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On the final day of the ATP season in 2009, a dramatic shift in the tour’s hierarchy seemed to loom.  Having absorbed a second straight loss to Del Potro in the round-robin stage, Federer fell to Davydenko for the first time in his career after the sort of hard-fought semifinal that he typically wins.  Meanwhile, Nadal had continued his second-half swoon with a ghastly three-loss stagger through his group that underlined and italicized the questions concerning his future.  One year later, however, the familiar two-headed monster has devoured all of the 2010 majors in addition to the season’s most prestigious title, the year-end championships.  Repelling Soderling and the other barbarians at the gates, Nadal and Federer have reaffirmed their mastery over the tournaments that matter most.  Nowhere has this trend become more apparent than in the past week, during which they advanced to the final in contrasting but characteristic manners.

Revealing just enough fallibility to inspire opponents with hope, Nadal sporadically flirted with danger during the week before channeling his fierce focus when absolutely necessary.  After a disappointing serving performance brought him to the brink of a straight-sets defeat against Roddick, the Spaniard relied upon a pair of pinpoint returns to claw through a pivotal second-set tiebreak.  Ceaselessly improvising and adapting on his least comfortable surface, Nadal encountered somewhat less resistance from a bleary-eyed Djokovic and a Berdych still searching for self-belief.  Yet his hotly contested semifinal with Murray emphasized Rafa’s vast reserves of confidence, gradually accumulated through the most successful season of his career so far.  The world #4 temporarily lifted the spirits of British fans when he saved two match points late in the third set and broke the world #1 when he served for the match.  Probably still flustered from his failure to convert those opportunities, Nadal soon found himself trailing 1-4 in the decisive tiebreak as ghosts of past losses to Murray stalked into his mind.  Confronted with two virtually must-win points on his own serve, the Spaniard delivered two intelligently placed serves that brought him back into the tiebreak with minimal tension.  Although he still trailed by a mini-break, those two points allowed Nadal to collect himself and turn the tide with one last surge.  Tellingly, the world #1 has won all four of his tiebreaks this week, demonstrating his talent for balancing aggression with patience.

Having lost both of his previous meetings with Federer at the year-end championships, Nadal will enter the final with little pressure on his shoulders.  Fatigue may undermine his efforts after that 191-minute marathon with Murray, much as it did when he played Federer in the Madrid final after a four-hour semifinal victory over Djokovic.  On the other hand, an emotionally draining five-hour victory over Verdasco at the 2009 Australian Open failed to forestall the Spaniard from frustrating Federer’s pursuit of history two days later.  Unlike his rival, Nadal often profits from playing himself into a tournament, navigating through complicating situations and settling into a rhythm.  Since the last edition of the sport’s most famous rivalry, his serve has significantly improved; this development has eroded (although not nullified) the vital advantage in this area that Federer once held. Whether or not he wins the final, though, Nadal already has proved his ability to contend on his least favorite surface.  During this week in London, he defeated four top-10 players who previously had winning or even records against him on hard courts.  Moreover, nothing that can happen in one match will override his triple-Slam conquest this season or his unquestioned status as #1.  The stakes on Sunday stand less high for him than they do for his rival.

Slashing past three consecutive top-5 opponents, Federer has often glowed blindingly in the cool, controlled atmosphere of the O2 Arena.  The Swiss legend immediately seized control of his semifinal against Djokovic with a dazzling sequence of groundstrokes that understandably baffled the Serb.  Having sucked the suspense out of this highly anticipated clash, Federer raced through a clinical first set filled not only with trademark serve-forehand combinations but with smartly orchestrated net approaches and backhands consistent as well as penetrating.  Early in the second set, he suffered a predictable dip in intensity as he slid into nonchalance, yet his vigor swiftly returned with consecutive love service games.  Still a little less than its best, his serve must improve against Nadal in order to provide him with the mid-court replies that he needs in order to maximize his offensive potential.  Blasting a return past Djokovic on break point at 4-4 in the second set, Federer showed a willingness to run around second-serve returns and unleash his forehand; this tactic probably would reap rewards against the Spaniard by testing his faith in that still-new serve.  The 16-time Slam champion also struggled in converting break points, twice allowing the Serb to wriggle free from triple break point in his service games.

As Nadal has patiently conquered one citadel after another, Federer has manifested a virtue central to aging champions:  stubbornness.  Although he has lost six of their last seven meetings (ironically, the only win came on clay), he defiantly maintains that he can defeat his rival.  In the long interval since their most recent Slam encounter, Federer may have quelled the doubts and fears that Nadal awakened in him at Wimbledon 2008 and that visibly disturbed him when they met six months later in Melbourne.  But he will not find a better opportunity to score that reassuring, revitalizing victory than in these circumstances, on the surface most tilted in his favor and against a Nadal as weary as the almost indefatigable Spaniard is ever reasonably likely to be.  If his rival can snatch even this crown away from him, his supremacy on all surfaces will become virtually absolute, a painful realization for Federer to ponder during a Swiss winter of discontent.  The pressure thus rests squarely on his shoulders to defy the march of time and Nadal.  But Federer is playing his best tennis of the season and will have gained confidence from a series of resounding straight-sets wins in which he distinctly outclassed three players who had defeated him on prominent stages during 2010.  Remarkably, he can accomplish something that he never has accomplished before:  consecutive victories over every other member of the top five.

