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.