WTF, Indeed

by: Steve Tignor | November 17, 2014

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Novak Djokovic's achievements at the ATP World Tour Finals were overshadowed by uncompetitive matches and a disappointing ending. (AP Photos)

Should the 2014 WTFs forever be known as the W.T.E. instead? As in: Worst. Tournament. Ever.? From its soporific start to its nonexistent finish to its unhappy aftermath, the World Tour Finals in London was a week-long shipwreck. The round-robin was a continual disappointment to the fans; the fans were a continual disappointment to the champion; and the two Swiss teammates who faced off in the only good match of the tournament were reportedly a severe disappointment to each other. And it may not end there: The fallout from their semifinal, both physical and emotional, could have a negative effect on the game’s next big happening, the Davis Cup final, this coming weekend. 

Yet the World Tour Final still ended in the expected manner: With Novak Djokovic hoisting his third straight champion’s trophy at the O2 Arena, and clinching his third year-end No. 1 ranking in four years. Unfortunately, Djokovic’s achievement, and his budding rankings dynasty, barely registered in the swirl of speculation surrounding Roger Federer’s withdrawal from the final. While that speculation continues to swirl, here are five thoughts on the tournament as a whole. After which, I propose that we never speak of the 2014 WTFs again.

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Why was it so uncompetitive?

Of the 12 round-robin matches, only two went to three sets. Of the 26 sets played, 19 were 6-3 or worse. More than half of the matches were over in 75 minutes or less. That’s especially disastrous at an event where fans get just one singles match for their ticket. Yet those fans came in record numbers and, a few Djokovic hecklers aside, clapped politely and hopefully for what they saw. Maybe the tournament really should stay in London; if they'll pay for this, they'll pay for anything.

The best explanation came from Djokovic: “That’s sport,” he said when asked why so many of the matches had been so bad at the O2. The 2010 version of the tournament had been similarly one-sided, yet other years it's been a thriller. This week wasn’t reflective of the ATP in general in 2014, which was as competitive as ever. That’s something to remember the next time a WTA tournament is a bomb; it shouldn’t be used as a chance to bash the women’s game as a whole. Every tour and sports league has its blowout matches and boring weeks.

Yet there was a contagious quality to this WTF; the consistency of its dullness was notable. Federer said the courts were too slow for the players to put together appealing, attacking points. That could be true, but this is a common theme for Federer, and a criticism of his that’s not limited to the O2. I had the feeling that the week off between Paris and London, which was (rightly) reinstated this season, may have led to a letdown among the some of the tournament’s late qualifiers. Raonic, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, and Tomas Berdych all fought through the fall to make it into the Top 8, and all saw their games drop off once they were there. It should also be noted that Berdych has never liked the O2, Raonic was hurt, and Cilic appeared to be sick.

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Besides Djokovic, who were the week’s winners and losers?

Despite playing some up-and-down tennis, losing in two quick sets to Federer, and bottoming out 6-0 in the third to Djokovic, Kei Nishikori made progress in London. He reached the semis in his first WTF appearance. He recorded his first win in four tries over Murray. He finished the season at No. 5, a full 12 spots—12 tough spots—up from a year ago. When Kei is hot, he may be the only player in the world who can get the better of Djokovic in backhand-to-backhand rallies, and also beat him cross-court with his forehand. This was a tournament dominated by the Big 2 and the old guard, but Nishikori made the future look a little brighter.

If Nishikori made halting progress, Marin Cilic, another WTF rookie and 2014 breakthrough artist, suffered a full regression. He won just six games in his first two matches, before finally coming to life in the last two, meaningless sets of the round-robin stage, against Stan Wawrinka. Cilic looked ill at times, but there was also no trace of the confidence, or the game, that won him the U.S. Open. His serve was no longer a bomb, and his ground strokes were back to their old, erratic ways. Until further notice, Cilic is still Cilic. And if there are going to be more surprise Slam winners in the ATP’s future, it will be worth rethinking whether each of them should receive an automatic pass to the WTF, as Cilic did this year.

*****

Did David Ferrer give Grigor Dimitrov a lesson in professionalism?

Speaking of winners and losers, the 32-year-old Spaniard was both at once in London. He lost the only match he played, in three sets, to Nishikori. But in jumping out of the alternate’s box and winning that set, he gave the O2 its first spark of life. Ferrer has made a career—or at least $10 million—by fighting until the very end of the season and playing every match and tournament possible. The 23-year-old Dimitrov apparently doesn’t feel the same way at this point. He was also invited to be an alternate at the WTF, but he turned down the chance, opting to hang out with girlfriend Maria Sharapova instead. 

“If I go, it’s because I deserved to be there,” Dimitrov told L’Equipe, “not hope someone gets hurt so I get to play. So no, I don’t think it’s my thing.”

His reasoning reminded me of Garry Templeton, a shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s, who declined to go to the 1979 All-Star game because he hadn’t been picked as a starter. His attitude was summed up by the Cardinals broadcaster in the immortal phrase, “If I ain’t startin’, I ain’t departin’.” (The line is usually credited to Templeton himself, and was used to make him look like a jerk at the time.)

There’s a certain arrogant integrity in this attitude, and even if Dimitrov had been at the O2, he wouldn’t have had a chance to play. Still, Ferrer was happy to do his job, give the crowd a jolt of competition, and walk away with the extra cash. Hopefully Dimitrov had a chance to watch.

*****

Should Federer be criticized for withdrawing from such a big match?

I don't think so. It’s fair to wonder whether he would have pulled out if this were a Grand Slam final, or if the coming Davis Cup tie with France made him more cautious than normal. It might be galling to fans in London if he goes on to have a triumphant weekend in a few days in Lille, after not taking the court at all in the O2 final. But Federer has no history of questionable withdrawals, or virtually any withdrawals, at major tournaments or minor ones. And as someone who has been in a position of leadership with the tour for many years, he knows how important this event is to the ATP, which it owns and showcases above all others. Give Federer credit for announcing his withdrawal to the crowd. And give Murray credit for filling in with a few hits and giggles, without pay or prior notice. 

*****

Are we living in the Novak Djokovic Era and we just don’t know it?

After Djokovic’s six-hour win over Rafael Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final, which marked his fourth title in five majors, I wrote a column entitled, “Life in the Nole Era.” Some said it was too soon, and it's true that Djokovic hasn’t been nearly as dominant since. He has won just two Grand Slams, and he gave the top ranking back to Nadal in 2013. But when you use the season, rather than just the majors, as your measure, Djokovic has been the man to beat for most of the last four years. He has finished No. 1 in three of them, won the last three World Tour Finals, and piled up a total of seven Slams and 20 Masters titles. 

While this WTF ended with an anti-climax for Djokovic, it also served as a microcosm of what has made him so tough to topple in recent years. He still gets testier than he should. He still lets the crowd bother him more than he should. He still makes, as he says, life unnecessarily complicated for himself in the middle of matches. He did all of those things again in the semis against Nishikori, a player with one of the best deciding-set records in history; yet in the end, Djokovic still beat him in the deciding set 6-0.

The way Djokovic moves around a court offers a good metaphor for how he plays: He bends but he doesn’t break. We’ll never know how the WTF final would have gone, but I’m guessing that Djokovic—after some doubts and nerves, some shakes of his head and a sarcastic wave or two to the audience—would have been the last man standing again.

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