***

Having begun at Indian Wells, the path of our match previews has traversed three continents while journeying through Miami, Monte Carlo, Charleston, Stuttgart, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, Cincinnati, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, and now London.  This article represents the final match preview of 2010, and we hope that you have enjoyed the journey with us.  Plenty of other action lies ahead before the New Year, however, including the previously promised article on Simon, Davis Cup coverage, and a series of articles that look back across the breakthroughs (and breakdowns) of the season.  If you think that the players have a short off-season, ours is virtually non-existent.  See you soon.

 

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Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain congratulates Andy Murray of Great Britain after their match during the semifinals of the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre on August 14, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.

Hunting the most prestigious title of his career so far, Murray confronts an opponent against whom he has unleashed some of his most sparkling tennis.  The Scot has won four of his last five hard-court meetings with the Spaniard, dropping only a wind-addled encounter at Indian Wells last year.  Critically, Murray proved his ability to conquer Nadal on momentous stages with consecutive Slam victories over him at the 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian Open.  In the latter duel, he drained most of the drama from a marquee quarterfinal by serving brilliantly, pounding his cross-court backhand into the Spaniard’s vulnerable forehand corner, and relentlessly exploiting opportunities to move into the forecourt.  Just as impressive was the courage that he displayed in rallying from early deficits in each of the first two sets.  Forcing himself to leave his counterpunching comfort zone, Murray transformed himself into a fearless attacker.  Seen too rarely against other foes, that dimension of his game resurfaced in his comfortable semifinal victory over Nadal at the Rogers Cup this summer, which he controlled almost from the first ball to the last.  Once again, his ability to deliver first serves on crucial points played a pivotal role in snuffing out the Spaniard’s hopes.  After the match, his conquered adversary sounded justifiably frustrated in his apparent inability to crack the Murray code on hard courts.

In the Wimbledon semifinal this summer, however, Nadal avenged his Melbourne defeat with an equally commanding straight-sets victory over the home favorite.  Distant from the expectant eyes of his compatriots in Melbourne and Toronto, Murray faces their renewed scrutiny at a tournament that means more to him than to Nadal at this stage in his career, and where he thus will feel greater pressure.  Conceding just ten total games to Ferrer and Soderling, the Scot looked barely recognizable in a sullen, spiritless defeat to Federer; this lack of conviction portends ominously for his self-belief against another fabled foe in Nadal.  By contrast, the Spaniard has grown progressively more comfortable under the aquatic blue lights of the O2 Arena, although tremors of irritability have betrayed some lingering unease.  After narrowly escaping an opening loss to Roddick, Nadal accumulated momentum with triumphs over Djokovic and the pleasantly surprising Berdych.  During an epic first set, the Czech forced the world #1 to elevate his performance but never seriously threatened him, thus providing ideal preparation for the consecutive top-5 wins that he requires in order to capture a debut title here.  Perhaps boosted by his hard-court breakthrough at the US Open, Nadal sounded much more optimistic about his Saturday fate than he did after his Saturday setback at the Rogers Cup.  The Spaniard always becomes most dangerous when most confident, so he arrives in the semifinal as a slight favorite.  Despite the competitive willpower on both sides of the net, their last four matches all have ended in straight sets.  Therefore, this semifinal’s early stages could prove decisive in determining the balance of power between such evenly matched contenders.  The winner will advance to his first final at the year-end championships.

Just as delicately poised is the second semifinal between two familiar adversaries with five titles at the year-end championships between them.  Unlike the Nadal-Murray rivalry, the Federer-Djokovic rivalry regularly has featured suspense and momentum shifts as four of their last five meetings have entered final sets.  By far the most memorable among them, of course, was the Serb’s stirring comeback in the US Open semifinals after saving consecutive match points with spine-tingling shotmaking.  Unnoticed by casual fans, Federer since has regained the initiative with consecutive victories at Shanghai and his home tournament in Basel, which he has relinquished to Djokovic a year earlier.  Invigorated by a post-US Open hiatus, Federer has towered above the field in London by sweeping through a group that included two top-five players without dropping a set.  The four-time champion at this event has not defeated three top-five opponents in the same tournament since the Shanghai Masters Cup in 2007, and he failed miserably when he attempted to repeat that feat in Shanghai this fall.  But the ample rest between matches should aid Federer’s recovery, both physically and mentally.  Perceptibly determined to end the season with an emphatic statement, he needs this title perhaps more than on any of the other occasions when he won it.  While 2010 belongs to Nadal regardless of what happens over the weekend, Federer hasn’t left an impression (of a positive nature) upon any key event since the Australian Open, except for the Cincinnati title that virtually walked into his arms.  Amidst his longest drought without a Slam final since winning his first major in 2003, a crown at the most significant non-major of the year would substantially rekindle his confidence prior to his Melbourne defense.

After his second-half eruption from a stagnant state, Djokovic seeks to cement that breakthrough by providing a companion for his 2008 title.  Still relatively early in his career, Djokovic may feel less urgency than Federer, and his impetus has somewhat slowed since that outstanding US Open charge.  Perhaps somewhat fortunate to face Berdych before the Czech settled into the tournament, the Serb knows that a rare opportunity to win the Davis Cup final beckons in just a week.  Nevertheless, he hasn’t allowed his anticipation to dilute his focus thus far, for he halted his recent reverses against Roddick by thumping the error-prone American in his last round-robin match.  Another sip from the chalice of revenge might await Djokovic if Federer’s serve continues to simmer at a level below its boiling best, as it has for most of the week.  Had Soderling not unwisely stabbed a backhand volley into the open court, in fact, Roger’s record might not have remained so unblemished; the Swiss star cannot rely upon similar ineptitude from the Serb.  While both players welcome the low bounce on these courts, their relatively slow speed (by indoor standards) might favor the more consistent Djokovic, who should win the majority of their extended exchanges.  Just as the Serb needed their US Open meeting more than the Swiss, however, the Swiss now needs their London meeting more than the Serb.

