We know British audiences don’t like to be rude, but the hopeful clapping from the crowds at the O2 Arena in London so far has been above and beyond the call of politeness. Granted, the World Tour Finals is a risky ticket: You get one doubles match, with a super-tiebreaker instead of a third set, and one two-out-of-three-set singles match for your money. Over the first two days, fans have not been rewarded for their risk. There have been four singles matches, five 6-1 sets, no suspense, and a consistently awful level of play from the losers. At times, watching the world’s best shank routine ground strokes 10 feet out, I’ve started to wonder if there were an unseen hurricane blowing through the O2.
What, if anything, can we take away from the World Tour Finals so far? There hasn’t been an overriding reason for the poor play. Andy Murray, who lost to Kei Nishikori for the first time in four matches, looked nervous. Tomas Berdych, who lost 6-1, 6-1 to Stan Wawrinka, looked out of sorts. He said later that he couldn’t get comfortable on the court, and that this was his worst match of 2014; for a second it appeared as if he might begin to cry as he walked off. Marin Cilic, who lost to Novak Djokovic 6-1, 6-1, looked like the Marin Cilic of old: i.e., too inconsistent and indecisive to be a top-tier player. As for Milos Raonic, who lost to Roger Federer 6-1, 7-6 (0), he walked around in a daze after getting broken in his opening service game.
Here are a few other quick observations from across the pond, before we hopefully move on to better things.
Djokovic and Federer were ready to go
While their colleagues were crumbling around them, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 showed why they currently occupy those positions. It wasn’t their level of play that was revealing, even though both hit the ball well overall. It was the way they clamped down and didn’t let their matches get away from them. Federer, who lost to Raonic two weeks ago in Paris, sent the young Canadian a message by fist-pumping after he broke serve in the second game of the match. Federer was on his toes from start to finish; if he keeps that posture and energy going, he’ll be tough to beat. As for Djokovic, he put a quick kibosh on a possible Cilic rally early in the second set; after breaking for 3-1, Djokovic fired himself up. More important, he allowed the Croat to hold just once all evening. If Djokovic can keep returning serve the way he has in his last two matches (going back to his win over Raonic in the Paris final), he’ll be even tougher to beat than Federer.
Can Kei Nishikori win ugly?
In the past, that hasn’t been the Knish way. Either his smooth strokes were clicking, or they weren’t, and if he couldn’t ball-strike better than you, he wasn’t going to beat you. Now, after a year with Michael Chang, that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. Against Murray, Nishikori started slowly, couldn’t make a volley to save his life, and nearly gave back a big lead in the second set. Yet he still beat the Brit for the first time. With Nishikori, a little bit of patience, a willingness to wait one extra shot before pulling the trigger, goes a long way. In this match, he gave himself a chance to get better.
Do these blowout matches prove the equal-pay haters wrong?
That seemed to be the consensus on Twitter on Monday. “There would be lot of snickering if this happened at the WTA Finals,” more than one person tweeted after the fourth straight 6-1 set had mercifully ended. That’s probably true, but it’s also true that four lopsided matches, whether they’re played by men or women, don’t prove much of anything. You need a slightly larger sample size.
I’m for equal pay at the Grand Slams, even though the men play three-of-five sets and the women play two-of-three. It's not unheard of, even at those events, for a woman’s match to last longer than a men's match that started around the same time—there are epics and blowouts on both tours. But there’s no point in calling attention to it every time it happens, and there’s no point in denying that the men have to win seven more sets to win a Slam. In my opinion, despite this fact, equal pay is still the way to go. The majors are about seeing everyone, all of tennis, in one place, and the men and women play an equal part in that.
Once Again, You Never Know
Andy Murray came to London playing his best tennis of the season; he was 20-3 since the U.S. Open. Stan Wawrinka came to London playing some of his worst; he was 1-4 since the Open. Guess who was razor sharp in his first match at the 02, and guess who was godawful? How could we have predicted anything else?