World Tour Finals: Round-Robin Winners and Losers

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on top of their groups, who would’ve guessed it?

On a scale of probability, the world nos. 1 and 2 finishing on top has to rank somewhere between a Gael Monfils brain implosion and a Rafa Nadal undie-tug. Neither man has been perfect, but with their consistent quality, neither has to be, and its left the other six to fight over scraps.

That said, the round-robin games have been by no means farcical. Firmly in the midst of the transition phase away from the Federer-Nadal era, this week’s events have been something of a “State of the Union” for men’s tennis, as the question of who can keep the sport aloft gets ever more urgent.

In that respect, the question of who have been “winners” and “losers” in London doesn’t just come down to the scoreboard. Who succeeded? Who failed? Read on to find out.

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Losers: The Old Guys

A three-time slam champion in Stan Wawrinka and a debutant in Gael Monfils, it’s safe to say London didn’t go to plan for either man. Both men alternated between world-class shotmaking and some head-scratching play when they could least afford it. Against Dominic Thiem, Monfils had played some absoluting scintillating tennis to take it to three sets, only to throw it away with three double-faults at 4-5 and hand the Austrian the match. Taking out fellow slugger Marin Cilic in two tiebreak sets, Wawrinka couldn’t maintain his level against the grind-it-out style of Kei Nishikori and Murray, being comfortably handled when the quicker indoor courts should’ve helped him. Both will have plenty of time to sit back and reflect in their rocking chairs now.

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Winner: Dominic Thiem

He may not have made it out of his group, but Thiem made a fine account of himself in his WTF debut. His first set-tiebreak win over Djokovic was exactly the sort of scrap he has to win if he wants to move further up the standings – although the final two sets of that match (0-6, 2-6) showed the 23-year-old still has much further to go. He bounced-back nicely in his match with Monfils, before receiving a lesson in indoor hard-court tennis from Milos Raonic. Still, to walk away with a scalp in his first go-around, and having boosted his shot-making reputation in his first taste of prime-time tennis has to be worth a significant amount of confidence.

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Loser: Marin Cilic

A listless tournament for the Croat, who having proved 2014 was no fluke, could only manage two sets against a Nishikori who had already secured his spot in the semis. A career best no. 7, it’s hard to see how he goes any higher when these are the names he’ll have to face to do it.

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TBD: Nishikori and Raonic

The two “middle-aged” players among the eight, making it to the semis is impressive, but will be entirely coloured by what they do now they’re there. Neither has shown the sort of form this week that would indicate they’re ready to knock-off the Big 2, but should they pull it off, they have to be considered legitimate major-contenders in 2017.

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Winner: Finals Ticketholders

And yet, with the week staying well on-script for Djokovic and Murray, all signs point to the two meeting in the final on Sunday. Djokovic in particular has been heartening, as after his slip-up against Thiem, seems to have played his way into some form. Dropping only three games against alternate David Goffin was to be expected, but his 7-6, 7-6 win over Milos Raonic saw him withstand the very best the Canadian had to offer, displaying the sort of defensive brilliance that makes him such a headache. On the other side, the supposedly tougher group has failed to trip-up Murray, albeit after having survived an epic three-setter against Nishikori that could’ve easily gone against him. Having handled Wawrinka so easily the Scot should have no problem in his semi with the pace of Raonic, while in Nishikori, Djokovic will have a semi’s opponent who will allow him to work his way into his service games and should be at a disadvantage when lines start getting painted.

The prediction

Djokovic d. Murray

Not having played since their final at Roland Garros in June, there’s an awful lot of uncertainty hanging over this matchup. Will Murray’s new offensive mindset be a difference maker? Or does the match hinge on Djokovic’s form? With a 24-10 head-to-head record Djokovic has the advantage historically, while his finish to the round-robin stages seem to indicate he’s finding his footing. There’s no denying Murray is playing exceptional tennis, but it did just take him over three hours to put away Nishikori – who like Djokovic doesn’t rely on accelerating points and can take away much of his advantage counter-punching – meaning all things considered the Serb has to be a slim favourite, but a favourite nonetheless.

A week that has so far been as intriguing for what we’ve learned about the new state of tennis in 2016, Sunday looks set to return us to more familiar confines. Maybe Raonic or Nishikori can spoil the party, but it’s impossible to bet against Murray and Djokovic the way they’re currently playing. The matchup we’ve been waiting for is nearly upon us – get your popcorn ready.

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Schedule Shenanigans – Fixing the ATP Calendar

Among major professional sports, none quite know how to drag out its season quite like the ATP tour. Sure, MLB is probably 80 games too long, but at least there’s enough time off over the winter to fit in a proper transaction period, or for players to play overseas and/or complete a PED cycle. Soccer’s pretty bad, but that’s more a fault of clubs fattening their wallets on increasingly-extensive preseason tours.