***

We return to discuss the last ATP match of the season.  Will the top two collide in the final of the Finals for the first time this millennium?  Or will one (or both) of their two primary challengers derail the ATP’s central rivalry once again?

Nadal-Berdych:  Just a set away from assuring a semifinal berth, Rafa has won his last 17 sets against the Czech challenger, although they played only six of those sets on hard courts.  One must rewind four years to find Berdych’s most recent triumph over the Spaniard, an ill-tempered victory on the hard indoor venue of the Madrid Masters.  Often at his best during the fall (although not this fall), the Wimbledon finalist arose from his second-half slumbers late in the first set against Roddick, avenging three previous defeats against the American in 2010.  After Berdych erased two set points, he consolidated his momentum without allowing Roddick a respite and showed glimmers of the aggressive, opportunistic shot-making that defined his midseason surge.  In the midst of that breakthrough, however, he mustered scant resistance to Nadal during a maiden Slam final at Wimbledon.   Perhaps a little intimidated by those unfamiliar circumstances, Berdych dropped his serve five times in a testament to the Spaniard’s peerless reflexes and instincts. Even before Nadal’s resurgence, the Czech also fell to him in a competitive but ultimately predictable Indian Wells quarterfinal; there, Berdych outplayed Rafa for extended periods only to donate untimely unforced errors during the second-set tiebreak.

Chronically tentative on his least favorite surface this week, Nadal might wish to unleash the bolder, flatter forehands that he displayed in New York rather than the looping forehands that will linger in his tall opponent’s high contact zone.  While his serve has not reached its US Open pinnacle, he has protected it valiantly and surrendered it only twice in his last 24 service games.  In order to reach the semifinals, Berdych must win at least a set and probably receive external assistance as well.  If Nadal relaxes his focus after winning the one set that he needs, the world #6 could slip away with the set that he needs.  Whether or not Berdych reaches the semifinals, though, he can conclude his 2010 campaign on an encouraging note by threatening the Spaniard more than he has since 2006.  He should approach Nadal with the same fearlessness that he displayed against Federer in Miami, realizing that he has nothing to lose but the match.

Djokovic-Roddick:  Accumulating a reputation for valiant defeats, Roddick collaborated with Nadal on the most compelling match during round-robin play thus far.  Few fans will support his recent conqueror more ardently than the American on Friday, for he relies upon a straight-sets win by Nadal in order to preserve his fragile semifinal hopes.  But perhaps those hopes are not so fragile, for Roddick has won his last nine sets from the world #3, including a Cincinnati quarterfinal this summer just before Djokovic’s run to the US Open final.  If he can extend that streak to eleven consecutive sets, he will reach his fourth semifinal at the year-end championships.  Crisp and efficient against Berdych, Djokovic surely would have tested Nadal more severely had not a quirk of fate intervened while the match lay delicately poised at 4-4 in the first set.  Meanwhile, Roddick declined notably from the lofty standard of his first match in a characteristically passive and eventually petulant loss to Berdych.

But the American’s serve appears to intimidate the Serb, who ruthlessly defused that shot at the 2008 US Open after gaining motivation from his opponent’s tactless witticisms about Djokovic’s physical frailties.  In ironic succession to that moment came the turning point in this odd, slightly hostile rivalry, a sun-soaked afternoon at the 2009 Australian Open where overwhelming heat forced Djokovic to withdraw from a match in which he had won the first set.  Throughout all three of their meetings since then, Novak wilted at crucial moments with senseless shot selection and untimely double faults that contrasted cruelly with the aces cascading from across the net.  Fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) to attend two of these matches, we also noticed the sagging, defeatist body language of the Serb whenever confronted with adversity against the American.  When Djokovic did secure a break or a mini-break, he almost invariably returned the advantage with an unforced error accompanied by a fatalistic shrug or grimace; to Roddick’s credit, he capitalized shrewdly upon this curious psychological dynamic.   Beyond securing a semifinal spot, therefore, the Serb could carve a tasty slice of revenge by halting his recent futility against the American on a stage where others will notice.  Ultimately, Djokovic’s hopes for future major titles hinge upon his ability to consistently overcome players like Roddick.

***

We return to preview the last semifinals of the season on Friday.

Federer-Soderling: On the eve of his leap into fame, Soderling won one solitary game from Nadal at the 2009 Masters in Rome.  As Rafaholics from Mallorca to Mindanao know all too well, a different narrative unfolded when the Swede met the Spaniard a few weeks later at Roland Garros.  Having collected just two games from Federer in a hideous Shanghai quarterfinal, Soderling faces a parallel situation to the task that confronted him during last year’s clay season.   Before the Shanghai disaster, the world #4 fell to Federer in three largely routine sets at the US Open.  Still an enigmatic competitor, Soderling allowed squandered early opportunities and adverse weather conditions to poison his mood on that occasion.  Here, his serve rebounded ominously against Ferrer following a limp, two-ace loss to Murray, and the lanky Swede has adjusted to the low bounce better than one might have expected.  Ever a formidable foe indoors, he overcame Djokovic, Nadal, and nearly Del Potro in his World Tour Finals debut last year.

