Last week I wrote an article in which I considered, at some length and in a rambling way, the significance of the ATP’s World Tour Finals. In other words: WTF is up with the WTF? Judging by the majority of the emails I received afterward, many readers thought that I believed the event was worthless unless it was held in my hometown of New York City, and I could be chauffeured to it in a limousine. That’s not, of course, what I meant. I did mention that in my own mind, the tournament seemed to be a bigger deal when it was called the Masters, when it was played at Madison Square Garden, and when it was being won by Borg, McEnroe, and Connors. But I also admitted that this was probably my American bias speaking, and that, because of my particular age, those players will always loom larger than life for me, the same that way Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic always will for the 12-year-olds of today.
My point was not to claim that the WTF is a lesser event when it’s in London, or that it would be better if it were in New York today. It’s been great in the U.K., and it’s not hard to imagine that in 30 years there will be nostalgia for the good old days when Djokovic was duking it out with Federer at the O2. My point was that it’s hard for me to gauge the event’s significance. It’s obviously a huge tournament that means a lot to the winner, but it’s also not a Grand Slam and thus doesn’t get mentioned in the historical record or on players’ career résumés often. Maybe more important, in recent years the WTF hasn’t offered what it can uniquely offer: A homestretch to the year-end No. 1 finish line.
That was true of this year’s edition as well—Novak Djokovic had clinched the top spot, and thus he was the ATP’s official Player of the Year. But to many of us, that latter title hadn’t been locked up. Andy Murray had his backers for POY, for his breakthrough wins at the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Roger Federer had his as well, for his Wimbledon win, three Masters titles, and two wins over Djokovic. The question was enough to add some weight to the WTF, and the tournament, despite failing to produce a classic match, benefitted. The final was important enough that it felt, to me, like a potential tiebreaker between Djokovic and Federer for Player of the Year. Nole’s win was satisfying in that it left no doubts. Unlike on the women’s side, the No. 1 and the POY are one and the same.
What else can we take away from London? Here are a few thoughts on the top players, looking backward and forward.
Djokovic’s 2011 was one of the best of the Open era; his 2012, because it came in the shadow of that year, may go down as one of the most underrated. There was one way, though, in which he clearly topped '11: His finish. Djokovic played more matches than he did last season, but this time he was at his strongest and steadiest in the fall. His undefeated run through five of the Top 8 in London, including Murray and Federer, was one of the finest achievements of his career—there was a reason he celebrated like a madman. The win over Federer was also emblematic of a No. 1 player; someone who, while he may have his lulls and his nerves, ultimately believes he’s going to win. Djokovic won one more point than Federer, but two more sets. That’s playing the big ones well. Until now, it hasn’t seemed quite right to call his style of going down set point or match point and ripping his way out trouble a reliable “method” of winning matches. It seemed too risky and unpredictable to be called that. But after watching Djokovic save two break points at 6-5 in the third against Murray, three set points against Berdych, and two set points against Federer on Federer’s serve, I think we can say that there's a method—and not an ounce of luck—to his madness.
His voice faint, Federer sounded a little shell-shocked at the start of his runner-up speech yesterday. He perked up, oddly enough, when he mentioned that chair umpire Lars Graf was retiring, and he finished with a smile. But I wouldn’t have blamed Federer for being temporarily stunned by that loss. A few minutes earlier, he must have thought, like everyone else, that he was heading for a third set.
It wasn’t the way Federer wanted to finish what had been an up year for him. From the U.S. Open on, he didn’t finish with a flourish the way he has the last two seasons. The bigger point, of course, is that it was an up year for him, at 31, one where he proved that he can still win Grand Slams and hang with best of the next generation—Federer recorded wins over Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and del Potro in 2012. That should be enough to keep him enthusiastic for 2013.
As far as his loss yesterday, we’ve seen Federer squander match points to a number of players in recent years, but this was reminiscent of a specific loss, the one to Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open. Both times Djokovic cracked returns when he was at the brink; both times Federer was staggered and faded away quickly. Nadal has been the one to make Federer doubt in the past. Djokovic, at certain moments and with certain shots, does it, too.
Murray is the feel-good story of season, and while he wasn’t consistent enough to be the Player of the Year, he could be called the tour’s Impact Player of 2012. My favorite tennis moment of the last 12 months was seeing him walk back onto Centre Court after his gold medal win and leap for joy. The Scottish clouds and mist had finally lifted. How long had we been waiting for that?
Has his post-U.S. Open record been a disappointment? Compared to a Grand Slam victory, yes. Murray hasn’t been awful—he’s lost to Djokovic twice, Federer, Raonic, and...Janowicz. OK, those last two are a little weird, but they are up-and-comers. Muzz has become more aggressive under Ivan Lendl—good. The next step, to me, is to make that aggression more nuanced, to get better at knowing when to attack and when to ease off, and to keep it up even when it doesn’t work for a set. One thought for 2013: Murray made his two breakthroughs when Rafael Nadal was missing, and his Wimbledon draw opened up when Nadal was upset early. Can he do the same with Rafa around?
Juan Martin del Potro
After he won the first set over Djokovic in the semis on Sunday, the idea of “Delpo, 2013 Aussie Open champ” flashed through my mind. This seemed to be the next step upward in his year-long rise back to Slam contention. There were the two wins over Federer, the titles in Vienna and Basel; now he going to beat Novak. Then del Potro went away, and my Aussie Open thoughts went with him.
David Nalbandian, Nikolay Davydenko, and Jo Wilfried Tsonga have all proven in recent years that momentum from the end of one season is tough to keep going at the start of the next one—though Marat Safin did pull it off in his transition from the WTF in 2004 to the Aussie Open in 2005. Del Potro, who has won a major, is probably closer to a Safin-level talent than he is a Davydenko. In other words, Delpo's late-2012 run could mean something in 2013. Still, the loss to Djokovic in the semis remains as a question: Del Potro is a fine, maybe even underrated, competitor—he was 65-17 this year—but does he have what we like to call killer instinct? He’s a dutiful warrior, but when it comes to playing the Big 4, can he muster that fierce bit of entitlement that defines so many champions? Del Potro had a funny quote when the semis were set in London. They would feature, according to him, “Three big names, and one big guy.” He was the big guy in that formulation, of course. He should know, by now, that he’s also a big name.