It’s quite a final four in the last ATP event of the season. And it’s a great way to end 2015 at the ATP Finals in London with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal colliding for the 46th time and then it’s a rematch of last year with Roger Federer taking on friend and countryman Stan Wawrinka.
Before my picks, a quick recap of Friday’s final day of round robin play.
Going in, having already wrapped up the Nastase top spot, Nadal had nothing beyond prize money and ranking points to play for against countryman David Ferrer. And with a well-rested Djokovic waiting, common sense would have dictated that Nadal would take it easy, conserve energy and his fragile body. Instead, he did nothing of the sort.
The two played tight opener with Ferrer stealing the set thanks to a strong breaker. And just when you thought Nadal would give in and relax (maybe play one set hard, then ease up), he stepped on the gas and roared back taking the last two sets to win it 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-4 in almost two and a half hours!
“Doesn’t matter if I was qualified,” said Nadal after winning the longest match of the tournament thus far. “For me the main goal is to try to arrive in good shape next year. Today was an opportunity to play against another of the top eight players of the world.
“I think I competed well. I won a very tough match. I think a very good match in terms of quality moments.”
At first, I couldn’t understand why Nadal would push himself that hard, but then it became clear, this was likely his last chance to pick up points this year, something he even mentioned afterward.
“200 points are not the same when you are No. 1 and No. 2 than when you are No. 5,” Nadal said. “Winning today is almost like winning a 250 tournament.”
And he’s eight. Except…And while I credit Nadal for going 110% and beating Ferrer, it won’t help him win his first ATP Finals.
While Nadal’s weekend result is in doubt, it’s with 100% certainty Murray won’t be holding his first ATP Finals trophy on Sunday. That’s because in the winner-take-all encounter that followed later in the day, Murray fell in straight sets to Stan Wawrinka 7-6(4), 6-4.
Even with Davis Cup next weekend, the loss ended what had to have been a disappointing week in London for the Scot. He beat Ferrer, but then lost in straights to both Nadal and now Wawrinka, and today he led Stan 4-2 in the first set breaker but couldn’t win another point.
“Way too many errors the last two matches,” Murray said. “Everyone obviously can make mistakes. It’s just more on easy shots, cheap errors. Just something really for the most part of this year I haven’t been doing.
“But this week and actually a lot of the time when I’ve played here on this court, I’ve felt the same way. I made too many mistakes. Maybe against David I had a little bit more time on the ball, whereas Stan and Rafa hit the ball pretty big. My timing wasn’t there today.”
Stan, at times, looked the part of a heavyweight Grand Slam champion, zoning at one point during the second set before Murray mounted one last push recovering a break, but it was too late.
“I’m not trying to take anything away from Stan. He serves big,” Murray said. “At certain points in the match, he was hitting the ball very hard off both sides, playing sort of high-risk tennis, making a lot of winners.
“There was a period in the middle of the second set where he played extremely well, a lot of passing shots, hitting clean winners onto the line. There’s not much I can do about that.”
So the semifinals are set.
Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal
Showdown #46 of what was the best rivalry – that label now belongs to Federer-Djokovic. That’s because Djokovic has been all over Nadal lately winning seven of their last eight and all three this year in straight set blowouts.
Yes, Nadal is playing a lot better as he said. But honestly, based on Rafa going full on today and then talking about winning those ranking points and looking ahead to next year, he sounds like his tournament is over. Mission accomplished. “I can’t beat Djokovic no matter what, so why save energy? I might as well fight hard and pick up these 200 ranking points from David.”
And maybe it’s the right strategy. I can’t blame him. That said, knowing that it’s been a successful week, maybe Nadal comes out loose, cracks some winners and creates some problems for Djokovic who will feel the brunt of the pressure. It’s possible, Rafa’s done it before. But he’ll have to serve well, especially on second serve, and return well also.
“I need to play my best to have any chance but the right work is done. Lot of positive things during the last weeks. Very good confirmation this week. So tomorrow is another opportunity to compete against the best, to see if I am able to compete at a very high level again,” said Nadal.
Djokovic hasn’t been at his best the last two matches, but he’s got a comfort now with Rafa he didn’t have before. And the gritty London court should help him defend and force Nadal into that extra error and/or make his second serve that much more attackable.
“It’s a fact that he’s been playing better and he’s been raising his level ever since US Open,” Djokovic said of Nadal yesterday. “Already in China, playing finals in Beijing, semifinals in Shanghai, you can feel that he’s starting to get comfortable on the court, start to play better.
“I’ve been watching. I know what is expecting me. We played so many times. I’m going to get ready for that one and hopefully I’ll be able to play at my best.”
And if Novak serves well he’ll get through this.
The Pick: Djokovic in two
Roger Federer v Stan Wawrinka
So the rematch from an edgy semifinal last year is on. Mirka was allegedly getting on Stan. Stan had matchpoints. Roger was dealing with a back. Both had Davis Cup the next weekend. And of course Roger won in the end.
And I think we get a similar match tomorrow. Just without all the histrionics.
Roger’s playing great. After a poor opener, Stan is now playing great. So it should be a great matchup.
Federer leads 17-3 and he’s the favorite here. He’s won all three matches, he’s won this event six times and he owns Stan. And he feels great.
“Honestly, I feel really good about my body,” Federer said. “I’ve got the perfect schedule. I’m off before the semis, which is huge. Now you’re looking at potentially a maximum of two more matches and the season’s over then. It’s easy for the mind now, in my opinion. There’s no best-of-five-set matches look forward to, so it should be pretty easy.”
But if Roger doesn’t connect with his serve and if he drops balls short Stan can really make him pay. That’s the danger. Because off the ground few can bludgeon it like Wawrinka, and he’s fearless and there are those times when he gets into that “zone”.
If Stan can maintain that zone level, he can win. That’s not easy though.
“[He’s] playing really well,” Wawrinka said. “It’s tough to play indoor, especially World Tour Final, he is always fit, always ready.
“Last year was an opportunity to beat him, didn’t take them. Let’s see, I had a tough match now, two hours match with a lot of pressure. I also feel quite tired. I’m going to be focused on that, try to rest, try to recover and be ready for hopefully a good match.”
And as I said, I think this turns out to be another tight slugfest with Stan just falling short.
The pick: Federer in three
As for upsets, the biggest would be Rafa winning in straights. Again, based on his effort today, I think Rafa finished his tournament. He’s content, he’s happy. He got some good wins, beat Murray and Stan, and no shame in losing to Novak. So tomorrow will just be the icing against Novak. And I don’t see how he wins. In the second match, I make it 55-45 for Roger. So it could go either way, it wouldn’t surprise me too much.
The Djokovic-Nadal match is on at 9am ET with Federer-Wawrinka at 3pm ET. Both are online on ESPN3.com.
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