Yet he must significantly elevate his level in order to trouble Federer, who has proven himself the most impressive player of the week so far.  Atop a crest of confidence after battering Murray into submission, the Swiss has dropped just eleven games in London and only one on his serve.  Similar brilliance characterized his weeks in Shanghai and Paris, however, until his game dipped unpredictably at those Masters events.  Could a routine triumph over a familiar nemesis lure him into complacency and fuel another unforeseen dip?  Although Soderling could advance without a victory if certain improbable circumstances fall in his favor, the Swede isn’t a man to let others decide his fate for him.  His best chance against Federer lies in snatching the racket out of Roger’s hands with aggressive second serves, opportunistic returns, and redirecting the ball whenever possible.  If he does hammer his way into a lead, he must guard it more scrupulously than he did against Ferrer, who nearly scampered away with the second set after trailing 2-5. In that regard, Soderling could learn from Federer and the ease with which he extinguished Murray’s lone spark late in the first set of their encounter.  The education of Robin continues on Friday.

Murray-Ferrer:  Reeling from an embarrassing loss to Federer in his home nation, Murray must collect himself a bit faster than he did after his previous stumble against the Swiss.  Even if Soderling fails to score the upset, the Scot could settle into the same uncomfortable position that he occupied last year, awaiting the decision of a calculator on a three-way tie for group runner-up.  Inspiring British fans with hope is Murray’s resolute performance against Soderling, which featured no fewer than ten aces and uncharacteristically bold ball-striking.  His past history against Ferrer deceives the casual viewer, for all three of his losses came on the Spaniard’s favorite surface (and Murray’s least favorite):  clay.  Although they played on hard courts four years ago, both players have evolved significantly since then, so this match resembles a first meeting.  Relying upon unimaginative baseline retrieving during his first two matches, Ferrer couldn’t muster sufficient consistency to expose a fallible Soderling.  His first serve deserted him at key moments late in both sets, and his faithful inside-out forehand sailed perversely wide on a crucial break point against Federer.  Unless Murray mopes through another bout of Federer-induced malaise, therefore, Ferrer will become the second Spaniard in two years to exit London without salvaging a set.

***

We return tomorrow for the final day of round-robin play, featuring Nadal-Berdych and Djokovic-Roddick.

Berdych-Roddick:  For the second straight year, Roddick came within a few points of decapitating half of the ATP’s reigning hydra in London.  Although his match against Nadal will fade from memory far faster than the 2009 Wimbledon final, he displayed a similarly courageous and resilient effort.  Delivering unexpectedly explosive blows at critical junctures, the American’s backhand rewarded his trust in his weakest shot.  Most pivotal to Roddick’s near-upset, of course, was a serve that whistled unopposed past Nadal eighteen times and often flustered the Spaniard despite his excellent return.  The easily flustered Berdych failed to crack this code in the Miami final that he contested with Roddick, a tale of two competitive but ultimately straightforward sets.  Prior to that afternoon, the American conquered the Czech on the indoor courts of San Jose as well as the Brisbane tournament.  In his opening clash with Djokovic, Berdych confirmed our impression of him as an impostor at this event; after he immediately signaled his uncertainty with an early double fault, he submitted a lethargic, error-strewn performance.   Six of their eight meetings have featured tiebreaks, an area in which Roddick lately has fallen far short of his usual excellence (7-13 since June).  But Berdych won’t reach a tiebreak this time unless he produces a higher first-serve percentage and a more authoritative sequence of forehands than he has showcased during the season’s second half.  As Murray knows well,  every set and game matters in this format, so Roddick should aim to dispatch the Czech as efficiently as possible.

Nadal-Djokovic:  Frequently outplayed by Roddick on Monday, Nadal nevertheless quelled his evident discomfort on the surface just soon enough to score a critical opening victory.  Reversing the American’s momentum in the second-set tiebreak, he barely brushed the sideline with a reflex backhand flick off a penetrating second serve.  An ace and a fistpump later, the Spaniard’s confidence finally settled onto firmer foundations.  In the aftermatch of his debacle at the O2 Arena last year, this triumph must boost his courage before a clash with one of his 2009 nemeses in London.  The proud owner of a 7-4 hard-court record against Rafa, Djokovic dismantled the Spaniard three times last year before gallantly succumbing in a four-set US Open final this September.  Although the Serb claims to have focused himself upon winning his nation’s maiden Davis Cup title, he delivered a poised effort against Berdych during which he never faced a break point.  In a situation that lacked drama or suspense, Djokovic sensibly refrained from injecting any drama of his own, a weakness that has cost him against the perpetually focused, businesslike Nadal.

