By Matt McGladrigan
For the statistical purists out there, looking at this year’s male winners of the tennis Grand Slams has a satisfying feel. Each one of the top four players in the world has taken one title home for themselves and all on their best surface, and at their favourite Grand Slam. The first bragging rights of the season went to 2011’s stand-out player Novak Djokovic, after he again defeated Rafael Nadal, this time at the Australian Open in Melbourne. It was the Spaniard, though, that gained revenge on the orange clay of Roland Garros, with his 7th French Open title. A few weeks later and it was neither of those players that featured in, undoubtedly, the biggest and best Slam of them all, at that famous postcode of SW19. Andy Murray made it into his first ever Wimbledon final, but had to take on a man who was appearing in a record eighth.
Murray, despite capturing the hearts of Britain, couldn’t capture the trophy from out of the hands of the great Roger Federer. When the British number one got over the Atlantic, he finally managed everything he’d been aiming for since his youth. In an absolute thriller of a final under the floodlights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, New York, Murray ousted Serbian Djokovic in 5 long sets, to claim his first Grand Slam title. So, all in all, a very nice symmetrical year of tennis on the men’s side: Federer mopping up on grass at his tournament, as usual; Nole winning for the third time in Australia on his preferred hard court; Rafa being the King of Clay; With Murray then getting his first Slam at the tournament where it was always said he had the greatest chance. Throw in a gold medal for the Scot too and a record-breaking stand at number one for the silkiest Swiss guy ever to be in existence, and that’s 2012 of tennis. Just one more tournament to negotiate and that’s what I’m going to talk about now in this feature.
The ATP World Tour Finals begin at the O2 Arena in London on Monday afternoon. Players fight throughout the entirety of the season to earn points from tournaments and be ranked in the world’s top 8 in order to qualify for this end-of-year championship. The 8 qualifiers are arranged into two groups of 4 with a round-robin format ensuing. Rafael Nadal has had to pull out because of injury, opening up a slot to the 9th best player. Roger Federer has won on the past two occasions in London, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year and great rival Nadal in 2010. Those last two victories make it a record six times now, that the Swiss maestro has got his hands on the trophy. Despite being guaranteed to lose his number one ranking at the end of 2012, Federer remains one of the hot favourites going into London. The completely different set-up to the tournament though, with the round robin, makes it extremely different to predict who will flourish. The superb summer of sport for GB competitors, particularly the triumphs of Murray, has seen ticket sales for this event soar. Every session is expected to be completely sold out, with fans willing to let money leave their wallets/purses, despite the poor economic climate, to catch a glimpse of the top players in the sport. Here’s who those men are…
First up to consider is the Serbian man who left the world behind in 2011, picking up three of the Grand Slam titles, including his first titles on the grass of SW19 and in New York. Novak Djokovic, who will return to world number one on Monday, has had a less impressive year this time around. But, still, less impressive for the Serb is incredible for the rest of the Tour. He was made to fight all the way in Australia to retain his title back in January. Two brutal encounters in the last two rounds, with Murray and Nadal respectively, pushed him to the limit. The final, lasting 5 hours and 53 minutes, was a classic conflict between Nadal’s spinning, powerful forehand and the powerful cross-court backhand of Djokovic, and was the longest Grand Slam singles final in Open Era history. Once again, the latter came out on top, in another gripping chapter to the rivalry between the Serb and the Spaniard.
Djokovic, who was actually sought after by British tennis bosses in 2006 to switch his national allegiance to that of GB (I learnt the other day – imagine if that had happened), was defeated in the finals of the French and US Open, and lost to Federer in the penultimate semi-final stage at Wimbledon. At one stage, he nearly managed to hold all of the Grand Slam titles at the same point in 2012, but was denied by Rafa in Paris. Despite those losses, Nole has racked up 11,420 ranking points in the race to London this season. He won in Miami, at the Rogers Cup, the China Open and in Shanghai.
