Action kicked off at the O2 Arena in London on Sunday night. Many consider this elite competition to be the true test of a Champion’s mental strength, scheduling issues, injury management and physical discipline, being at the fag end of a long, gruelling and scarring tennis season. The top 8 in the ATP Race for the year (ranking points-wise) are eligible for participation at this prestigious tournament. Basically, this is every purist fan’s wet dream, as far as quality and class is concerned. Every match seems like a Grand Slam semi-final, and most of the group games are potential Grand Slam finals. It is also the only tournament of the year where the more common sporting practice of having a group stage is practiced, and losing a match is not the end of the world.
It all comes down to an individual’s endurance and his perspective of success and failure over a long season that has every one of them compete in atleast 60 matches through the year. Some of them think otherwise, and many of them end up skipping this tournament because of a brutal final hard-court stretch preceding this- and replacements are often the dark horses. There was a time in 2007 when a player pulled out AFTER entering the group stages and losing his first match, and his replacement pulled out after playing the second match. Hence, the 10th ranked individual was handed a raw deal, but was more than happy to be participating (even if it is only for a dead-rubber match) in this Masters Event.
2011 has been the year of the Djoker. But he has been withering, as was expected, at the end of a phenomenal record-shattering season. Murray has climbed after enduring yet another Slamless season, and Nadal is reeling after facing possibly his worst injury-free season of his career. One slam is simply not enough for him, considering his astronomical standards. Roger Federer has won 13 matches in a row, and is peaking at what he considers the right time- in order to carry momentum into the next season. He also needs to defend his title here, and looks in prime form and firm favourite.
The format is simple. For once, there have been no pullouts and retirements, with players such as Murray and Nadal (who have never won here, surprisingly) pulling out of lesser important tournaments over the last month in order to be fit for this final fling with gold. It much have, after all these years, dawned upon them that this is the only tournament that is considered on par with Grand Slams as far as exclusivity and trophy cabinets are concerned. Djokovic, meanwhile, is looking for his second victory here, with his first appearing almost 3 years ago. Nevertheless, he knows what it takes to win one- but is prone to losing steam at the end of every season.
Roger Federer, meanwhile, is looking for a record-breaking 6th title- to move ahead of Pete Sampras on 5. Rafael Nadal is looking for his first, and is looking to break the jinx of being called the worst of the top players on hard courts.
The game’s most competitive era has been pushed to the brink with the forming of the following two groups:
Group A: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych.
Prediction: To be honest, the only real shock here could be if Berdych pushes Djokovic down to the wire as far as game-count and set-counts are concerned. It will be tough, no doubt, for the two top men Djokovic and Murray to sustain their quality for 3 matches- but one expects both of them to come through, after some tense moments, with a 2-1 match record. Murray, though, is the favourite from this group- unless he displays his famed mental strength (or lack of it)
Ferrer might finish bottom, but will not go down without a fight- even though he was the first to qualify for the Finals out of the ‘rest of the best’ (the final 4).
Group B: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Mardy Fish and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.
As we speak, Federer and Nadal have come through testing opening rounds against Tsonga and Fish respectively. It is easy to get a bit lazy and casual, considering the fact that one loss can still take one through to the semi-finals- and the top duo found it extremely hard to maintain their concentration through what most players consider the toughest test of the World Tour Finals. The opening round, though, went off without any major upset, with Nadal just about pulling through against the gritty American (who replaces Andy Roddick here for the first time in 9 years) in a third set tie-breaker that just about bolstered Nadal’s hopes to finally win this title.
Everyone, of course, will look forward to the match of their season- in the form of Federer taking on Nadal in the group stages within the next few days. It might just spell the end of one of their seasons, but unless Tsonga wakes up and smells the croissants, one doesn’t expect anybody but the top 4 reaching the semi-finals.
Group A kicks off today, with Djokovic and Murray hoping to avoid any embarrassments, and hoping to face the best player of all time and the best player of a generation in the semi-finals. For some reason, one feels that there might not be a new name on that trophy this year. Why, you ask?
Roger Federer has won 18 of his last 19 matches- that’s why.