When It Was Perfect
The ATP's year-end championships (officially the Barclay's ATP World Tour Finals, but that's for now; the name of the event has changed too often for us to feel it's a settled issue) is about to get underway, and one thing we know about this event is that some years it seems more significant than others.
This edition may fall somewhere in the middle on the scale of significance. It will not decide the year-end no. 1 ranking (which is the ultimate, best-of-all-worlds outcome of this tournament for the ATP). Novak Djokovic has that all locked up. And No. 3-but-still-Slamless Andy Murray cannot leapfrog ahead of No. 2 Rafael Nadal, no matter what happens (thank God for small favors, right?).
But the tournament could decide the year-end No. 3, as that ranking was snatched out of Roger Federer's hands by Murray a few weeks ago. Federer is presently No. 4 but carrying a 12-match winning streak and a great history at this event into London (he's the defending champ and a five-time winner of the ATP post-season championships). If he has a great tournament and Murray underperforms, Federer could wind up No. 3 at the 11th hour. Or, 11:59 pm, more precisely.
However, there's very little advantage to being No. 3 instead of No. 4 when it comes to playing-field issues, with the way the seeds are drawn instead of automatically placed these days. So we're hoping a a more compelling story line will emerge once the tournament gets rolling.
In my time, the championships produced numerous memorable moments, starting with the 1975 Grand Prix Masters clash that created a historic first: Two men, Arthur Ashe and Ilie Nastase, lost the same match. Here's the link to my my 2009 retrospective on that one. John McEnroe's 1978 win over Ashe in the Grand Prix Masters at Madison Square Garden was also unforgettable. At the time, McEnroe was just 19 and his radical style elicited a comment from Ashe that remains a gem of a line—and a vivid, nutshell sumnation of McEnroe's game. Ashe compared McEnroe to a guy who brings a razor rather than a knife to the fight: "A nick here and a cut there and pretty soon you've bled to death."
Incidentally, if you want to see how much things change—yet still remain the same—read Curry Kirkpatrick's excellent piece on that Masters tournament (courtesy of the Sports Illustrated vault).
The 1996 ATP Tour World Championships at Hannover produced one of the greatest matches in tennis history—a clash between Pete Sampras and Boris Becker. Sampras was at the peak of his powers, and Becker was ranked No. 6. But the match took place in Germany and the electric atmosphere (Sampras still says it was the most intense and exciting atmosphere he ever experienced on a tennis court) ensured that Becker—a master at finding inspiration under pressure—would give Sampras all he could handle. Sampras finally won it, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-7 (11), 6-4.
In 1998, it looked for all the world like the season-ending championships would decide the year-end No. 1 ranking. Marcelo Rios, a Chilean who displaced Sampras as No. 1 in March of that year, and fought over the honor the rest of the year, did not win a Grand Slam event in '98. But he rolled into the year-end event in a position to finish the year on top if he won it all.
Meanwhile, Sampras was determined not to let that happen—mainly because he set his mind to finishing as the year-end No. 1 for an unprecedented sixth consecutive year. Sampras took two weeks off after his semifinal loss to Pat Rafter at the U.S. Open, then played pretty much straight through to the year-end championships. He struggled through six events, so exhausted and stressed out that he was losing his hair in clumps by the time he arrived at the finale (in Hannover). But the anticipated clash for the year-end No. 1 ranking never materialized. Rios pulled out of the tournament with a bad back (it would prove a career-ending injury).
Two years later, the tournament established a high water mark that it has yet to equal. By then, it was traveling under the third of four names, Tennis Masters Cup, and it was held on indoor hard courts in Lisbon.
Going into the event, Gustavo Kuerten (the French Open champ) and Marat Safin (the U.S. Open champ) were both in a position to end the year with the No. 1 ranking. Kuerten lost his opening round-robin match to Agassi, and basically faced the prospect of having to run the table to keep Safin from finishing with the top ranking—even though the court surface was more suitable to Safin's game than to Kuerten's. But Safin ran afoul of Agassi, a fair hard-court player himself, in the semifinals. That meant that if Kuerten could put together back-to-back wins over Sampras and Agassi, in the semis and final respectively, he would finish the year No. 1.
In one of the greatest examples of grit, determination, and grace under pressure, Kuerten improbably beat both American hard-court experts to win the event and secure the year-end no. 1 ranking. It's awfully hard to call a tournament "perfect," but this is as close as I've seen one come. The stakes were critically important for a number of players, and the outcome was somewhat improbable yet satisfying, dramatic, and unsullied by circumstances or asterisks. It was as beautifully clear-cut as it was unlikely.
Not to end on a bummer or anything, but we ought to add the 2005 tournament to this list of memorable playoffs, partly because the defending champ we'll see at work this week was a main figure in the stunning result. On the eve of the '05 final, Federer was on-track to equal McEnroe's remarkable single season record of 1984, when Mac went 82-3 for a .954 winning percentage (the best in Open-era history). Federer was 81-3 before he played David Nalbandian in the last match of the year, but Nalbandian played out of his gourd, coming from two sets down to bushwhack Federer—7-6 in the fifth—to take the title and hang that critical, extra loss on the Swiss.
Federer, of course, went on to win the season-ending championships three more times, and as I write this he's hoping to surpass all his historical and active rivals with a successful title defense that would give him an unprecedented six titles. His attempt to do that may become the dominant story line of this final, and lift it to a place in history that it might not deserve through any other sequence of events.