Rafael Nadal leaped in the air as if he had just won Wimbledon. Stan Wawrinka stalked off court as if he had just been double-bageled by the 1,000th-ranked player in the world. Had this really been, for many of us, the most enticing match-up of the first two days at the ATP World Tour Finals? In the end, the 6-3, 6-2 victory that meant so much to Rafa had been, by all appearances, handed over on a silver platter by Wawrinka.
Something about the O2 Arena brings out Stan’s sulky side. Two years ago he complained that Toni Nadal was coaching his nephew from the stands. Last year he was called a “crybaby” by Roger Federer’s wife, Mirka. This year, seemingly angered by Nadal’s pace of play and his own erratic form, Wawrinka, in the understated but wholly appropriate words of Tennis Channel commentator Jim Courier, engaged in, “A very curious parachute out of a competitive environment.” By the start of the second set, Wawrinka had stopped moving his feet; by the middle of it, he had stopped pausing between points or putting balls in the court.
“Something went wrong,” Stan said afterward, “and then everything went wrong today.”
Wawrinka’s low moment in London wasn’t the only thing about this contest that came with a strong sense of déja vu.
This was the fourth match played so far at the WTF, and it was the fourth routine, straight-set result. That’s an ominous reminder of what happened in London last year, when the round-robin portion of the tournament was one long blowout to forget. As I wrote in my preview yesterday, just making it to this tournament is a goal that some guys set for themselves. With that achieved, and the off-season around the corner, a London letdown can ensue.
As Roger Federer said this weekend, “It’s a big goal to be here. All the players that are here have achieved the goal.”
But not everyone at the WTF throws in a WTF-type of performance once they're here. The winners of this week's first four matches also happened to be the members of that not-quite-anachronistic club known as the Big 4. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Nadal: None of them, technically, had anything to prove, but they all looked hungry to prove themselves anyway.
This may, historically, be the event that has best highlighted the professionalism of these four. It’s the tournament that ends an 11-month season, and it will never show up on their Grand Slam résumés, but they’ve gone ahead and dominated it anyway. Or at least two of them have: Djokovic and Federer have combined to win 10 of the last 12 World Tour Finals, while the only non-Big 4 player to reach the final in the last five years was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011. Over the first two days of 2015, that professionalism has been as conspicuous as ever.
Djokovic clinched the year-end No. 1 spot in September, and he was presented with the trophy commemorating that achievement before hitting a ball at the O2. Yet he was as precise and relentless as ever in dismantling Kei Nishikori on Sunday, 6-1, 6-1. If there was a flaw in Djokovic’s last all-time great season, 2011, it was the way he ended it; he didn’t win a title after the U.S. Open. He’s obviously learned from the experience; in 2015, he hasn’t lost a match since August.
Federer is playing his 14th straight year-end championships, one more remarkable record of consistency in a career that’s filled with them by now. He has also won it six times. Yet he was as spry and sharp as ever in his Sunday win over Tomas Berdych, in which he hit 20 aces.
“I haven’t had big issues being motivated for this tournament,” Federer said. “I looked forward to it, and as it was a priority I played better.”
“The idea of playing fellow Top 10 rivals gets me going, gets me really excited. I don’t relax on making it to the Finals, then go out and lose three crushing defeats. I don’t want to finish the year that way.”
Murray spent some time over the last month debating whether he would play in London at all. He’ll be on clay in Belgium for the Davis Cup final the following week, and that's his priority. But after reaching the final in Paris last Sunday and practicing on clay for much of this week, Murray looked as engaged as ever in grinding down David Ferrer at the O2, 6-4, 6-4.
“Every game counts,” Murray said afterward of the tournament’s round-robin system. “Years ago I got knocked out in the group stages by something like one game.”
Finally, there was Nadal. It’s true that Wawrinka blasted himself off the court, but Rafa was hitting the ball well, too. He timed Stan’s first serve, he powered his forehand to both corners with confidence, he made just 12 errors, and he came up with a stroke of improvised brilliance that I had never seen from him before: Down break point, Nadal caught up to an angled Wawrinka volley and lifted an underspin crosscourt forehand lob over Stan's head for a winner.
When it was over, Rafa, who was recovering from an appendectomy at this time last year, said this to the crowd:
“I have no doubt that I missed you more than you missed me.”
I do have my doubts about that, Rafa.
Either way, these four guys never get tired of doing what they do best, and almost never give fans less than a full effort. Is it any surprise that, as another ATP year comes to a close, the Big 4 are in the lead to reach the semis of the season-ending event? Is it any surprise that, no matter how many times we’ve seen them before, the matches the world will be looking forward to the most over the next two days will be Djokovic-Federer and Murray-Nadal?