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.

 

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