The Ending Eight

Sunday, November 03, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Some years are better than others. Never is that a more painfully vivid truism than when we’re talking about the year-end championships.
 
The grail, of course, is something like the year 2000. That year, Gustavo Kuerten ushered in the new century by claiming the year-end No. 1 ranking on the final day of the official tennis year, snatching the honor out of the hands of Marat Safin.

Perhaps that will make ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic feel better about the task he faces trying to take back the No. 1 ranking that he surrendered to Rafael Nadal this summer. Nadal’s fate is in his own hands, as was Safin’s back in 2000. For no matter what Djokovic does in London or in the Davis Cup final, two round-robin wins in the World Tour Finals by Nadal will guarantee that he finishes with the year-end No. 1 mark.

Odds are that Nadal will take care of business and lock up the ranking, especially in light of his draw. With ATP No. 3 Andy Murray recuperating from back surgery, it was obvious that one of Nadal, Djokovic, and Roger Federer would get a notionally easier draw. As it turned out, the lucky hero was Nadal. Not only are Djokovic and Federer (a six-time champion at this event) in Group B (Nadal is in Group A), Juan Martin del Potro is in that half as well. But more on that later.

While it’s unlikely that the No. 1 ranking will change hands this week in London, this tournament also has value to the players in other ways. After all, it’s an eight-man field and they aren’t all vying for the top spot. The tournament offers some a great chance to regain lost ground, and others to beef up their rankings and jockey for position for 2014—or to exact a little payback for their shortcomings of 2013. When you come right down to it, almost every man in the field has a significant fish to fry before the curtain falls on the year.
 
The draws of hybrid events are difficult to evaluate because there can be no such thing as the Rosol-over-Nadal or Stakhovsky-over-Federer upsets; you can lose in this tournament and still win the whole thing. And there are no dangerous floaters or unknown quantities who might eliminate a top contender by playing the match of a lifetime.

Curiously, that exemption doesn’t apply to Djokovic, who really can’t afford to lose a match—at least not when it comes to the major prize on offer for him, the year-end No. 1 ranking.

So let’s look at the prospects of each man in the field, starting with Group A:
 
No. 1 Rafael Nadal is coming off a disappointing loss to friend and countryman David Ferrer in Paris—a loss that fanned the flames of Djokovic’s hopes. But at least two wins in the round-robin portion of the event would be enough to guarantee him the top year-end ranking. That ought to be incentive enough for a man who has never been a big fan of this tournament.

Nadal hasn’t won the year-end championship in five attempts, and that remains the biggest hole in his resume. Let’s set aside his reasonable complaint that the tournament ought not be held on hard courts year after year and look at another interesting statistic: Over the past 52 weeks, and going into Paris, Nadal has had the highest hard-court winning percentage on tour, at .935. Yet he has a losing record over his career at the season-ending championships, 9-10.

Djokovic had one of the greatest years in tennis history when he finished 2011 with a 70-6 win-loss record. At the moment, Nadal is 71-6. If he can avoid a loss in London, he’ll end up with a minutely better single-year winning percentage than his rival posted in 2011.
 
No. 4 David Ferrer had a great run in Paris, but once again failed to close the deal after leading a top player (Djokovic) in the final. Ferrer is 31 years old and plays an extremely exerting game. This figures to be his last best shot at winning the year-end championships. Doing so would definitely dress up a resume that invites glass half-full, glass half-empty comparisons. For while Ferrer has been a model of consistency as well as determination, he’s repeatedly fallen short of finishing the champion at big events (he has just one Masters 1000 title to show for all his efforts).

Ferrer is 8-7 for his career at the ATP championships, and he’s had wins over all the big names with the exception of Federer. One thing that will work against him is the quick turnaround time. He’ll be physically and mentally drained after coming so close yesterday in Paris to defending the only Masters title he’s ever won.
 