He hasn’t been as dominating as in 2011. He has pushed the players around him to get up to his level and they have. As Boris Becker states in his recent Telegraph feature, “It is always harder to defend points, to be the man hunted, than to be the hunter”. The other players knew he was the man to beat as the midnight chimes sounded, dawning the new year of 2012. Is he still the man to beat?
I believe so. He’s been arguably the most consistent player of the year and the ranking points that he’s accumulated underline that. He’s going back to being the number one player. He’s suffered some tough losses throughout the season to his big rivals, but he’s been up there and fighting hard in every major tournament. His movement around the court has got even better from the already immense standard that it was at in 2011. We have seen his ability to battle at crucial situations in matches – match points saved in huge games against Tsonga at the French and Murray in Shanghai. If anyone beats Djokovic to the title in London, it will be someone pretty special.
Moving onto the home favourite now, in what has undoubtedly been the best year of his tennis career. Murray-mania has hit unprecedented heights in 2012, with the nation brushing aside what was judged to be the somewhat moody personality of the Scot and now supporting him all the way. This is largely thanks to a teary-eyed speech given after his heart-wrenching loss to Mr Wimbledon in the final at the All England Club. But, also, due to the success he has had since that Sunday afternoon in July.
It was gold for Andy Murray in London. He gained revenge over Roger Federer at the Olympics, by powering past the Swiss in straight sets. This was a big win for him; it boosted his confidence in preparation of his next assault at a Grand Slam title in New York. Emulating Fred Perry and ending a 76-year wait for a men’s champion, Murray outlasted Novak Djokovic in 5 sets to lift the Flushing Meadows’ title. I think we even got a smile from coach Ivan Lendl. It was an astonishing match from start to finish, in which the Scot went ahead two sets to zip, only to see the defending champion battle back to force a fifth. But Murray wasn’t to be denied for a fifth time in a row in a Slam final and found something more to finally close out the match and usurp the Serbian.
Looking at what else has occurred during the year of Andy Murray, we see he started off by winning in Brisbane. He was then beaten in the semi-finals of Australia by defending champion Djokovic and had a largely poor clay-court season, only managing the quarters at Roland Garros. Summer and autumn have been relatively kind to him though. The final at Wimbledon was followed by a singles’ gold and mixed doubles’ silver, with Laura Robson, at the Olympic Games. After the US Open, he has a mixed run in tournaments, the best a final appearance in Shanghai. Guaranteed to end the year as number 3 in the world, Murray, in my eyes, probably goes into London as 2nd favourite, behind Nole. He has proven that he can beat both him and Federer though and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a hometown crowd propel the Scot to glory in the last event of this ATP year.
Murray is the man the crowd at the O2 want to win. After his success in the Big Apple, there have been musings over whether he can put himself at the top of the pile in men’s tennis now, by claiming the world number one ranking and by starting to dominate at the Slams. He can show them all what he has the potential to bring in 2013, at this last event. To become number one, he’ll have to take down Novak in Australia, do well enough at the French (an event that I doubt he’ll win with Nadal around), and knock off Roger at SW19. I think that latter one is the key to next year though. Us Brits want to see a home Wimbledon champion, and after winning the US and reaching the final in London in 2012, it’s only fair that we can put that pressure on him. My ballot form is winging its way to the post boxes of the South West of the capital as we speak. But, for now, we’ll see how he gets on in a different part of London from Monday onwards. It’s a tough group, but what do you expect when the top 8 players meet all together. He has a great chance.
Many are now proposing that this conflict is the most scintillating of them all. This was the match-up we wanted to see in London in the group stage, wasn’t it? Probably the top 2 in the latter section of the year, every Murray-Djokovic game seems to be a blockbuster. Most points are gruesome baseline rallies, backhands flying all over the court. They’ve met 6 times in 2012, making that 16 meetings in total, and each has won 3 apiece. Each player has won one Grand Slam match against the other this year and both have been on a knife edge – Djokovic in the semi at Melbourne Park and Murray in the final at Flushing Meadows. Fans have spent hours-upon-hours watching these two battling it out in 2012.
