Rafael Nadal - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Nadal vs. Tsonga:  Besieged by nagging ailments, the world #2 looked a step sluggish in his movement and not always crisp in his footwork during a terse loss to his archrival on Tuesday.  That match continued a concerning trend in which Nadal has lost his last three matches against top-five opponents in emphatic fashion, from a fourth-set breadstick against Djokovic in New York to a final-set bagel against Murray in Tokyo and now a second-set bagel against Federer here.  Of greater significance for this tournament, though, is the pressure to which Fish and Federer subjected the Spaniard on his serve.  Although he escaped many tightly contested games, the energy expended in holding serve can drain even a competitor like Nadal who does not rely heavily upon that shot.  On a brighter note, he managed to blunt Fish’s serve efficiently throughout his opening victory despite a surface friendlier to the American’s style than to his own.  A similar challenge will loom when Rafa faces a Frenchman who has scored some of his greatest triumphs during the fall season.

Twice a champion since the US Open, Tsonga exploited an accommodating draw to reach his second final at the Paris Indoors.  Carrying that momentum into this week, he regrouped from yet another slow start against Federer to threaten the clear favorite for the title and then dispatch Fish more comfortably than in their US Open meeting.  As he seeks his first career semifinal at the year-end championships, Tsonga might learn from the example of Federer and one of the keys to his stunningly emphatic victory.  Stretching Nadal to his backhand with wide serves into the deuce court, the Swiss master almost invariably opened the court for a penetrating first groundstroke that in turn allowed him to finish the point in the forecourt (if it hadn’t ended before then).  Considering the Spaniard’s slightly diminished movement, Tsonga might consider a similar tactic despite his general preference for serving down the center on important points.  Any way to shorten points and take time away from a depleted Nadal would enhance his opponent’s chances of repeating his monumental upset at the 2008 Australian Open.  For his part, Rafa will sharpen his returns and passing shots in order to deter his opponent from venturing towards the net.  Against Fish, those shots dipped low over the net and veered towards the sideline at improbable angles, forcing the net-rusher into awkward positions.

Largely unfamiliar to most spectators, Tsonga ambushed the heavily favored Nadal in straight sets on that Melbourne evening with a ferocious barrage of serve-forehand combinations mingled with uncannily delicate volleys.  That breakthrough still ranks among the most impressive performances of his career, followed closely by his comeback over Federer at Wimbledon this summer.  Since that nearly flawless display, however, the world #6 has fallen short in all four of his hard-court collisions with the world #2, including two on the indoor courts that would seem to showcase his style.  Even when Nadal struggled with physical and personal turmoil in 2009, he still registered a generally convincing victory over the Frenchman at the Paris Indoors.  For us, the most emblematic match of their rivalry remains a 2008 meeting at Indian Wells, which Tsonga controlled for most of the first two and a half sets.  Offered a chance to deliver the coup de grace in the second-set tiebreak and when he served for the match in the third set, his focus deserted him as Nadal’s determination reached its summit.  Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Tsonga showed both why he could challenge the most accomplished players in the ATP and why he probably would not rival their brilliance.

Still oscillating in fascinating fashion between the magnificent and the maddening, the Frenchman has established himself as one of the most entertaining players of his generation.  “Entertaining” probably does not describe Nadal’s rigorous, almost obsessive pursuit not of greatness (like Federer) but of surviving to fight another day.  If Tsonga bombards him with staccato bursts of serves and forehands, the Spaniard will have a full week to prepare for the Davis Cup final.  If Nadal can stay within range and retain his optimism, he can dig into trenches where the Frenchman might not follow him.

Federer vs. Fish:  Already having clinched victory in Group B, Federer can look forward to a Saturday semifinal against the Group A runner-up no matter what happens in his final round-robin match.  Therefore, the five-time champion of this event should approach this event with an attitude approximating an exhibition or a Davis Cup dead rubber.  Struggling with injuries over the last few months, Fish has acquitted himself creditably in two losses but has nothing meaningful to gain either with a victory.  Expect short points and frequent forays to the net from both players as they try to complete this match without undue exertion.  Unlikely to race across the baseline tracking down each other’s groundstrokes, they should produce a match high in winners and low in defense.  Previous such encounters at previous editions of the year-end championships have resulted in interminable three-setters between two players, neither of whom especially wants to win.  On this occasion, however, Federer should maintain his unblemished record after a pair of routine sets.  Creating the only suspense is the question of whether Federer will demonstrate his legendary between-the-legs stab again.  Or will Thursday witness the debut of something equally spectacular and unexpected?