Tested much more severely than Novak in his opener, Rafa conquered an opponent whose relentless, staccato rushes into the forecourt interrupted the Spaniard’s rhythmic flow.  Against a foe with a less overwhelming serve, the world #1 should find himself in longer baseline exchanges where his fluid style should find clearer expression.  During the course of a rivalry that already has extended across 22 meetings, the Spaniard has brought out the best in the Serb’s offense, while the Serb has brought out the best in the Spaniard’s counterpunching.  Among our favorite elements of this delicious matchup is the forehand contrast between the flat, nonchalant swipe of Djokovic’s inside-out rockets and the crafty curl of Nadal’s cross-court hooks.  The often awkwardly low bounce in the O2 Arena clashes with Rafa’s preference for high-bouncing groundstrokes, yet his ability to adapt among any adverse conditions ranks second to none in the ATP.  A win for Nadal virtually would secure a semifinal berth as the winner of Group A and quite possibly a weekend reunion with Roger.  Meanwhile, a win for the event’s 2008 champion probably (although not definitely) would lead him to the semifinals and an opportunity to cement his second-half resurgence.  While Djokovic might prefer a Davis Cup title to a World Tour Finals crown this year, he typically forgets such prearranged priorities in the heat of battle, much to the delight of everyone except his opponents.

***

We return tomorrow to preview Federer-Soderling and Murray-Ferrer as Group B draws to a conclusion.

 

Federer-Murray:  Inhabiting a netherworld between majors and Masters events, which type of tournament does the year-end championships resemble?  Unable to win a set from Federer in their two Slam finals, Murray has accumulated a 5-1 record against the Swiss superstar at Masters tournaments.  Fittingly, they have split their two prior meetings at this event, neither of which showcased especially scintillating tennis. Last year in the O2 Arena, Great Britain’s home hope lulled Federer into tepid errors during the first set before he vanished puzzlingly in the last two sets.  This match almost certainly determines the winner and runner-up of Group B, for both players will fancy their chances against Soderling and Ferrer on Friday.  Recording similarly routine victories in their London openers, Federer and Murray benefited from the ineptitude of their opponents, but they adjusted adeptly to the surface after the far faster court in Paris.  Content to play defensively against an erratic Soderling, the Scot will need to emerge from his comfort zone more often in order to overcome an adversary whose groundstrokes looked (mostly) as crisp and stylish as his outfit.  A departure from the usual tone of this rivalry, none of their three meetings this year have proved highly competitive.  Together with Berdych, Murray remains the only player to score multiple victories over Federer this year, winning his two Masters 1000 titles at the expense of the Swiss.  Thoroughly outmaneuvered in the Shanghai final, the world #2 otherwise has enjoyed a reassuring fall campaign that should inspire him with much-needed confidence for 2011.  Having compiled a 9-3 record against top-10 players since Wimbledon, Federer would relish the opportunity to conquer the man responsible for two of those three losses.  For Murray, meanwhile, the opportunity to shine before his champion-starved compatriots beckons.  Beyond these intriguing narratives, Wednesday’s encounter might well offer a rehearsal for Sunday’s final.

Soderling-Ferrer:  Already in deep peril, the Swede and the Spaniard both face a virtual must-win situation in order to preserve their hopes into the final round-robin stage.  As in the afternoon encounter, one can glean ample evidence from their previous meetings, of which no fewer than five occurred this year.  Contrary to expectations, Ferrer won two of their three hard-court meetings during the second half, although one of those occurred on the ultra-slow hard courts of his home tournament in Valencia.  Even on the lawns of Wimbledon, however, the Spaniard sorely tested Soderling’s patience throughout five contentious sets. Neither player has anything significant to prove this week and must realize their extremely slim chances of advancing to the semifinals, which almost certainly would require a Soderling win over Federer or a Ferrer win over Murray.  In fact, they are effectively playing for prize money and points, a situation that rarely produce the most sparkling tennis.  Basking in the glow of his first Masters 1000 title like an alligator in a bayou, the new (and probably soon former) world #4 surfaced from his complacency only sporadically against Murray.  Comprehensively outgunned by Federer, Ferrer failed to punish the Swiss legend for a pedestrian first-serve percentage and displayed body language more muted than his customary grunting, fist-pumping vigor.  While the Spaniard has enjoyed a characteristically sturdy fall, he didn’t dazzle at either of the key events in Shanghai and Paris.  On the other hand, Soderling did.

***

We return tomorrow to discuss Berdych-Roddick and Nadal-Djokovic.  The drama may have declined in Group B, but Group A looks likely to remain tightly contested until the last ball struck on Friday.

Djokovic-Berdych:  If Soderling entered London with the greatest momentum, Berdych reached the year-end championships with the least impetus of the elite eight.  Since the Wimbledon final, Berdych has fallen before the semifinals in every tournament, whereas Djokovic has soared to three finals (and one title) since August.  Moreover, the Serb should prosper on a medium-speed, low-bouncing hard court that may frustrate the stiff, lanky Czech.  The only first-time singles entrant this year, Tomas nevertheless should take comfort from Novak’s admission that the Davis Cup title supersedes the World Tour Finals as his dominant goal.  Confirming what had been painfully obvious, though, Berdych released his own admission that the pressure of his elevated status had undermined his recent performances.  With both players seemingly ebbing in motivation, their encounter might hinge upon the loser’s frailties rather than the winner’s excellence.  Their two previous meetings in 2010 unfolded in that manner; after Djokovic repeatedly unleashed untimely double faults in their Wimbledon semifinal, Berdych wasted multiple opportunities to establish a convincing advantage in a Davis Cup semifinal clash that he eventually lost.  If the Czech captures this match, the world #3 will find himself in a serious predicament, forced to defeat both Nadal and long-time nemesis Roddick in order to advance.  Unless Soderling defeats Federer, however, the Serb’s top-four ranking remains intact regardless of his fate here.  Despite his preliminary disclaimer, one suspects that his natural competitive instincts might revive when he steps onto the court at an event that he won in 2008.

