Roger Federer - Federer Wins BNP Parabis Masters

Long after the year’s final major, 2011 concludes with the second premier tournament hosted by London.  As the city on the Thames sinks into winter, which of the year’s eight leading stars will rise to the occasion?

Group A:

Djokovic:  Tied closely to the world #1’s last three tournament exits were the injuries that have emerged to sting him in the second half.  While he retired against Del Potro and issued a walkover to Tsonga, Djokovic surely would not have suffered a third-set bagel by Nishikori if he had contested their Basel semifinal at full strength.  But he has limped into London rather than choosing discretion over valor and extending his offseason.  Like Sharapova in Istanbul, Djokovic might suffer an uncharacteristic defeat or two unless his battered back and shoulder somehow have recovered since Paris.  When he last began the year with a flourish by winning the Australian Open, though, the Serb secured the season-ending event as well.  More importantly, he possesses a 12-1 record on hard courts against Berdych and Ferrer, although his only loss came to the Spaniard at the 2007 edition of this tournament.  If he can extend that impressive statistic, Djokovic would accumulate the two wins likely sufficient to earn a semifinal berth.  Still, he enters this tournament with a fall campaign less accomplished than any of his three rivals.  Clearly the player of 2011 no matter who wins London, the year-end #1 probably will lack the willpower that he displayed when overcoming an injury at the US Open.  A title here would offer him nothing that he doesn’t have already.

Murray:  Sweeping through three Asian tournaments without a loss, the Scot fulfilled his goal of surpassing Federer for the #3 ranking.  When he reached Paris, Murray looked weary after a peripatetic autumn as his sporadic struggles against Berdych continued.  After a dreary debut at the O2 Arena in 2009, he battled to the brink of the 2010 final in a duel with Nadal that remained one of the season’s most memorable matches.  Frustrated by the Spaniard at major after major this year, Murray would not meet him until the weekend here.  The new #3 has stifled Ferrer away from the clay, including a pair of straight-sets victories following the US Open, and he likely seethes to avenge his recent loss to Berdych.  One even would fancy his chances against a depleted Djokovic, against whom Murray could patiently chip away as he did in the Cincinnati final.  Fortunately and unfortunately for him, the London crowd will raise the stakes of each match that he plays.  At Wimbledon, their intensity has inspired especially fierce performances from Murray but also has appeared to weigh upon him in marquee matches.  As he attempts to end the season on an auspicious note for 2012, he must beware of expending too much emotional energy in each match.

Berdych:  In his debut at the World Tour Finals last year, the then-Wimbledon finalist admitted to nerves that hampered his performance, despite generally competitive efforts against Nadal and Djokovic.  That debut dizziness behind him, he should approach this second appearance with a stronger mind, typically not one of his salient traits.  Having played Ferrer only once in the last four years, Berdych enters that contest with a poor record against the Spaniard but a game far superior on this surface.  The Czech has defeated Murray on three different surfaces, including at the 2010 French Open and Paris barely a week ago, where his bold commitment to finishing points in the forecourt reaped dividends.  On the other hand, the court’s low bounce may trouble the sometimes wooden Berdych, who prefers a relatively high contact point.  A similarly low bounce at Wimbledon did not prevent him from notching his only career win over Djokovic, however, while his post-US Open campaign represented his best tennis of 2011.  Relishing the indoor conditions, Berdych won the most important title of his career under a roof six years ago in Paris.  He probably acquired momentum from snapping a 28-month title drought in Beijing, and his indifferent season ironically may have left him fresher for London than most contenders.

