WTF Happened

Sunday, November 29, 2009 /by

Nd How will the 2009 World Tour Final be remembered? It might become known as the week when Nikolay Davydenko jumped the last hurdle before his personal Grand Slam finish line. It might be recalled as the tournament where indoor tennis lighting and photography saw their futures, by leaving the fans in darkness and the players sculpted in spotlight. Or, the tournament's many three-set matches, as well as the lack of dominance by any one player, might just portend a new and much more chaotic era for the ATP tour.

We’ll see how all of that plays out. What we do know now is that the WTF has left each of its eight participants with something to think about over the next month. Often the indoor season has no affect on the start of the next year—David Nalbandian, anyone?—but it did on at least one occasion, in 2004-5, when Marat Safin built the momentum in Europe in November that he needed to win the title in Melbourne the following January. Let’s look at what each of this year’s Top 8 might be considering for 2010.

Nikolay Davydenko

As Davydenko stepped to the baseline to serve for the match at 5-4 in the second set on Sunday, your first reaction might have been to worry that he would gag. He’s tightened up many times in the past, and he usually doesn’t have the kind of serve that can help him relax again. But for today, that all seemed like a distant memory, a part of his first career, which had come to an end the day before when he had beaten Roger Federer for the first time in 13 tries. This was the New Kolya, and he used his more imposing serve to hold easily and win the biggest tournament of his career. The quickness, the ball-striking, the efficiency, the ridiculously early contact, all of that has been there for years. The trouble with Davydenko is that he has always been too unassuming to consider himself a Grand Slam contender, so he has focused on playing as much as possible and winning as much money as possible. This was a semi-understandable attitude: After all, he probably always thought Federer would stand in his way at the majors. Today, at 28, Davydenko finally knows that he can beat anyone. It’s time for him to deal with that fact.

Juan Martin del Potro

He was testy and morose from the start of the final, which is a strange reaction considering that he’d just beaten Federer in the round robin and survived the best that Robin Soderling could throw at him over three sets. Del Potro proved again in this event that he can persevere after losing first sets and that he can turn himself around completely over the course of a week. He’s like a tank; he has a big game, but it takes him a while to get it in position to use it. In the final, del Potro didn’t react well to the magnitude of the moment, and Davydenko didn’t give him the time he needed to get over that first reaction and get his sights set on his target.

Roger Federer

Is it a sign of an aging championship team that they start slowly before recovering to win in the end? It would make sense. The youthful speed and hunger aren't there right off the bat; the players, weighed down with success, need more time to reach top gear, to get themselves in position to hit an overhead off an overhead. It also takes a little while for them to remember how much they don’t want to lose. In the end, they pull a lot of games and matches out because just because they've done it so many times before. This was a theme of Federer’s performances in London. He lost the first set in every match he played. The first two times he escaped, the next two times he didn’t. We’ll see if this is the beginning of a pattern for the latter part of his career.

Robin Soderling

I can remember writing more than one article for Tennis Magazine in the early part of this decade naming Soderling as a snake-in-the-grass sleeper at Wimbledon. Then I started leaving him out. Then I forgot all about him. So what changed? This past week the Alternate looked like he'd always belonged among the best, beating Nadal and Djokovic in straight sets and going up a break in the third set against del Potro in the semis. I know it was indoors, where his high ball toss and long swings don’t hurt him—the usual wild forehands were few and far between last week—but Soderling is projecting the confidence of a guy who can replicate this performance wherever he goes. He’s a snake in the grass, on hard courts, on clay.

Andy Murray

This wasn’t a good week for the hometown boy. He looked out of answers against Federer; he gave away the game that might have qualified him for the semifinals; and more than ever he seemed to have succeeded in compressing his wide variety of strokes inside an utterly one-dimensional game. As I’ve said, his biggest liability is his lack of a putaway forehand—Federer, Nadal, del Potro, those are the guys who have won Slams recently, and those are the guys with the biggest forehands around. Maybe it’s time for Murray to shift his relatively conservative forehand grip a little to the West and see what happens. That’s the only plausible way I can see for him make it into the weapon he needs, in the time he has.

Novak Djokovic

The Serb said it best and worst, all in one sentence. After winning his opening match over Davydenko, he stated that he had finally “matured” over the last two months, but that “anything can happen on any day” in tennis. He was right about the latter; the former remains to be seen. Just when it seemed like Djokovic, winner of two events coming into London, was ready to take his place at No. 2 in the world and go into 2010 on a hot streak, he moped through a dismal two-set loss to Soderling and chucked away his shot at the semis. Like del Potro, Djokovic, for all of his Grand Slam-winning skill, still hasn’t shown the ability to bring all of his patience and concentration to every important match. Neither guy is the master of the moment yet.

Fernando Verdasco

Watching the other Spanish lefty in London, I generally found myself doing two things. First I thought about how rare it is to see him grab a rally and make it his, without resorting to an all-or-nothing stab at a winner. If he wasn’t going for broke, he was looping the ball back in the court. Then I waited for him to make a forehead-slapping mistake at exactly the wrong moment. He never failed me. That said, the guy had the best year of his career and was competitive in all of his matches at the WTF. Imagine if he ever learns to construct points on his terms?

Rafael Nadal

One major, three Masters titles, the No. 2 ranking, maybe a Davis Cup on top. That’s a fantasy season for 99 percent of the tennis universe. Nadal has always faded over the second half of the year, but this week seemed particularly drastic. The old pattern was that it took him until spring to find his range, which he then kept until the U.S Open. In 2009, he found it earlier, in Australia, and lost it earlier, in Paris. At 23, he’s got a few more world-beating six-month runs in him.

If he doesn’t, if Nadal is the same wounded kid and Federer is the same slow-to-the-plate old man, then the first shots of 2010 may have been fired. The threats could now come from the old (Davydenko), the young (del Potro, Djokovic, maybe Murray), and even the middle-aged, in the hulking form of Soderling. One thing only is for sure: It will never get easier for Federer and Nadal to fight off the next era, to keep the chaos we saw in London at bay.

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