Nadal-Roddick:  Just 4-7 in his career at the year-end championships, the nine-time major champion seeks to atone for an embarrassing week in London last year, during which he failed to win a set.  Focused on the first half of the season, Nadal generally arrives at this last battle depleted in energy and intensity, yet he emphatically disproved his doubters at the US Open and conceivably could do so again.  Although Roddick should relish the indoor conditions, he may find the court less swift than he would prefer; on the other hand, the world #1 already has expressed discomfort with the low-bouncing surface. In a memorable Miami semifinal this year, the American improved to 3-2 against the Spaniard on hard courts.  At the midpoint of that meeting, however, Nadal had dominated their baseline exchanges and seemed likely to cruise to an uneventful straight-sets victory.  Faltering at 3-4 in the second set, he displayed an uncharacteristic diffidence that emboldened his opponent into an equally uncharacteristic outburst of opportunistic shot-making.  Since Miami, however, Nadal has traveled in a direction starkly opposite from Roddick, who barely qualified for London.  While the Spaniard has soared to three consecutive major titles, the American has endured a summer bout of mono amidst demoralizing Slam losses to Gabashvili, Lu, and Tipsarevic.  Victory probably lies beyond his grasp this time, but a competitive battle would lift his confidence for the two highly winnable matches against Berdych and Djokovic that await.

***

We return tomorrow with previews of Federer-Murray and Soderling-Ferrer.

Soderling-Murray:  Featuring the two fall Masters 1000 champions, the day’s more intriguing encounter holds greater significance for the Swede than for the Scot.  Should Murray suffer a setback here, he will remain confident in his chances against both Federer and Ferrer.  By contrast, Soderling will enter his future clash with Federer as a distinct underdog, so he can’t afford a second loss in what effectively constitutes a double-elimination format.  In their only meeting since February 2006, the new world #4 dominated the former world #4 on the slow hard courts at Indian Wells, seemingly a surface better suited to Murray’s game.  Had Soderling not faltered late in the second set, the scoreline would have looked more emphatic; leading by a set and a break, he squandered opportunities to collect an additional break in the second set before donating a hapless sequence of errors when he served for the match.  Nevertheless, the Scot never seized the initiative from the Swede, displaying an all-too-familiar passivity that he must eschew on the indoor court in London.  Buoyed by his recent triumph across the Channel, Soderling brings greater impetus into the week…but will he rest complacently upon his Paris achievements?  His crackling offense demands not only physical but mental intensity, which might simmer a bit low at the moment.

Federer-Ferrer:  Armed with a 10-0 record against the Spaniard, the world #2 has won ten of the eleven sets that they have played on hard courts.  In the last best-of-five final at the year-end championships, Federer thrashed Ferrer so resoundingly that the advent of best-of-three finals seemed an act of mercy to the Swiss legend’s future victims.  He has descended from that ethereal peak over the past three years, however, as two more arduous victories over the Spaniard have demonstrated.  Last year in London, Davydenko snapped a double-digit losing streak against the GOAT, and Gonzalez accomplished the same feat at the event’s 2007 edition.  Yet Ferrer faces a highly imposing task, considering his opponent’s recent form.  Despite those evaporating match points against Monfils, Federer enjoyed an excellent week in Paris during which he lost serve only once in four matches; before that semifinal loss, he had won 16 of 17 matches since the US Open.  Illustrating his all-surface talents, the durable Spaniard captured the Valencia crown on the same day that the Swiss star collected another Basel title, yet the surface in the O2 Arena should play substantially faster than the Valencia surface.  Curiously, Federer has won every hard-court tournament in which he has defeated Ferrer.  Will he extend that streak here?

***

We return tomorrow for similar capsules on Djokovic-Berdych and Roddick-Nadal.

 

For the second time this season, the ATP elite converge on the British capital for one of the calendar’s most prestigious tournaments.  In stark contrast to the tranquil, well-manicured lawns at Wimbledon is the bristling silhouette of London’s O2 arena, formerly known as the Millennium Dome.  Resembling a semi-submerged porcupine, this menacing structure will host the eight elite performers of 2010, weary from their exertions but braced for one last surge.  We discuss the events that could unfold in the unimaginatively titled Groups A and B:

Group A:

Nadal:  Always most fallible in the fall, the Spaniard has not won more than two matches in any of his four previous appearances at the year-end championships, where he has lost twice to Federer in the semifinals.  Yet 2010 has become a year in which Nadal has defied conventional wisdom, winning the US Open with a vastly enhanced serve and even capturing a post-US Open title for the first time since 2005.  The world #1 looked vulnerable in losses to Garcia-Lopez and Melzer at Bangkok and Shanghai, but his indifferent performances at the summer hard-court tournaments failed to forestall his title run in New York.  Choosing to rest rather than compete at the Paris Indoors, Nadal signaled his determination to erase last year’s London disaster and conquer the most significant prize that so far has eluded him.  A far more confident player than the Rafa who lost to Roddick in Miami, he should avenge that defeat while maintaining his mastery over Berdych.