Are they pushing the bar for Federer and Nadal to try and follow? Recent results suggest so. Murray comfortably wiped Roger off the court in Shanghai, and Federer’s overall form coming into London has not been great – lesser-ranked Del Potro defeated him in the final of the Swiss Indoors, only the quarters in New York. This rivalry of the Scot and the Serb has been the best in the men’s game this year, particularly since Rafa has been nursing his injured knee. We’ve kind of forgotten how good Nadal is after not seeing him in action for many months now. But Murray and Djokovic are the ones to watch currently. Only a week separates the two men in age. Their matches are aggressive, packed with skill and power, full of sublime movement and, most of all, extremely close. Expect more of the same as they, possibly firstly, take each other on in the round robin phase of the tournament. They are two evenly matched players who are pushing each other to better their all-round games. Plus, they both have a lot more to give in their careers and are improving. To be honest, I can’t wait for Nadal to be back, to see how he fits in with the other three at the moment. It really is exciting times at the top of men’s tennis: we are locked in a four-way clash for supremacy.
Next up is world number six, Tomas Berdych, as the third name in Group A. The tall, powerful Czech has the ability to beat anyone on his day, but is too much of an up-and-down player to really challenge the top. Thus, this type of tournament, where there are three games to try and make an impression in, might be his cup of tea. One bad day doesn’t necessarily ruin your chances of progressing to the next stage.
Berdych’s consistency has really been highlighted in 2012, with quarter final and semi-final appearances at the Australian and US Opens respectively, but first round losses in both of the major London-based tournaments (Wimbledon and the Olympics). He will be hoping that he doesn’t complete a hat-trick at the O2 Arena. In reaching the quarters at Melbourne Park, he caused controversy by refusing to shake Nicolas Almagro’s hand after believing that the Spaniard had deliberately hit a shot at him. The Czech reached four finals this season, winning two of them in Stockholm and Montpellier. He’s had success playing for his country in 2012 too – winning the Hopman Cup with Petra Kvitova and being a runner-up at the Power Horse World Team Cup (I’ve never heard of it either).
You feel that Berdych faces a tough contest in his opening match, when he takes on crowd favourite Murray on Monday afternoon. That’s despite him actually having a winning record against the Scot. Their most recent game, though, came in the US Open semi-final where Murray came through relatively comfortably in 4 sets. On big occasions, you have to favour the world number three.
Berdych won’t go down without a fight though and he has proved that he can beat the best in the world – again knocking Roger Federer out at the quarter final stage of a Grand Slam in New York just a couple of months ago. He has many weapons which can hurt his opponents, particularly the great power that he generates off his serve and groundstrokes. Perhaps a weakness in his all-round game is that of his movement. It’s not on the same level as the top 4. It’s such a vital part of the sport these days, to be able to chase down one more ball and give yourself another chance in the rally. Clearly, the Czech needs to get off to a good start in the event by getting something out of his match with Andy Murray, otherwise it will be curtains, with Djokovic and Tsonga to come. He’s got the better of Tsonga twice in recent weeks, in Stockholm and Shanghai. So, I think it’ll be just the one win from three for the huge Czech star.
Completing the first group of four of the best players in the world is flamboyant Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He has slipped down to number seven in the world but has still had a solid year on the Tour. His season began in Doha, where he claimed the Qatar Open title by defeating countryman Gael Monfils (where has he disappeared to?) in the final. A round of 16 defeat at the Australian Open was followed by a narrow quarter final reverse to Novak Djokovic – a game in which the Frenchman failed to convert four match points, much to the agony of the partisan crowd in Paris. The grass court season started disastrously with an opening round defeat at Queens, in which he sprained his finger badly, leaving him a doubt for Wimbledon.
The injury turned out well though as Tsonga did compete at SW19 and, after a shock defeat was handed out to Rafael Nadal, he got through to the semi-finals to take on Andy Murray. The Briton was victorious though, in a match which was particularly infamous for Jo-Wilfried being hit by a ball in an unfortunate place. The British crowd on Centre Court and BBC commentary team enjoyed the moment, with comments of “new balls please” being made.
