By Matthew Laird, Special to Tennis-X.com
First up at the ATP World Tour Finals tomorrow is match play from Group B. The opening day Group features five-time champion Roger Federer, 2010 finalist Rafael Nadal, streaky Jo-Wilfried and debutante Mardy Fish.
Federer will play Tsonga at 9am ET followed by Nadal against Fish at 3pm ET.
Finals Record: 8-8 in four appearances (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010; qualified in 2005 and 2008 but did not play), best performance in 2010 when he made the final, losing to Federer.
2011 Record: 66-13, ranked #2, winning 3 titles out of 10 finals.
Group B gets us underway on Sunday, and there is a lot on the line for the top seed in this group. Nadal has the most dominating head-to-head record against the three opponents in his group, a combined 30-11. Of course, 17 of those wins are against Roger Federer, who finds himself in the same Round Robin group as Nadal for the first time. However, 8 of those losses are to Federer as well. Nadal has a very comfortable 13-3 lead over Tsonga and Fish, which should overall leave him feeling fairly confident. He may need that confidence, though, because despite winning the French Open and ending the year ranked #2, this was not a banner year for Rafael Nadal. He lost 7 out of the 10 finals he appeared in, with 6 of those losses coming to Novak Djokovic. The other was to Andy Murray and was fairly recent as well, but Nadal won’t have to face either of them until the semifinals, at least. It’s worth noting that a WTF championship is probably the biggest hole in Nadal’s resume at this point, so a title here would go a long way towards salvaging the year. However, Rafa has looked fairly worn down in the past few months, as he often does near the end of the season, and he still has the Davis Cup final looming once this tournament is over. The big question for Rafa is whether his recent withdrawal from the Paris Masters was a signal that he’s essentially done for the season, or whether he was saving himself for the WTF and the Davis Cup to follow.
Finals Record: 34-7 in nine appearances (2002-2010), won the title in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2010.
2011 Record: 59-12, ranked #4, winning 3 titles out of 5 finals.
In sharp contrast to Nadal’s recent form, Federer enters his tenth consecutive end-of-year final on a tear. He’s on a 12-match winning streak since his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic at the US Open, including two titles and a pair of Davis Cup wins in Australia. After going on the second-longest stretch between titles in his entire career (the only longer drought he had was between his very first title, in February of 2001, and his second, in January of 2002) Fed is finishing the year strong. When you combine that with the fact that Federer has basically owned the WTF during his career, it’s hard to bet against him. It may seem odd to hear that Federer actually has a losing record against the opponents in his group, but that will happen when he’s paired with his nemesis Nadal. He’s 20-21 against the other three players in Group B, but when you remove his matches against the Spaniard, he suddenly becomes 12-4. While it wasn’t the chief rivalry of 2011, the Nadal-Federer saga could play a big part in this last tournament of the season. Keep in mind that they could play each other twice, first in the round robin stage and then potentially again in the final. Nadal may lead in the head-to-head, but Federer has beaten Nadal both times they played in this tournament, including last year’s final, and I believe those are the only meetings that the pair has had on indoor hard courts, which is probably the surface that most seriously blunts Nadal’s usual advantages over Federer.
Finals Record: 1-2 in one appearance (2008), lost in the round robin stage.
2011 Record: 52-22, ranked #6, winning 2 titles out of 5 finals.
It’s really unfortunate, in a way, that Tsonga and Fish find themselves in the same round robin group as two of the best players not only of the current generation but ever to take the court. It makes the task of making it to the semifinals extremely difficult. The flamboyant Frenchman may be up to it, though, if he can manage to play his best tennis. He’s been playing well recently, having won both of his titles this year since the US Open, and making the final at the Paris Masters. He may have lost to Federer there, but he did clip Federer twice this year, in Montreal and at Wimbledon, where he dealt Federer his first ever loss from 2 sets to love up at a grand slam tournament. The pair has actually met six times over the course of the year, which is tied with Nadal and Djokovic for the most frequent match-up of 2011. Despite those two big wins, Tsonga is still down 2-4 to Federer on the year, and trails 3-6 overall to the Swiss. Combine that with a 2-6 record against Nadal and a 1-0 advantage over Fish, and Tsonga’s overall record against his group is 6-12, which is not exactly promising. His performance at his only other tour finals appearance was a bit disappointing, but he had needed to work so hard just to qualify, I believe he ran out of gas. This year, he doesn’t seem to be injured or limping across the finish line, so he has a chance to make it to the semis, particularly if Nadal is playing hurt or already looking ahead to the Davis Cup.
Finals Record: First appearance
2011 Record: 43-22, ranked #8, winning 1 title out of 3 finals.
On the other hand, Mardy Fish has by my estimation the longest odds of any player to make it to the semis. Not only is the lowest ranked player in the finals, he also has the worst record in 2011, and the worst record against the other members of his group. Fish is 2-14 against his opponents, with one win each over Federer and Nadal. He can take some comfort over the fact that his win against Nadal was this year, and he could have easily won his lone match against Tsonga at the US Open, but what’s even more troubling for Fish is the condition that his body seems to be in at this point in the year. His last two losses were retirements, which does not bode well. It would take a monumental effort for Fish to get out of this group, let’s be honest. It’s certainly possible, but there’s no doubt in my mind that to have his career-best year and to make the finals for the first time will give Mardy plenty to be proud of as he celebrates his 30th birthday during the off-season.
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