Monday, 28 November 2011
He looked the strongest going into the tournament, and Roger Federer once again proved his prowess on the blue courts of the O2 in London, eventually overcoming a threatening fightback from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to set a new record with his 6th year ending championships title, as well as a 70th title. He has not lost a match since the US Open and inhabits the identical position he was in at the end of 2010 after winning at the O2, where many expected him to win the Australian Open. As ever tongues must be held, since coming off perhaps one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory; no one expected Djokovic to go on the tear that he eventually did - but look where we are now. It certainly portends well for Federer, who (as we are incessantly reminded) is in the twilight years of his career, but was able to summon the spark that led him to his first year end championships back in 2003.
The first set was a nervy trade of blows between Federer, until the critical moment came on Tsonga's service game when serving at 3-4 down he let Federer back into a point he should have finished with an easy putaway volley. Federer scrambled brilliantly and managed to put a backhand pass past Tsonga to engineer break point, before breaking to go up 5-3 and secure the first set. From that point on it looked plain sailing, and when Federer broke early in the second set, it looked like the final was over with Tsonga appearing spent. But the Frenchman admirably fought back, capitalising on a weak service game from Federer when serving for the championship and saving a match point in the tiebreaker to force a decider. The mercurial Frenchman had started to gain the upper hand in the rallies, and the match was beginning to resemble his magnificent comeback at Wimbledon. Tsonga must be a a frightening prospect to play against when he begins to snowball in confidence and power, and that's what appeared to be happening late in the second and at the start of the third, as he saved a match point with a crushing forehand, and was sending down booming serves. At this point Federer looked to be hanging on, but as he always manages to do, he picked the right moment to push for the killing stroke and put a stopper on Tsonga's momentum, breaking him midway through the final set and eventually serving it out. Although this was not his best performance of the tournament, Federer did want champions do and seized the moment, this time without faltering as he has done at other junctures this year.
Portents aside, what Federer has done this year is remarkable, even if he has been estranged from a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2010. He made four major semi finals and won the World Tour Finals when he could have easily been deflated to some crushing losses, one of them to his stubborn opponent, Tsonga, and showed he still has the game to compete with his younger contemporaries. As for Tsonga, he still inhabits the position of being on the cusp of accomplishing something astonishing, a Grand Slam perhaps, but chances are he would have to go through Djokovic, Nadal and Federer to do it, possibly an unfair ask.
Friday, 25 November 2011
For the second year in a row I visited the O2 Arena in London to see the ATP World Tour Finals last wednesday, where I observed very fortunately from the front row a group match, between Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer. The atmosphere is as they say, electric, which is appropriate both in terms of the neon blue aesthetic of the games and the sea blue courts, and the ambience of anticipation and excitement of the guarantee that you will see one of the top players in the world. It really is a unique venue and I would encourage anyone who hasn't been to visit it once during the final two years that the World Tour Finals is hosted there.
The first match whichever session you attend is a doubles match, and that day I was lucky enough to see the top doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan in action, who comfortably dispatched the Swedish pairing of Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau. Although only around half the stadium capacity turned up for the doubles, you can learn a lot about technique from watching the doubles, and there can be no better benchmark these days than the almost unstoppable Bryan pair. Both brothers are super athletes with virtually no weaknesses in their respective games; they share phenomenal reaction speed at the net, have incredible court awareness and very rarely err when it comes to shot selection, which in doubles is paramount considering the rallies are generally shorter and frequently require fast decision making. I saw all of that while I was there although the match was over in barely an hour, but it was a pleasure watching them dismantle another very good doubles team. It is often said that either brother would easily make the top 50 if they chose to play in singles, and I fully believe that. Afterwards they both very kindly signed my programme and took the time to talk to their fans, which was great to see.
