It was with some relief and some regret that I got up this morning and realized that no tennis match from London would be starting shortly. I could get used to having the season spread out the way the World Tour Finals spreads out, two marquee matches every day of the year, rather than the eight jam-packed Grand Slam weeks we have now. The WTF may have come too late to offer us a proper season-ending face-off between the Big 4 at their best, but it still gave us plenty of tennis food for thought, in an easily digestible way. The tournament will be moved up two weeks next season, and I’m happy about that, but its sense of quiet, enjoyable tennis overkill does fit well with the Thanksgiving week in America. It may be too much, but who can complain?
Now that the WTF is finished, and before our attention moves on to Davis Cup and even on to 2012—Mardy Fish just tweeted that his “long, two-day vacation” is over and he’s training again—here are a few thoughts on the week and the tennis just past.
Flying on Overload
This was the state of Novak Djokovic at the O2 Arena—that was the word, “overload,” he used to describe how his body felt during the tournament. There was a lot of talk in the fall about how the world No. 1 should have simply pulled the plug after the U.S. Open. In hindsight, Djokovic, who went 6-4 after Flushing Meadows, defaulted from a Davis Cup match, withdrew from the Paris Masters, and looked unsure of why he was out there in general, probably wishes he had. All he succeeded in doing was making himself look human to his opponents again. At the same time, if Djokovic had hung up his racquet in September, he would likely have been criticized as a quitter, for not finishing what he started. Maybe Djokovic learned lesson No. 1 about being No.1: With no one left to chase, you have to manufacture your motivation from the inside.
As for Djokovic’s season in an historic sense, he went from 64-2 to 70-6 and failed to win the season-ender, the way Roger Federer always did in his finest seasons. At the end of the U.S. Open, I would have said Djokovic’s year was the second-best in the men’s Open era, behind Rod Laver’s 1969. Now I’d say his season drops behind Federer’s 2006 (three Slams, 92-5 record) and into the vicinity of McEnroe’s 1984 (two Slams, 82-3 record), Jimmy Connors’ 1974 (three Slams, 93-4 record), Federer’s other prime years, ’04, ’05, and ’07, and perhaps Rafael Nadal’s 2010. We’ll debate this forever, but for now I’ll take Djokovic’s 2011, with his 10 wins over Federer and Nadal, for the No. 3 spot.
The Alternate Hero Award Goes to . . .
Janko Tipsarevic. My first reaction, and I’m guessing this was true for a few others, was mild disbelief that Serbia’s No. 2 had moved that close to a spot in the WTF in the first place. My second reaction was mild but pleasant surprise at how well he acquitted himself coming off the bench. He entertained a crowd that had come to see the man he replaced, Andy Murray, and he pulled out his first win over his countryman Djokovic. It was a nice reward for a successful season, and proof to himself and everyone else that he belonged with the best.
Maybe We Really Can All Get Along?
The ATP put on another successful year-ender in London, and even made New Yorkers stop regretting that it ever left Madison Square Garden. This tournament, which began as a combination of the ATP’s World Championships and the ITF’s Grand Slam Cup, and which is now run by the ATP, can be seen as an example of the organization and promotion possible if tennis's governing bodies presented a united face to the world. With the European drift of men’s tennis, London is the perfect capital for the sport. With its theatrical lighting and spiffy dress all around, it's created a classy atmosphere that echoes the current tenor of the men’s game, the same way that New York’s rambunctious Masters at MSG reflected the bad-boy days.
1) If this really wants to be seen as a "fifth major" or something similarly prestigious, it needs a three-out-of-five-set final. The Masters finals were reduced from three-of-five to two-of-three a few years ago to help save the top players over the course of the season. Unless a London finalist is also in the Davis Cup final, there's nothing to save them for here.
2) I know the kids who walked on court holding hands with the players must have been thrilled, but as a fan of sports and competition, I can’t get into it. I try to imagine Jimmy Connors striding on court that way in his pugilistic prime and . . . well, it’s a struggle.
Life is Short, Tennis is Shorter
“Is much easier when you are a teenager, I think. When you have 17 or 18, everything is easier. You play with no pressure. You can win, you can lose, everything is fine. That's a different mentality. You can play more aggressive. For everybody is the same history I think, no?
When you arrive, you hit all the balls like crazy and without think, without pressure. When you are there (indicating at a high level) you start to think a little bit more about you have to play this shot, you have to play another shot, I can't lose this match, I have to win this match for sure.
That’s a little bit more problems. When you are coming up, you play quarterfinals perfect; you play semifinals fantastic; you play final very good; and if you win, is unbelievable. So when you are there, you play quarterfinals, say, Well, is good. Is not my tournament, but you are going back very happy at home.
So that is different view and different perspective of the game. So the pressure is higher when you are in the top. Seems like can be a different thing, but believe me, that's what happen.”
—Rafael Nadal, being self-prophetic in Melbourne, at the beginning of 2011.
I kept thinking about those lines while I was watching a clip of Nadal at the 2006 WTF, when he was 20, and as I watched him at this year’s edition of the tournament. Even in defeat, he was clear-eyed and intense in '06; this time he was frowning and not sure of his abilities. I'm guessing Seville will put him in a better mood.
The Future Achiever Award Goes To . . .
Roger Federer? He didn’t have the best season in 2011, or even the second-best, but he ended it the same way he did last year, with a fresh sense of fitness and purpose. He slashed through his opponents with a balanced attack in the fall; more important, he found a way to rebound from mid-match adversity.
Federer went into this season in much the same excellent shape, only to be engulfed by a stronger surge from Djokovic. Whether or not something similar happens to him in 2012, the oldest player in London again gave fans one more reason to keep looking ahead.