Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer so dominate the headlines and public interest that everyone else on the ATP tour is entitled to ask, “Hey, what am I, chopped liver?”
Well, yes. But that isn’t such a terrible fate after all—not when you can pull down over $4 million in prize money in a single year, as No. 3 David Ferrer did in 2013. And let’s be honest here: It isn’t like the next-best fleet of players has been shaking the foundations or knocking down the walls of the castle.
In fact, one of the major takeaways from the just-completed ATP World Tour Finals is that the degree of domination shown by the group known as the Big Four is as impressive as ever, even though one member of that vaunted group, Andy Murray, is lying on his back following surgery; another, Roger Federer, may be window-shopping for walkers soon.
If it seems like forever since anyone outside that quartet has won a major, it may be because it is. Juan Martin del Potro won the U.S. Open in 2009, 16 Grand Slams ago. And the last guy before him to do so—Marat Safin, who won the Australian Open way back in 2005—represents an equally long dry spell for frustrated contenders.
The trend goes on. Last week in London, Nadal and Djokovic slashed their way through the round-robin stage without taking a loss. Federer made the semis, losing only to Djokovic in group play. But enough with those elites already; let’s have some fun with the chopped liver in London:
Did anyone else find the dedicated Barclays ATP World Tour Finals website—which the ATP made as its homepage for the duration of the tournament—hard to navigate, oversized, and short of meaningful content? All flash and glitz, it was near impossible to even find a proper draw sheet. But you didn't necessarily need one to know that it was a rough week for the No. 8 qualifier, Richard Gasquet. Poor Ree-shard got his clock cleaned by Federer, but at least he managed to push del Potro and Djokovic to three sets each.
I continue to be nonplussed by the adoration heaped on Gasquet’s backhand, when you factor in that it takes him so long to load up, swing, and recover that he has to play from 10 or 12 feet behind the baseline. With his innate flair and love of the big shot, this guy might lose more matches but would post bigger wins if he were able to play from much closer to the court.
Stanislas Wawrinka was the revelation of the tournament. He qualified for the semifinals in Group A (undoubtedly the weaker group) with wins over Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. Wawrinka is a real beast—the guy who seems to me a present-day version of the legendary Lew Hoad, albeit without the Aussie’s competitive verve. Sure, Wawrinka’s game has holes, chief among them his service return. But that he qualified for the World Tour Finals despite his shortcomings is a testament to his talent.
The best observation I heard this week about Wawrinka came from Tennis Channel commentator Jimmy Arias, who said: “Wawrinka is a guy who hits nice shots, but doesn’t have any idea of what those shots are doing to his opponent.”
In typical, enigmatic fashion, Tomas Berdych went out and licked Ferrer, giving up just eight games over two sets. But he was edged out of qualifying by Wawrinka, who advanced when the Czech lost to Rafael Nadal. I managed to miss most of Berdych’s matches, but I have a funny feeling I didn’t lose out on all that much.
With every passing day it seems more and more like Berdych’s place in the game is that of the spoiler; the guy who comes along to upset the apple cart or ruin some much-anticipated clash between two other players. It’s only fitting that despite his No. 7 ranking, he hasn’t won a single title this year.
Juan Martin del Potro must be aware of the myth of Sisyphus; he’s been rolling a great rock of his uphill ever since 2011, when he began his long, laborious comeback from wrist surgery. And that boulder keeps breaking free and rolling back down to the foot of the mountain when Delpo gets near the summer.
Del Potro has put up wins over each member of the Big Four this year, yet he consistently seems to falter, or just narrowly miss out, on that long-sought breakthrough win in this second, post-surgery phase of his career. I think Delpo needs to beef up his down-the-line game off both wings; he plays way too much cross-court. He also needs to develop whatever quality it is that enables the guys ranked above him to dig deep and come up with something spectacular or different at critical moments in big matches.
Still, del Potro played the other members of his loaded group (B) tough, splitting 7-5 in-the-third results (beating Gasquet, losing to Federer) and extending Djokovic to 6-3 in the third. But once again he found himself heading back down the hill to try again.
People may criticize me for it, but I’m not really buying the whole David Ferrer thing. Sure I admire his determination, but he goes soft in big matches against his Top 5 peers too often while lording it over the guys ranked below him. There are solid, game-based reasons for that, too.
Ferrer and del Potro suffer from a similar affliction, which is a lack of imagination. Just as del Potro sometimes relies too much on the power of his big, cross-court forehand, Ferrer’s game plan is simplistic and transparent: Do anything you can to set yourself up for the inside-out forehand, and then just clench your teeth and try to grind it out with that shot.
Sorry, but that’s neither interesting nor very effective beyond a certain point. Granted, it’s an extremely high point in Ferrer’s case, but really. . . you see the same kind of thing in the rec game. Players who have figured out how to run around the backhand to hit forehands can flourish—but only up to a point.
The ATP players ranked above Ferrer have him figured out, and they know how to neutralize him. Ferrer is 31, and he won just one set in three round-robin matches in London.
That covers the chopped liver brigade, but I’ll add one more observation: Jimmy Arias is a terrific commentator. He’s not just insightful, he’s funny and quirky. He delivered my favorite line of the tournament talking about Nadal’s second serve. Puzzled by how little help Nadal got from his serve last week, Arias at one point remarked: “I look at that second serve, and I think I can outrun it.”
On that note, let’s say good-bye to London for another year. After all, the Australian Open is just around the corner, right?