The US Open wasn’t a good tournament for Tsonga, where he succumbed to a second round defeat. This was followed by a title at the Moselle Open in France, but a loss in the final of the China Open to Djokovic, who the Le Mans-born player opens against in London on Monday. Tsonga has given Nole more problems than many other players throughout his career and they maintain a strong rivalry. However, the Serbian has won all 4 meetings between the pair in 2012, not boding well for the Frenchman come Monday evening.
So, last year’s finalist has losing records against each of his group opponents and I don’t think the statistics will lie in this tournament. I can’t see Tsonga getting a victory in the group really and I think it’ll be an early flight back across the channel for him. Saying that, his serve and power are both huge weapons. Similarly with Berdych, his movement isn’t his best attribute. In fact, those two are very similar, confidence players. Thus, I’d expect a decent match between them at the O2 arena come this week.
We’ll begin where we should in this group, with the greatest player that I’ve ever seen play in my lifetime (and probably has ever played). Britain has adopted Roger Federer since he defeated Mark Philippoussis for his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003. 16 big titles later and he’s still here entertaining and amazing us with his classy and elegant style of tennis. You only have to listen to the crowd at Wimbledon and at the O2 to discover how well-loved the Swiss superstar is. I particularly noticed this when he took on Djokovic in the semi-finals at SW19 this summer – the vast majority of the British fans were urging him across the line to beat the defending champion Novak. Now we have Murray to cheer for, he’s perhaps just slightly second fiddle. But against everyone else, it’s Roger all the way.
It won’t be any different this week as Federer tries to extend the record he already has by winning a 7th end of year title. He has broken records for fun throughout his career: most Grand Slams won, most weeks at number 1, won his first seven Slam finals and has played in 24 overall, reached 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, and the list goes in. It’s just phenomenal what he has done with his career. And, at the age of 31, he has no plans to stop anytime soon. Why would he, when he’s had such a successful year still?
Federer reached the semi-finals of both the Australian and French Open, won Wimbledon, and then was knocked out in the quarters at Flushing Meadows by Tomas Berdych in 2012. The final at SW19 was a hugely emotional affair, with Roger clearly delighted at winning another Grand Slam in what must have felt like a long time since he last did, and at his favourite event too. 7 times now, to equal Sampras. Also, his opponent, Murray, was mightily upset after coming so close on home soil. The 17-time Grand Slam champion added 5 other titles throughout the season and is consistently reaching the latter stages of tournaments but, towards the end of the year, he has struggled to convert that into titles. He was beaten comprehensively by Murray in the Olympic final and at Shanghai recently. A loss in the final of the Swiss Indoors to group opponent Juan Martin Del Potro won’t have done Roger much good either. Del Potro, despite holding a very one-sided winning record against him, has always given Federer some problems, like in the absolute marathon Olympic semi-final which the Swiss player finally prevailed in – winning the last set 19-17.
On the indoor hard court, though, Federer is pretty dominant. He has won the last two ATP World Tour Finals in London and we all saw how the game completely changed as soon as the roof went over Centre Court in the Wimbledon final. The court is quick, something he loves to exploit. He’s very much a “let’s speed through my service games” type of player. The game has gone before his opponent can even say “ace”. If he’s consistent with all his shots, and his serve is on the ball, it’ll be difficult for anyone to stop him. I’d say that recent form against Nole and Andy puts him as third favourite though to lift the trophy. Those two have stepped up past him movement-wise, but in the right type of game and on the right surface, Federer can blow them both away (as we saw at Wimbledon in the semis and final respectively). He’ll have the crowd on his side too against all the others except Murray and has a fantastic record against each of the players in his group, making him an almost cert for a place in the semi-finals. I think he’ll have to beat both the world number one and three to defend his title – but it’s Roger Federer: anything is possible.
Next up in this Group B is current world number five and grinder of the year, David Ferrer. Ferrer is one of the most dogged, energetic players on the Tour and this consistency has raised him to just behind the top 4 in the world. He perhaps doesn’t quite have the ability to kill off points that those 4 have – but being able to get hundreds and hundreds of balls back into play is one of the most pivotal skills to possess. The Spaniard is one of the most underestimated guys out there, probably due to being in the shadow of countryman Rafa Nadal. But his friend’s injury has allowed him to come out of his shell and really represent Spain in the tennis world.
