Beaten, But in a Good Way

Tuesday, December 01, 2009 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Howdy, everyone. I'm on a pretty productive streak here - had good, long conversations with Caroline Wozniacki and Andre Agassi yesterday and today (Caroline had just come in from jet-skiing when we spoke; she admitted that she was afraid to go too fast). Not sure exactly what direction we'll take (magazine or website), but I'll keep you posted and in any event I won't be doing anything with the material for at least three days. I'm off and gone into the woods in Pennsylvania tomorrow and Thursday.

Also, we'll have a podcast posted by tomorrow (I hope)on the Tennis.com home page, in which James Martin, Steve Tignor, and I talk about the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and the upcoming Davis Cup final.

I made the same point in the podcast that I'm going to make here - this WTF was a perfect demonstration of the difference between round-robin events (of any kind, but especially significant ones) and single-elimination tournament tennis. Nikolay Davydenko did well to win the whole shooting match in London, and the way he did it highlights both the shortcomings and strengths of the RR system.

The main shortcoming, as I see it, is that any number of players have a dizzying variety of ways to remain alive in the event (just look at Juan Martin del Potro, and where he ended up after what could only be called a sluggish start), and that's a great playing-field leveler. The sheer uncertainty of the first few rounds allows everyone to just go out and play, unsure of where the chips may fall. That's both a balm for the nervous mind - and an somewhat suspect method of doing business for the calm one. Round Robin is like playing the stock market; you calculate the odds, pick your spots, make your calls and know you'll live to gamble on another day.

Or let me put it more directly; in a single elimination format, every match is theoretically your last match. That creates a sense of urgency  - and pressure - each time you set foot on a court. Without that do-or-die element, anything can happen. And, as we just saw, it did. In a field loaded with talent, Davydenko emerged the winner.

Davydenko earned his win; no doubt about it. You can't expect him to meet or play to  a different set of standards than those that apply under the circumstances. But let's remember that earlier this year,  Dinara Safina was ranked no. 1, and had by definition earned and deserved the status, yet. . .

There's a reason Davydenko hasn't won a major because that's a different beast; this win just helps shed light on the fundamental and, IMO, surprisingly big difference between round-robin events and majors. I'll be happy to re-visit my thinking after Nikolay bags his major, especially if he has to beat two or three players of the caliber he faced in London, but in a single-elimination event.

Of course, you can say on Davydenko's behalf that he beat Roger Federer and del Potro in back to back, single-elimination matches, for (arguably) the fifth most significant title on the world tour. And del Potro's post-match endorsement of Davydenko was certainly impressive - and kind. He said, “This tournament has a great champion, like Nikolay. He worked hard to beat every player here this week. So maybe I have to improve a little bit the little things. But he played much better than me, and that's it. He played unbelievable tennis. He beat me in a good way.”

I like that: He beat me in a good way. . .

So this bring me back around to my original point. You can't take anything away from Davydenko, an opportunistic player who saw his opening and took it. And remember, for a guy whose endorsement income is modest (he doesn't even have a racket contract with Prince, despite his gushing over the product - remember the "magic racket" he used to win Miami a few years back?) that potential payoff of $1.5 million was certainly good incentive. But most of all, Davydenko's triumph in London is a tribute to - or criticism of - the round-robin system, and the Wheel of Fortune nature of the format.

True tennis fans love the fact that tennis is all about what you, an individual, does on any given day. In round-robin play, that certainly counts - but so does what everyone else does, on any given day. And that's a substantial difference. If player A (Rafael Nadal) fails to perform in a single-elimination tournament, it has no effect whatsoever on player B's chance to advance. But in round robin, it can significantly boost - or ruin - Player B's chances. We saw this week how the curiously tribal enterprise of round robin can produce unexpected results, and what could have been more unexpected, given the way the year has gone, than Davydenko emerging as the winner of the year's final shoot-out?

Three guys had an enormous amount to gain from winning the WTF - Davydenko, Robin Soderling, and Fernando Verdasco. The other five, Federer, Nadal, del Potro, Novak Djokovic and Murray  (I include Andy Murray because he seems to feel he belongs in this company, and is treated as part of this company, even though he has yet to win his first major) had less incentive to make the final push in London. Those hard to quantify motivation issues certainly helped Davydenko navigate the forest of set scores and group standings to arrive at his finest moment.

Like Davydenko said, afterward  “I was [looking at the trophy], until 2008, [there are] so many names there, like Djokovic, Federer, everyone, [Pete] Sampras. In 2009, [it says] Davydenko forever on this trophy. I think it's amazing. [In the] history of the [Finals], for my name to be there is something amazing for me."

Well done, Nikolay. Your only job is to win, in a system not of your making. You can hold your head high and, who knows, maybe come away with the self-assurance needed to win a major in 2010.

PS - I'll have a special WTA feature from Bobby Chintapalli tomorrow, and Rosangel will post another WTF picture gallery on Thursday. See y'all Friday.

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