Djokovic:  Capturing the 2008 title at the year-end championships, the world #3 fell short of the semifinals at last year’s event despite dispatching Nadal and Davydenko.  (Curious fact:  Djokovic became the only player to defeat the Russian at the year-end championships in either 2008 or 2009.)  Although he fell to Rafa at the US Open, the Serb will carry a 7-4 hard-court record against the world #1 into their round-robin skirmish, which ranks high among the week’s potential drama.  Can Djokovic halt his sequence of dismal results against Roddick, who has defeated him on four consecutive occasions since their verbal fracas at the 2008 US Open?  The American has won their last eight sets, all on hard courts and all at majors or Masters events.  Fortunately for Djokovic, he settles into the tournament against the least formidable member of the group, Berdych.  Overcoming the Czech in an emotional Davis Cup clash, the Serb erased the memories of their Wimbledon semifinal that marked the apex of Berdych’s midsummer charge.  A more prudent player might conserve energy for the Davis Cup final, but Djokovic hasn’t acquired a reputation for caution.

Berdych:  After winning eleven matches at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Berdych has recorded just eight victories in twelve tournaments since early July.  In his first appearance at the year-end championships, the Wimbledon finalist must defeat two of the top three players in the world if he harbors hopes of emerging from his group.  Hapless against Nadal in recent meetings, Berdych must serve brilliantly in order to reprise his grass-court triumph over Djokovic, a much more assured competitor now than he was four months ago.  On the other hand, Tomas will feel only minimal pressure at a tournament where few observers expect him to produce an impact.  An unexpectedly sparkling result in London would consolidate Berdych’s momentum from a season that now hovers between breakthrough and anomaly.

Roddick:  The last player to qualify for the year-end championships, the Miami champion hopes to atone for a demoralizing second half blighted by illness and injury.  Recording just three victories in his last three appearances at the year-end championships, this aging American no longer wins as many routine points on serve.  Nor has he maintained the tiebreak mastery once so crucial to his success, winning only seven of nineteen since Roland Garros.  Unlike the other members of his group, however, Roddick suffered a disappointing season at the majors and may enter London especially motivated to end 2010 with an emphatic performance.  Can the American’s championship experience compensate for his relative lack of versatility?  While a victory over Nadal seems remote at best, Roddick might collect the two wins required for an unexpected semifinal appearance if he can maintain his mental advantage over Djokovic.

Group B:

Federer:  A four-time champion at the season-ending event, the world #2 struggled in his London debut last year.  Extended to three sets in every match, Federer suffered a loss to Davydenko and a near-loss to Verdasco, neither of whom had defeated him before.  Enjoying a glittering record against both Soderling and Ferrer, however, he should feel sanguine about his chances of reaching the semifinals, for which two round-robin victories generally suffice.  Despite a loss to the Swede at Roland Garros, Federer thoroughly dominated him on hard courts in the second half.  Furthermore, he crushed Ferrer in the 2007 year-end championships final and should feel threatened or rushed by no element of the Spaniard’s unimposing game.  While the Murray conundrum continues to baffle the Swiss star, he did overcome the Scot in an unsightly three-setter here a year ago.

Soderling:  Boosted by the momentum of his first Masters 1000 crown, the new #4 opens the tournament against the player whom he displaced in that position.  In his only encounter with Murray since 2006, Soderling recorded an emphatic victory at Indian Wells this year, but that result occurred during the Scot’s post-Melbourne torpor.  Facing Ferrer for the fifth time since Wimbledon, the Swede should possess the upper hand on an indoor hard court but fell to David during the latter’s title run in Valencia.  Uncharacteristically slow for an indoor event, the surface there probably played a role in that outcome; the London surface should shift the balance of power back to Soderling.  Just a tiebreak short of the final at the 2009 London event, the Swede probably must defeat both Murray and Ferrer—and defeat them efficiently—in order to reach a second straight semifinal here.

Murray:  Had Murray accumulated a slightly stronger games-won percentage last year, he would have emerged from his group rather than Federer.  Strangely, he possesses a better record against the 16-time Slam champion than against either of his less famous opponents.  Outside their two Slam finals, in fact, Murray has won eight of his eleven contests with the Swiss and inflicted a startlingly routine defeat upon him in the Shanghai final.  Moreover, he has won his only hard-court meeting with Ferrer, who has defeated him three times on clay.   Jaded and disgruntled during his Paris loss to Monfils, Murray could not extend his Shanghai surge into the European indoor season, falling to Monaco during his title defense in Valencia.  On the other hand, he confronts the pressure of his compatriots with admirable poise and scored an impressive victory over eventual finalist Del Potro at the season-ending event last year.

Ferrer:  In his only previous appearance on this lofty stage, the diminutive Spaniard swept past four top-10 players en route to the final while dropping just one set.  There, he secured just seven games in three sets against an inspired Federer, whom he has never conquered in ten attempts.  Although one suspects that Ferrer might finish the event without a win, he recorded regularly respectable and often excellent results throughout the second half, including the Valencia title, the Beijing final, two semifinals, and a second-week appearance at the US Open.  Even if he doesn’t advance to the semifinals, he might well determine who does by diminishing the sets-won and games-won percentages of his rivals.

***

This preview series continues tomorrow with brief capsules on Soderling-Murray and Federer-Ferrer, the opening salvoes of a scintillating week in London.