His results have improved in 2012, as he has reached the last 8 or better at each of the four Grand Slams (the last 4 at the French and the US). The 30-year-old has won 6 titles this season – his best output in a season ever, showing that he certainly deserves his place amongst the elite in London. He has winning records over Del Potro and Tipsarevic, but has never beaten Roger Federer in 13 games. There’s always a first for everything though and I’m sure Federer will be very wary against that.
Man-mountain and fiery but friendly Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro is the third player that needs talking about. Things looked extremely promising back in 2009 when he lifted his first Grand Slam title in America. People thought he could push himself to the top of the game. Then, injury struck, effectively wiping 2010 out of the calendar. 2011 was disappointing for Del Potro, as he failed to reach the last 8 of any of the majors. This year, though, has been a step in the right direction. 4 tournament wins (Marseille, Estoril, Vienna and Basel) and 3 Grand Slam quarter finals. The win in Basel included a final victory over fellow Group B player Roger Federer, in which the Argentine proved too much for the Swiss maestro in a final set tie-break. He also picked up a bronze medal for his country at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Del Potro is one of this pack of players behind the top 4 that has a lot of power in his groundstrokes and a great serve, which are helping him to be where he is in the world rankings. But, movement is an issue due to the fact that he is 6 ft 6 and also his defensive capabilities. Consistency is his major issue of the past few years on the Tour. A gap does exist between him and the top 4. He’s still only young at 24 though, so could still improve in the future. He has the potential to get out of the group though and I think it could be a tight battle behind Federer for who qualifies for the semis. Getting a win over Ferrer on Tuesday would probably put one foot in a match on Sunday.
Finally, we have lucky world number nine Janko Tipsarevic, who has been afforded a place in the competition due to the fact that Rafa is sitting at home in Majorca. The sunglasses-wearing Serbian can be fairly considered to be the weakest of all the eight challengers, based on his achievement in the game so far. He has only reached two Grand Slam quarter finals (both in New York) and won just 3 ATP titles, including on the clay of Stuttgart in 2012. One of those last 8 appearances was at the most recent US Open and he managed to lose to David Ferrer despite being 4-1 in the final set. Janko has also only won 1 game against all three of his group opponents combined, so it could be a struggle.
Tipsarevic, who apparently admirably has a love of classic literature, debuted in the World Tour Finals last season and failed to get out of the round robin stage. But he’ll want to better that in his latest appearance in England’s capital. The Serb’s strengths include his movement and fitness, and his forehand should be effective on the fast indoor hard court at the O2. What lets him down is his slice and inconsistency. To win a game against the top 4 in the world at the moment, you can’t dish out many unforced errors at all during the entire match – you have to continually get the depth to your shots too.
It’ll be another fantastic occasion for the Serbian to be involved with and these experiences will only help him to improve in important situations in the future. He has nothing to lose going into London as the lowest ranked player so that might work to his advantage – the pressure is truly on Federer to win this group and book a place in the semis. Tipsarevic’s first game on Tuesday afternoon, against the Swiss, will show us how he is going to get on in these championships.
So, there are the elite eight of men’s tennis (bar Rafa) and it’s very tough to call at this stage. It’s going to be a thrilling week at the O2, with fans packing in to see the true greats of the game. Here’s the schedule for the first two days of singles competition:
Monday 5th November:
Andy Murray (3) v Thomas Berdych (5) (not before 1:45pm)
Novak Djokovic (1) v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (7) (not before 7:45pm)
Tuesday 6th November:
Roger Federer (2) v Janko Tipsarevic (8) (not before 1:45pm)
David Ferrer (4) v Juan Martin Del Potro (6) (not before 7:45pm)
I’d be happy to say that the winner will come from those three of Djokovic, Murray and Federer. And a final with two of those three in is sure to be something special to end 2012 with.
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