Five months ago, few if anyone would have believed the No. 1 ranking would be still undecided heading into the ATP Finals. But here we are on the eve of the final week of the season with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray locked in a battle to determine the top ranking. And that battle starts tomorrow.
What a way to finish what has been an uneven and, at times, a forgettable year.
This year’s 2016 edition of the ATP Finals has a markedly different feel. True, it’s rare that the event decides No. 1, but we are also missing the familiar faces of two of the most popular players in history, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And that’s a shame. Their withdrawal leaves only Djokovic as a player who was won or even been to the final at the Finals before, so at least one player among this Elite 8 will be making their debut in the title match next Sunday.
So who will it be? On to the picks.
JOHN MCENROE GROUP: Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic
Coming in on a 19-match win streak, there’s no doubt Murray’s got the hot hand and the confidence. But he’s never made the finals in London (just 4-7 in his last 4 visits) and as I said before, he’s faced no Top 10 foes during this streak and no Top 5 players since the clay season give, and that’s gives me some pause. And he’s in by far the tougher group. Murray’s leads all three of his opponents in their head-to-heads, but he’s lost to Stan seven times, Cilic three times and Nishikori twice (27-12 v his group). So despite his streak and recent form, I don’t think it’s an easy, shoe-in return to his first semifinal in London since 2012, but I think he gets it done and makes the push in front of his home fans. And with No. 1 on the line, there’s added urgency and a wanting to show he’s worthy of it.
Would you believe Stan’s been to the semifinals at the ATP Finals the last three years? He has and Murray hasn’t! It’s a fact. So every time Wawrinka’s played in London, he’s at least reached the weekend. But this year he “limps” in with just three wins in his last seven matches, however he’s always been a big match player and these matches are just that. And other than Murray, he’s 10-2 against Cilic and 4-2 against Nishikori and the quick courts should help. No Federer in the draw may also help in a strange way, at least it did at the US Open.
Indoors on a quick court, you wouldn’t think that would suit Nishikori. But the World No. 5 has won some indoor titles in Memphis and made a few Basel finals. And he did make the semifinals in 2014 when he beat Murray in the RR, but I don’t like any of his matchups in his group. Stan and Cilic can and will likely overpower him and Murray should be too sharp. The key will be his opener against Stan as I think the winner there gets to the weekend.
The tallest guy in the competition comes in quietly having a strong finish to the season. He’s won nine of his last 10 with a Basel title over Nishikori and a first win over Djokovic in Paris. Big serve, big forehand should suit him well indoors, and I think this week he gets his first ATP Finals match win. But will it be enough? Probably not.
Predicted order of finish: Murray, Wawrinka, Cilic, Nishikori
IVAN LENDL GROUP: Novak Djokovic, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils, Dominic Thiem
Forget the talk of the on-court issues and the personal problems, Djokovic’s won this title the last four years! He’s trying to reclaim No. 1 and he’s a ridiculous 23-0 against his opponents, two of whom are coming off injuries, and he’s never lost to anyone in this field at this event! He will never get a path this easy and he’ll take advantage of it, even if he struggles a little bit.
The Canadian’s quad is a question mark but Raonic, who couldn’t finish in 2014 also because of a quad injury, says he’ll give it a go. However, I’m not convinced he’s 100% and even if he was he just hasn’t shown me much since the Wimbledon final. He’s made semis in Cincinnati and Beijing but a loss to Ryan Harrison at the US Open? Throw in additional defeats this fall to Mikhail Youzhny, Jack Sock and Ricardis Berankis, and that signals to me he’s having some confidence issues. He’s not the same guy he was the first half of the year. Who would have thought, maybe he’s need John McEnroe back!
I’m glad Gael finally made it into the ATP Finals at age 30. I thought he’d have made his debut here years ago, but better late than never. Unfortunately, he too comes in with an injury concern. The Frenchman’s played just seven matches since his bizarre US Open semifinal loss to Djokovic, and has dropped three of his last four eventually withdrawing from the Paris Masters with a rib injury. This season, Monfils has shown some much-needed maturity and focus, and he’s headed in the right direction if he can maintain it. But this week, I just don’t believe he’s 100% nor do I think he’ll be ready for this kind of stage.
Also making his debut this week at the ATP Finals is Thiem. The Austrian workhorse has played more tournaments than anyone in the field this year (26) and, like Monfils, will have to deal with the first-time bright lights and pressure of the event. As the only under-25 in the field, he comes in having lost four of his last five. That’s not good. But what is is his group. Djokovic will be a loss (or should be) for him tomorrow however with Raonic and Monfils both fighting injury, that’s his chance. He’s played just six matches in the last 45 days or so, so I think maybe he’s recharged just enough to make a run.
Predicted order of finish: Djokovic, Thiem, Monfils, Raonic
Semifinals: Djokovic d Wawrinka, Murray d Thiem
Final: Djokovic d Murray
After all the issues the second half of the season, I think with the help of a great draw, Djokovic makes a push here and gets No. 1 back. He’s dominated Murray but the big match would be against Stan in the semifinals and I think best-of-3 helps Novak there.
That said, maybe Novak continues in that funk he’s been in. But the Tour Finals has been good to him – winning the last four years, five overall – and I expect it to be no different this time. And with No. 1 on the line there’s some added incentive.
I’m also picking Thiem to make the semifinals, but that’s only because I believe Milos and Gael will not be fully fit and ready. If, however, they are, then Milos should slip through to the semifinals.
In the other group, for Murray, I think he’ll play the best he’s ever played at the event, but I just don’t like the matchup against Djokovic. And he could struggle again against guys like Stan and Cilic who have wins over him. Any one of those four in the McEnroe group could win it, even Nishikori who’s actually a sneaky decent player indoors.
And the key is the first set of matches on Sunday and Monday. In round-robin it’s tough to dig out of the whole, and then you start chasing the math. So the early winners have a big edge.
Overall though, yes without Federer and Nadal the tournament has lost some pop, but the fact that we have No. 1 at stake does make up for it some. Let’s just hope that ranking is still undecided come the final Sunday.
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