No. 6 Tomas Berdych lost to Ferrer in Paris, and it seemed a sign that he remains a threat to pull off a stunning upset—but not to win a major event. Ironically, the rangy 6’5” Czech is much like Ferrer in one respect: He just doesn’t seem to elevate in those critical moments that champions seize. The most surprising stat in regards to Berdych is that while he’s earned about 2.5 million dollars this year and maintained his place in the middle of the Top 10, he hasn’t won a single tournament. ‘Nuf said.
 
No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka is playing his first year-end championships, and his job really is to establish himself as a solid Top 10 player in the coming year. If the jitters don’t get him (he isn’t always immune), he could do a lot of damage in the round-robin portion.

Wawrinka showed us what he can do on hard courts at the U.S. Open, where he and Djokovic added another Grand Slam hard-court masterpiece to the one they produced at the Australian Open (also on hard courts) at the start of the year. Both matches were five-set barnburners, won by Djokovic.

Unfortunately for Wawrinka, Djokovic is in Group B. Nadal owns Wawrinka, 11-0, should the Swiss happen to advance.
 
Group B:
 
No. 2 Novak Djokovic is on something of a death march in a desperate attempt to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. He’s won three tournaments in a row and quickly closed the gap separating him from Nadal. The evidence in Paris suggests that Djokovic might even be playing better than Nadal.

While Federer is the undisputed king of this event, Djokovic is 1-1 against him here. The loss was in the 2010 semifinals, the win in the final last year. Djokovic defeated Federer in the Paris semis just days ago, but they play again in the first round-robin pairings, Tuesday night in London.

Sure, Djokovic won their clash in Paris. But Federer seems to have found his form again and he’ll have extra rest, while Djokovic will have manage his emotions and physical condition when he begins his quest in London just about 48 hours after his win at a big Masters event. And don’t think for a moment that Federer wouldn’t take some pride in stopping Djokovic’s drive for No. 1.

Djokovic has won this event twice (he’s 14-9 overall), and he’s 1-2 against Nadal at the World Tour Finals. It’s all or nothing time for Nole now.

No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro is a proven big-match player who is due for a really big win. He lost to Federer in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters, but he’s been playing so well this fall that the extra rest he’ll get may prove a net plus.

Del Potro was barely 20 when he first qualified for the year-ender and lost in the round-robin portion, but he was a finalist the next year, in 2009 (losing to surprise champion Nikolay Davydenko), and a semifinalist last year (losing to Djokovic).

Del Potro’s comeback back from wrist surgery and a long layoff through most of 2010 has been slow but steady, and even though the World Tour Finals is no Grand Slam, a win in London would definitely put the capstone on his rejuvenation and start him as a contender of the highest order next year. Pencil him in alongside Federer as the best of the “long shots” (based on ranking).

No. 7 Roger Federer has struggled this year, and age is slowing down the 32-year-old all-time Grand Slam singles champ. But he's played well since his third-round round loss to Gael Monfils at the Shanghai Masters and has nothing left to prove. That will make him doubly dangerous, now that he seems to have ironed out many of the kinks that recently plagued him. He’s a dazzling 42-9 in this event, and another win in London would give him plenty of emotional fuel for 2014—age be danged.
 
No. 9 Richard Gasquet is a volatile entity who’s spent most of his life trying to live up the expectations he created as a celebrated, and perhaps pampered, prodigy.

At 27, Gasquet has matured. And he’s playing some of the best—read: most consistent—tennis of his life. He qualified for the World Tour Finals once before (way back in 2007) but never made it out of the round-robin stage.

***

Overall, Nadal is 47-8 against the other three men in Group A, while Djokovic is 32-20 against his Group B rivals. But the record is skewed slightly by Federer’s superiority—he’s 16-14 against Djokovic, who’s handled del Potro (10-3) and Gasquet (9-1) with Nadal-esque efficiency.

Of course, Djokovic is denied the wriggle room that the hybrid format provides. Perhaps he ought to lob in a call to Kuerten, one of the few men who has some idea of how he must feel right now.


Corrections: Rafael Nadal's 2013 record is 71-6, not 68-6 as was previously written. Roger Federer's record against Novak Djokovic is 16-14, not 16-13 as was previously written.

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