So far, so good at the year-end ATP Finals. The first two days provided plenty of drama, intrigue and even upset. Today, Robin Soderling backed up his improbable French Open win over Rafael Nadal by defeating the Spaniard again, this time in straight sets 6-4, 6-4 in his first round robin match at the World Finals in London.
It wasn’t much of a surprise given that Soderling is an exceptional indoor player while Nadal’s been playing with fire in his last few events. But watching the match I started to get the feeling that Rafa’s best days may very well be behind him. That said, it is just one match and it’s far too premature to write his obituary, even at this event.
“I think I didn’t play really bad. I played okay,” said Nadal was again denied a 400th career ATP win. “But in the important moments, I didn’t have the necessary calm, so I had few mistakes. He is a big player on this surface, so [it] is difficult. If you are not completely calm and playing very well in that moment, it’s really difficult to win, and today I didn’t play in this way in those moments.”
Added Soderling: “Well, I felt pretty good. For me it’s always tough. Every first round match in every tournament for me is the toughest one. So I was a little bit nervous in the beginning. But I got off to a very good start with an early break, so that helped me a lot.”
I mentioned Federer’s poor Top 10 mark in my last post, well, Nadal’s is even worse. In the last six months the only Top 10 player Rafa’s beaten is Jo Tsonga two week ago.
Later in the day my pre-tournament pick Novak Djokovic outlasted the pong-like Russian Nikolay Davydenko 7-5 in the third. I felt Davydenko would provide some serious opposition and he did just that in this rematch of the ’08 Shanghai finale pushing the Serb to the brink. I just hope the near-three hour match doesn’t take anything out of Novak for his Wednesday clash with Soderling. Although afterward Novak didn’t sound like a guy with the mindset needed to win this event.
“I wasn’t feeling that great on the court,” said Djokovic. “Physically wise, I was a bit slow, kind of couldn’t get in great rhythm. With reactions, as well. But I’m just happy to win the first match. I knew that it’s going to be long one. Davydenko is in great form, [a] very aggressive player. But in the end, [I am] quite happy to get through.”
Probably the biggest surprise to me thus far was the play of Juan Martin Del Potro on Sunday. DelPo lost in three sets to Murray but midway through the match (down 5-0 to Murray) the Argentine got his game online and really started punishing Murray. Unfortunately, DelPo faded at the end as Murray regained control in the third but in between he was playing some scary level of tennis that I didn’t he could conjure up this week. If the big guy can somehow match the standard of play, watch out.
And almost as expected, Roger Federer struggled against Fernando Verdasco, surviving the lefty’s Nadal-esq strategy in three sets. Verdasco was in control for much of the match with the tried-and-true strategy of peppering heavy topspin balls to the Swiss’s backhand, but come crunch time Verdasco, unlike Nadal, couldn’t keep his nerve.
Federer now meets Murray in the most anticipated match of the round robin stage. If Federer plays like he did against Verdasco he’s going to lose, that simple. To compound matters, Murray’s won six of nine meetings with the Swiss and even though the Scot, like Federer, had his share of lapses in his first match, I think Murray gets through this one.
“Well, obviously I expect a difficult match,” Federer said Sunday looking head to Murray. “Always fun playing, you know, your fellow rivals. I’ve had from the top guys, I think Andy has been one of the guys I played the most. I played him frequently at the beginning of the season, in Doha and where else did I play him? I just played him in Shanghai the week before. Then was it Indian Wells, as well? So I played him on a few occasions in a row.”
Given Federer’s results in London I’ll be interested to hear the crowd reaction to playing Murray. And if the match itself wasn’t enough, should Federer win he’ll clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking.
The first singles match of the day features DelPo and Verdasco. If both players “max out” DelPo should win. And while I don’t think either can sustain that top level, I think DelPo is just a wee bit mentally tougher than Fernando.
Overall though, what a great first few days and based on the level of play and the matchups ahead it looks like things will only get better.
On Wednesday we’ll get Nadal v. Davydenko in a virtual elimination match while Djokovic and Soderling bid for a likely semifinal spot.
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