Another half an hour later and the singles match was about to start, with the suspense slowly being built up for Djokovic and Ferrer. It is superbly done, cinematic in execution and winds the crowd up perfectly for the match. I had a perfect perpendicular court side view where I could see both players with perfect clarity, and I took the rare opportunity to observe what you perhaps can't observe so finely when watching it on television. Both players are explosive movers; Djokovic does so much with his split step and his anticipation of where the ball was going was impressive. Ferrer is similarly fast out of the blocks when on the run, and the microsteps he takes to get in position before striking the ball are phenomenally quick and precise, and a great model for those learning the game to (attempt to) imitate. What particularly impressed me with Ferrer that night however was the depth of his groundstrokes when he was under attack. He keeps an incredible length when under fire, and was able to turn defence into attack or a forced error from Djokovic countless times - as I say to people who I know me, depth can be every bit as effective as raw power, and Ferrer is a paragon of that game. And it was partly Ferrer's incredible consistency of depth, combined with his willingness to attack, which gained him the victory. He also served superbly, which he has done for most of the year, and that allowed him to get on top of the points early. For me, it was one of Ferrer's greatest performances, and he convincingly conquered the world no.1 6-3, 6-1. Unfortunately, despite Ferrer's brilliance, I didn't get to see Djokovic completely in full flight, partly because Ferrer didn't let him, but also because he has been for the past month in a state of what he terms 'overload', and he spent the match struggling with his groundstrokes and also his serve (which may or may not be related to the shoulder injury which has hindered him recently). Nonetheless, I was able to observe the motion of his groundstrokes which seem to produce so much easy power, the shots he 'unlocked' this year when Djokovic took over the world and accomplished one of the greatest years in the history of tennis.
Saturday, 19 November 2011
The clash between the top 8 players in the world commences this Sunday in what must be one of the most anticipated year end championships in a long while. What has been dubbed the 5th Grand Slam promises some scintillating clashes and the emerging consensus among tennis commentators is that although the big 4 are the obvious front runners, there is a good potential for some high profile upsets. Most prominently, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been drawn in the same group and will be playing the most anticipated group match in the World Tour Finals this year, while world no.1 Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will face off in the other group.
The front runner is surely Federer, on a hot streak with two straight titles in Basel and at the Paris Masters - one of the few Masters tournaments to evade the maestro - and playing commanding attacking tennis. It would be a huge shock to see Federer bow out before the semi finals, who seems to thrive during the indoor season, and there will be no obstacle of surface transition as there could be for Rafael Nadal. The 02 is a court that plays very similar to the Paris Masters (slow, low bounce) and that only helps Federer's cause for making an historic win of 6 year end championships, and putting the fear of his name back into the cohorts who have outdone him this year.
Nadal on the other hand is an unknown quantity; he lost early in Shanghai, skipped Paris and as traditionally regarded is thought to be on his weakest surface, and at his weakest time of the year. But Nadal is smart, and the decision to skip Paris was predicated on the upcoming Davis Cup final with Argentina not long after the World Tour Finals. One gets the sense that out of the World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup, Nadal would rather sacrifice a win at the 02 for Davis Cup glory, and that he will be trying to conserve himself for a potentially arduous battle against the Argentinians, who are no slouch when it comes to clay, and are packing the heat of Juan Martin Del Potro and David Nalbandian. If that is the case we might see a looser Nadal than usual who is willing to flatten his shots out and kill matches earlier, and he may be even more dangerous than he usually is in that sense. Lest we forget, he made it to the final last year and played Federer pretty close, and despite the objectors Rafa has shown he has the ability and sheer determination to fight on surfaces that are not quite so propitious to his topspin founded game.
Djokovic, similar to Nadal, is erring on the side of fragility at the moment, and the big question still hanging in the air is over the severity of his shoulder injury which has forced him to retire on several occasions in the past few months (including a premature withdrawal against Jo Wilfried Tsonga in Paris earlier this month). He has however said that the shoulder was at 100% during serve practice, so we'll have to take his word for it, whether he appears to be downplaying it or not.With Novak's year, we can never count him out.
Murray is on a hot streak despite losing to Berdych in Paris last week, and has only lost one matche since bowing out of the US Open to Rafael Nadal, whom he defeated to take the Tokyo title, including a 6-0 final set in which he played superb attacking tennis. Murray seems to thrive in the pressure of playing in front of his home crowd, and will be energised somewhat by his new no.3 ranking accrued during the Asian hardcourt swing. It could well be his his first WTF final, following which the British media will go into its usual hyperbolic frenzy.
Finally, the competition cannot be underestimated and should not be considered as 'the rest'. David Ferrer is a nightmare to play against on his best days and no one should be surprised if he takes some high ranking scalps. Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych are dangerous, powerful hitters who are particularly proficient on indoor hard court, Tsonga having made the final of Paris last week, and Berdych being the winner recently of Beijing. Perhaps the weak link is Mardy Fish, but again, he has a game conducive to hard courts with his big serve and willingness to rush the net.
This is a highly open draw in terms of competitiveness, and don't be surprised if we see more than one surprise semi-finalist. Every man feels he has a chance against the next, and that should provide for some brilliant tennis.