 

Without winning a title or even reaching a final, Ana Ivanovic can climb back into the WTA top 5 by the first week of August next year. A guest article from OnCourtAdvantage.com <http://www.OnCourtAdvantage.com> outlines a potential schedule and the results that Ana can record in order to achieve that projection.  (OCA is an organization devoted to the support and promotion of tennis, based in Hong Kong, that is run by a group of highly trained professionals with experience in the tennis industry.  Statistics have been verified by Kevin Fischer at the WTA; title and images supplied by Sharapovanovic.)

Former World No.1 Ana Ivanovic made a very strong finish to the 2010 season to move back into the Top 20.  The 2008 Roland Garros singles champion won 13 of her last 15 matches for the season, with 12 of those victories in straight sets. Following that streak the current World No.17 improved her 2010 win-loss record from 20-18 to 33-20.
 
The 2008 Australian Open runner-up won two of her last four tournaments in 2010, the Tournament of Champions in Bali and Linz in Austria.  The statuesque Serb also reached the quarterfinals of the other two tournaments, including at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing.  There, Ana battled current world No.1 Wozniacki in Beijing through two tense sets before narrowly succumbing to the Dane.  (During this stretch, Ivanovic also made the quarterfinals at the Luxembourg tournament.)

A top-five ranking on the WTA Tour usually requires a player to have a ranking points total in a range between 4700 and 5000 points.  Ivanovic currently has 2,600 WTA ranking points, and her No.17 ranking will see her receive a bye in the 1st round of some events.

Surprisingly, the stylish Serb could return to the Top 5 in the next eight months while reaching one Slam semifinal and advancing beyond the quarterfinals in no other tournament.  This pattern would allow her to predominantly defeat opponents ranked lower than her.  Currently just outside the top 16, she seems likely to enter that group early in the new season.  As a top-16 seed at majors, for example, Ana would need to defeat at most one player ranked above her in order to reach the quarterfinals.  On occasions when she gains a top-16 seed at a 64-player draw, she also would need to defeat at most one higher-ranked player to reach the quarterfinals.

Ivanovic has played in three Grand Slam singles finals and averaged two singles titles per year over the past four years. To meet the projected quarterfinals consistently in the proposed 2011 tournament schedule below, she would need to have a 38-13 win loss record from 13 tournaments. The proposed schedule provides 11 weeks of rest from tournament play and adds only one tournament compared to her tournament load during the same period in 2010.
 
Do you think that Ana can do it? We certainly do!

The following are the results that Ivanovic achieved from her 2010 tournament schedule:
 
Semifinalist – Brisbane = 130pts (32 draw);
2nd round – Australian Open = 100pts (128 draw);
2nd round (bye 1st round) – Indian Wells = 5pts (96 draw);
3rd round (bye 1st round) – Miami = 80pts (96 draw);
1st round – Stuttgart = 1pt (32 draw);
Semifinalist – Rome = 395pts (64 draw);
2nd round (bye 1st round) – Madrid = 5pts (64 draw);
2nd round – Roland Garros = 100pts (128 draw);
2nd round – s-Hertogenbosch = 30pts (32 draw);
1st round – Wimbledon = 5pts (128 draw);
2nd round – Stanford = 60pts (32 draw); and
1st round – San Diego = 1pt (32 draw).

2011 suggested schedule for Ivanovic:

1.  Sydney 30-draw QF = 120pts

2. Australian Open 128-draw QF = 500pts

2 weeks after the Australian Open without tournaments.
Play 2 consecutive weeks in the UAE and Qatar to minimize travel and better acclimatize to the local weather conditions and the court surface.

3. ADD Dubai 56-draw QF =200pts

4. ADD Doha 28-draw QF = 120pts

2 weeks after Doha without tournaments.

5. Indian Wells 96-draw QF = 250

6. Miami 96-draw QF =250

END of hard court season

1 week after Miami without tournament play.
 
START of clay court season:

7. Stuttgart 30-draw QF = 120pts

8. Rome 56-draw QF = 200pts

9. Madrid 64-draw QF = 250pts

1 week after Madrid no tournament

10. Roland Garros 128-draw SF = 900pts  

END of clay court season

1 week after Roland Garros without tournament play.

START of grass court season

Play 2 consecutive weeks in the UK to minimize travel and better acclimatize to the local weather conditions and court surface.

11. Replace s’-Hertogenbosch (Netherlands) 220K with Eastbourne (UK) 28-draw QF = 120pts 

12. Wimbledon QF = 500pts

END of grass court season  

3 weeks after Wimbledon without tournaments

START of the US hard court season

13. Stanford QF = 120pts

Remove San Diego in order to peak for the major tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati, which are held consecutively.

***

Ivanovic would gain at least 120 points from each of these 13 tournaments.  Since she has five results from August 2010 onwards that provide more than 120 points (Cincinnati, US Open, Beijing, Luxembourg, Bali), she would drop two of the 120-pointers from the first half in order to fulfill the 16-tournament requirement.  Nevertheless, she would have 4990 points by the beginning of August 2011, well within the top-5 range.  From a realistic perspective, we expect Ana to suffer a handful of pre-quarterfinal losses, but we also expect her to surpass the quarterfinals at some events.  Thus, the OCA projection provides a useful measure for the Serb’s potential progress if she extends her momentum from the second half of 2010.  In December, of course, we will review Ivanovic’s season in a special article of our own amidst a series of similar articles that review 2010 in tennis.

We return tomorrow with a preview of the World Tour finals similar to our Doha preview!