The ATP Tour is just a mess. For 2016, it starts in the first week of January, and ends in mid-November, in between packing-in nine Masters 1000 events, plus the year-end World Tour Finals for the top-8. These events (with the exception of Monte Carlo) are supposed to be compulsory, yet thanks to injuries and fatigue, that commitment means about as much as one from John Tomic to improve his behaviour. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s the ATP’s for its largely nonsensical calendar, and it’s about time someone fixed it. That someone is Ernests Gulbis me.

However, before I start, there are a few parameters I have to work with – namely, I can’t move the grand slams. As much as I’d like to see the Australian Open moved back to February so as to give players a longer offseason/make bank on exhibition tours, I can’t, as they’re not actually part of the ATP Tour. The only people who can make that happen are the AO themselves, and the same goes for the other three slams, as well as the Davis Cup.

The Solution

The ATP’s calendar is built on one sole principle – highlight its stars as much as possible. I don’t actually disagree with this idea (at least in theory, it’s a no-brainer), but it’s just not possible. Instead, the directive should be to get all the top players at their best, every time they compete in a showcase event. If that means scrapping a tournament and losing ticket sales, so be it, we’ll make it up later in TV money anyway.

So first thing’s first, and this might be the trickiest part of the whole calendar – the lead-up to the Australian Open. Together with its tournaments in Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland, and exhibitions in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, the AO series has always kind of been out on its own from the rest of the tour. From here on out, we’re starting things off from the first Sunday in January from Miami, with the Masters 1000 tournament there – it’s not close to Australia, but in its current slot in March, we tend to lose several top-players to fatigue from (the much bigger) Indian Wells the week prior, and as a popular offseason training base, it’s actually kind of a perfect place to start the season. Follow that up with Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland the following week, and you’ve got a solid lead-in to the Open itself.

Post-AO should be the first of two prolonged break periods, should the top guys decide to use it. The AO ends January 31st this year, while Indian Wells (the best-attended of the Masters events) starts March 7. Move IW back two weeks to Miami’s former slot, put the ultra-lucrative Dubai 500-level event on the 7th, and you’ve got at least a month to rest up (give-or-take a weekend for Davis Cup commitments).

The next big change comes at the start of the clay season, with the 1000 in Monte Carlo going the way of its inhabitants’ tax obligations and disappearing into thin air.  Starting in 2016 on April 11th, it’s not compulsory anyway, and the date would be better served to space out the currently back-to-back Madrid and Rome events. Two masters is plenty for an already busy clay-court swing, and would allow for some of the post-Wimbledon events on dirt (Gstaad, Umag, etc) to move into a slot that is actually relevant to the rest of the tour.

After RG comes the rapid turnaround to grass and Wimbledon, but thankfully there’s no need for adjustments here, as the Championships took it on themselves to do something about the schedule, moving themselves back a week this year. Hopefully this is a sign to all the other majors that traditional dates don’t have to stay that way, but I doubt they’ll take the hint.

Post-Wimbledon is the second month-long break, should the players choose to use it. The US Open series is just as cluttered as its Australian counterpart, but the simplest solution is to just make the Canadian Masters what Monte Carlo is now – non-compulsory. With Cincinnati a week later, players are often walking a tightrope between finding form and managing fatigue at this point in the season – case-in-point was the laughable 2015 edition in Montreal, with nine of the 16 seeds failing to make it out of their opening matches (compared to just five a week later in Cincinnati), while Roger Federer didn’t even show up.

Finally, we come to the post-US Open swing. For the casual tennis fan, you’d be forgiven for not even knowing this existed, but as things stands, there’s a further two months of mostly-irrelevant tennis left to play. So what’s the deal here? Well, the ATP uses this period to build up hype for the World Tour Finals, but the problem is, by the time we get there, there’s always a few dudes who are either too buggered or too focused on Davis Cup to actually give a damn. However, changing it is simple. First, the Paris Masters is dead. Long live the Paris Masters, I’m sure we’ll all miss the only masters tournament David Ferrer actually had a chance of winning (and really, that should tell you everything you need to know about how unremarkable that tournament is). Second, the two weeks immediately after the USO are combined, with Metz moving back to the clay-court season, and Malaysia, Shenzhen and St. Petersburg in the same week. Doing that means we can move all the following tourneys up a week, and we can have the WTF – and therefore the whole season – done and dusted by the end of October.

So without further ado (and there’s been about a 1000 words of ado so far), here’s my modified schedule. Note: to make this applicable for any given year, I’ve taken out the Rio Olympics, which are Aug 8. Adding them would just move Toronto back to the end of July.