Ferrer:  Regardless of his result this year, the world #5 could not fare worse than in his 0-3 London week last year, during which he failed to win a single set.  Ferrer’s third appearance here testifies to his prowess on slower surfaces and indirectly to the gradual reduction in speed of most tournament courts.  On the fast, skidding surface of the O2 Arena, his lack of offensive power and especially a commanding serve should lie bare once more.  In Tokyo and Shanghai, even the famously counterpunching Murray looked startlingly aggressive by contrast with the Spaniard’s understated blend of fitness and sturdy technique.  One could imagine Ferrer toppling a weary Djokovic after one grinding rally at a time, but an upset over the Scot seems remote considering his inability to either outhit or outlast that opponent.  The Spanish veteran twice has felled Berdych on hard courts, surely trusting in his superior versatility and focus.  Unless he strikes a serving streak like his run in Shanghai (eight straight sets without a break), though, Ferrer faces a daunting challenge.

Semifinalists:  Murray, Berdych

Group B:

Nadal:  Rarely resembling his intimidating best after the US Open, the world #2 came within a set of his first title at the most important tournament still absent from his sparkling resume.  Since his sixth straight loss to Djokovic, Nadal has played only one ATP tournament and lost uneventfully there to Florian Mayer.  As the Davis Cup final looms on the horizon, the flagship of the Spanish Armada may aim to conserve his energy as Djokovic did last year before his memorable weekend in Belgrade.  By withdrawing from Paris, a useful preparatory event, Nadal may have signaled his priorities for the end of a bittersweet season fulfilling and frustrating at once.  Outside his encounters with the man who has deposed him, however, Rafa’s competitive instincts have risen to the occasion whenever he faces his principal rivals.  No player has suffered from that trait more than Federer, who once again will face the challenge of overcoming his historic nemesis.  Likely to feast on the ailing Fish, Nadal also has won both of his indoor meetings with Tsonga, so none of his round-robin matches seems beyond his grasp.

Federer:  As the quest for a record sixth title at the year-end championships begins, Federer finds himself in his most scintillating form sine he captured last year’s title.  During a ten-match winning streak, he coupled an emotional victory at his home tournament in Basel with his first career title at the Paris Indoors.  In his last two matches under the Bercy roof, Federer demonstrated that he still can withstand the more muscular force projected by the thunderbolt-hurling Berdych and Tsonga.  When he meets the Frenchman again, the memory of that triumph surely will simmer in both of their minds, providing the Swiss star with a vital mental edge.  Less likely to provide such an advantage is his victory over Nadal in last year’s final, in part the product of the Spaniard’s fatigue following the Murray melodrama.  But Federer should collect a second round-robin win from Fish, so this episode in his rivalry with Rafa likely will prove immaterial.  Dwarfed by the top two this year, he can gain more from this tournament than perhaps anyone else.

Tsonga:  Always eager to enliven proceedings, the Paris runner-up should enjoy the billowing smoke, swirling lights, and other diversions that this tournament offers.  Appearing at the year-end championships for just the second time, Tsonga enjoyed perhaps the most consistent season of his career and has equaled his career-high ranking of #6.  A gulf in determination if not in talent still seems to separate him from the top four on most occasions, and he probably must solve two of them to reach the semifinals.  While he has lost 12 of 17 matches to Nadal and Federer, Tsonga has toppled both of them at majors and will pose a threat at any indoor tournament with an explosive serve complemented by pinpoint volleys.  Not for nothing have five of his seven titles come at tournaments that protect their courts from the elements.  Almost as notably, five of his seven titles (a different group of five) have come during the fall season, when those ranked above him often dwindle in competitive vigor.  Like Berdych, Tsonga remains an enigma who could win or lose any of his matches.

Fish:  Injured recurrently throughout the fall, the American poses little realistic threat.  In theory, his serve and prowess in the forecourt could rush a baseliner like Nadal out of his comfort zone, and Fish in fact did when they met in Cincinnati this summer.  The only first-timer in this year’s octet, he replaces the perennial American entrant Roddick and should focus on enjoying the aura of the exalted surroundings to which his hard-earned accomplishments have raised him.

Semifinalists:  Federer, Nadal

Semifinals:  Murray d. Nadal, Federer d. Berdych

Final:  Federer d. Murray