last year in London. I wrote a few weeks back that Federer needed a win to silence the critics and any internal doubts that may had begun to creep in. Well, the Fed apparently listens, as he's on a hot streak now. He won his home event in Basel (d. Nishikori) and the Paris Masters (d. Tsonga) to close an otherwise dismal year (by his elevated standards) on a positive note.
Historically, Federer is obviously head and shoulders against everyone in his group with the exception of Nadal. In 2011, he's 4-5, that's 0-3 versus his nemesis Nadal and 4-2 against Tsonga (he hasn't played Fish yet in 2011). There's not a match here that Federer can't win. FedEx beat Tsonga last week in the Paris final, Nadal's motivation is questionable and while Fish will play hard, on some level he has to be happy just to be in the building at this stage of his career. Let's be honest though, there's no guarantee that the Basel and Paris titles foreshadow a WTF championship, Federer is just 7-10 against the other seven players in London this year. He does have motivation on his side, six titles at the WTF would break his tie with Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras for the most all-time at this event.
Tsonga: Tsonga is a telling 52-22 this year, he has played a lot of matches, won a lot of them too, but there were a lot of losses. He turned things around somewhat this fall, away from the big four, winning titles in Metz and Vienna before a loss to a resurgent Sam Querrey in Valencia and falling to Federer at the Paris Masters. Tsonga is a talent to be sure, this will be his third year finishing in the ATP top ten, but after an Aussie Open final in 2008 (versus a nascent Novak Djokovic), Tsonga has not made a big impact on the big stage instead settling in the lower reaches of the top ten, in large part due to frequent injury of his 6'2, 200 lb. frame.
Tsonga only has a winning record versus Fish in his group, winning their sole encounter. Nadal is again a question mark, but he's played well against Tsonga in the past with a 6-2 head-to-head. Federer seems to have found the range against him after a couple of consecutive mid-season losses. In short, Tsonga's WTF could go either way, he's 17-4 this year indoors, but lost his only match against someone else in the WTF field (to Federer in Paris).
Fish: If you've watched American tennis coverage of Fish over the past few years, you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes every time his name is mentioned. Not because of Mardy himself, by all accounts, he's a good guy, great ambassador for the game and is playing the best tennis of his career by a mile. That said, how many times can Cliffy, Pam, the McEnroes tell us about him giving up french fries and losing a few pounds? Enough already! Hell, "fat" Mardy was an Olympic silver medalist in 2004 and sometime top 20 player. The important part is that Fish, on the verge of 30, is maximizing the remainder of his career and that he's qualified for his first WTF.
Cold hard facts, No. 8 Fish is 2-14 against the rest of his group. That said, he's only played (and lost to) Tsonga once and he did beat Nadal earlier this year in Canada after a month of inactivity for the Spaniard (much like the break he'll have coming into London). Yeah, that's all I got. The best thing Fish has going for himself is the lack of a statement win in his career. Winning the WTF would be huge for Fish in a way that it just won't mean as much to a Federer or a Nadal. That hunger may propel him to the semis...yeah, but probably not.
Pivotal Match: (2) Rafael Nadal vs. (6) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Pivotal as in, this match will likely decide who goes through the semis, the match everyone wants to watch of course will be Federer-Nadal XXVI
Dark Horse: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Semifinalists: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal
Semifinalist's Odds To Win The Title
Berdych: (15-1): I've picked Berdych to reach the semis because I don't think Djokovic is healthy enough to go the distance. He'll have an extremely tough time beating Federer or Nadal, but let's say he gets past a forward-looking Nadal in the semi and sees Murray across the net for the title. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Nadal (7-1): One way in which Nadal differs from his "yang" Federer is that Nadal rarely fares well after long layoffs. A rhythm player if ever there were one, Nadal came into this event presumably healthy after a tumultuous 2009 and didn't get out of round robin play. He lost his sole match to Fish earlier this year after a month plus layoff. Nadal certainly has the game to win this one, even indoors, but will he have it with him on the flight to London, or will he just be getting some matchplay to prep for Davis Cup? I'd say the latter.
Murray (5-1): There's always the question of the home crowd with the notoriously fickle Murray. Will the mounting pressure in the British capital weigh on his legs if he advances deep in the event? Probably to some extent, but his counterpuncher's game is more likely to be exposed on London's fast hardcourt once he faces other Big Four players.
Federer (2-1): It's hard to ever count this guy out, but let me break down why he's the favorite. Djokovic is physically questionable, Nadal's coming off layoff, Murray's mind and his game will be under pressure in the O2 and the rest of the field can't beat him with regularity, especially on a big stage. Fed gets WTF No. 6.