Date Tournament
Jan 4 Miami 1000
Jan 11 Chennai, Brisbane, Auckland, Sydney
Jan 18 Australian Open
Feb 1 Quito, Montpellier, Sofia
Feb 8 Buenos Aires, Rotterdam
Feb 15 Rio de Janeiro, Marseille
Feb 22 Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Doha
Feb 29 Davis Cup First Round
Mar 7 Memphis, Delray Beach
Mar 14 Dubai
Mar 21 Indian Wells 1000
Apr 4 Marrakech, Houston
Apr 11 Madrid 1000
Apr 18 Barcelona, Bucharest, Gstaad
Apr 25 Estoril, Istabul, Munich
May 2 Metz, Hamburg, Umag
May 9 Rome 1000
May 16 Geneva, Nice
May 23 Roland Garros
Jun 6 ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Stuttgart
Jun 13 Halle, London
Jun 20 Nottingham
Jun 27 Wimbledon
Jul 11 Davis Cup QFs
Jul 18 Kitzbuhel, Bastad
Jul 25 Washington D.C.,
Aug 1 Atlanta
Aug 8 Toronto 1000 (non-compulsory)
Aug 15 Cincinnati 1000
Aug 22 Winston-Salem
Aug 29 US Open
Sep 12 Davis Cup SFs
Sep 19 Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur, St. Petersburg
Sep 26 Beijing, Tokyo
Oct 3 Shanghai 1000
Oct 10 Moscow, Stockholm, Valencia
Oct 17 Basel, Vienna
Oct 24 ATP World Tour Finals
Nov 21 Davis Cup Final

And there you have it. Just by scrapping two already unloved masters events, we’ve got a schedule that does everything possible to get its stars to the finish line, and yet promises regular doses of high-quality tennis along the way. You’re welcome ATP, I’ll be expecting my cheque in the mail any day now.

ATP World Tour Finals Preview: Is Nole gonna have to choke a bitch?

Yep, it’s that time of year again – the world’s eight best male tennis players are set to gather in London to compete for the vaunted title of “who looks most awkward in a suit?” (Spoiler alert: it’s David Ferrer), but after that’s been decided, we move onto the ATP Tour’s centrepiece event – the World Tour Finals.

As much as the ATP Tour would like to believe otherwise, the WTF has often struggled to develop any sort of real importance in the context of the tour itself. Situated at the end of arguably the most gruelling season in any major professional sport, players often turn up suffering from varying levels of fatigue – an issue compounded by the ITF scheduling the Davis Cup finals (a much rarer opportunity for most) the week after, each year forcing at least one top player to take it easy in London.

Unfortunately, 2015’s edition seems unlikely to break that trend. This year it’s Andy Murray’s turn to take it easy, before he faces Belgium on Clay next week. It’s a particular shame given he carried some nice form into the week, reaching the Paris final where he lost to Novak Djokovic. Speaking of which, the other intrigue-sapping factor is that Djokovic has already wrapped-up the year-end no. 1, having well-and-truly dominated this season from start to finish, with the only reprieve being his shortfall against Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final. What’s more, is that despite reaching all four slam finals, and a further eight of the nine masters finales he looks as fresh as ever, meaning as the lights come on at the 02, it seems everyone else is playing for second.

Perhaps the highest compliment can be paid to Djokovic’s 2015 season is that it’s almost a carbon-copy of peak-Roger Federer. His tennis in the last week of October at the Paris Masters was just as superb as it was in Melbourne back in January, with a resurgent Andy Murray looking more helpless than Pat Rafter trying to reel in Nick Kyrgios. What particularly stood out about that victory was just how supreme his return-of-serve was – with Murray having an average serving day, easy points were hard to come by, as Djokovic was on top of everything, even on ultra-fast indoor. As such, given that the WTF is played on the exact same surface, figuring out if anyone can actually dethrone Djokovic is a question of who can back-up some serious firepower with an exceptional serving day. Unsurprisingly, it’s a short list.

Stan Wawinka and Roger Federer. That’s it. The two Swiss are Djokovic’s biggest rivals on tour at the moment, and have proven in the past to have the shotmaking to take it to the Serb on any surface. Both come in with a modicum of form – Federer more so with his recent title in Basel – and they’ll need to be playing at their absolute best to have a chance. Merely “good” won’t be enough given the level Djokovic is currently playing at.

So what separates them from the rest? It’s either one of two things: 1. Murray (who would be on the above list otherwise) has the aforementioned Davis Cup final, and isn’t even practicing on the right surface, and 2. The rest don’t have the all-round firepower to do any more than take a set from the Serb. You might think someone like Nishikori or Berdych could pull the upset, but the surface is too fast for the former to out-grind him, and the latter doesn’t have enough consistency from point-to-point. Ferrer and – as sad as it is to say – Nadal, simply can’t ramp up the aggression to best Djokovic, who at this point, is a better grinder than either anyway.

Not exactly the prettiest picture is it? In fact right about now you’re probably saying: “well if Djokovic is gonna win, is it even worth watching?” My response is firstly, stop talking to your screen, you’re creeping people out, and secondly, of course! These are the eight best players in the world we’re talking about! There’s an old adage in boxing that ‘styles make fights’, and that can be true for tennis as well – watching Nishikori grind it out with Djokovic is sure to be a lot of fun, or Wawrinka play ‘paint the lines’ against Nadal. If for no other reason, it’s worth watching to see what made these guys special-enough to get there in the first place.

With a near-7000 point lead in the ATP rankings, men’s tennis is very much Novak Djokovic’s world right now. It would be silly to expect that to change in the next seven days. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. After all, we did see John McEnroe, Tim Henman and Pat Cash reach the 2014 final.