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Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Seven

Undefeated since the US Open, Federer eyes a third consecutive title and a record sixth title at the year-end championships.  For the fifth time, he has marched to the final without dropping a match, and on only one of the four previous occasions did his opponent halt him on the final day of the ATP season.  When a historic achievement has hovered within Federer’s grasp before, he generally has seized the opportunity with both hands unless his archrival interposed himself.  No sooner did Nadal falter at Roland Garros, however, than the 16-time major champion secured the major that had eluded him for so long, completing the coveted career Slam.  And no sooner had he tied Sampras’ towering record for major titles than he surpassed it at Wimbledon with one of his career’s most memorable performances.  To be sure, Lendl’s record at the year-end championships does not rise near the stratosphere of those other goals, which have been compared not without reason to the holy grails of Federer’s career.  Nevertheless, his relentless brilliance at the event reserved for the sport’s elite still would testify to his greatness on a significant albeit lesser level.

Throughout this week in London, Federer has looked almost destined to win a title for which most favored him before the tournament began.  Buffeted by the confluence of injuries (Murray), fatigue (Nadal), and complacency (Djokovic), the rest of the top four withered and feel like the decaying leaves of autumn.  In the autumn of his own career, the Swiss master profited from his greater rest to escape a perilous three-setter against Tsonga and record a vintage display of shot-making against Nadal.  That latter demolition of his nemesis surely caused his confidence to soar, propelling him through his next two matches with an immaculate record.  When his forehand has wavered this week, as it did late in the first set of his semifinal, Federer leaned upon his serve to release him from pressure not just by earning free points but by opening the court for his first groundstroke.  He has varied the placement in both service boxes ingeniously, sometimes stretching opponents with angles and sometimes forcing them backwards with body serves.  Especially effective this week is his wide serve to both sides, which often has allowed him to step inside the baseline and approach the net with minimal risk.

Almost as impressive in London, Federer’s final foe has looked progressively more convincing with each match after falling to the Swiss in three sets last Sunday.  After a fiercely contested three-setter with Nadal clinched his semifinal berth, Tsonga suffered no letdown when he faced the less renowned Berdych two days later.  Although he let one second-set lead slip away, the Frenchman did not flinch when he served for the match, as he had against Rafa.  Eyeing an opportunity unprecedented in his career at stake, he showed the composure of a veteran in snuffing out the Czech’s last stand without drama.  Like Federer, he has served intelligently throughout the tournament and exploited the superior forecourt skills that have separated him from many of his rivals, although not from the Swiss.  Each man’s strengths mirror those of his opponent, for both have built their games around serves, forehands, and crisp volleys while protecting fallible backhands and often struggling with returns.  A contrast to the laterally oriented baseline battles that have defined the ATP, their meeting should feature plenty of points in which one or often both players maneuver inside the service line.

Colliding for the eighth time this year, Federer and Tsonga have met on every surface in 2011 and at five of the calendar’s most important tournaments.  Two sets into their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Federer had won nine consecutive sets from the fiery French star.  Few anticipated the response from Tsonga, who produced one of the most startling headlines in a startling season by rallying to win that match and its Montreal sequel.  Amidst mounting murmurs of his decline, the Swiss master avenged those summer setbacks with an emphatic victory at the US Open, followed by his triumph in the Paris Indoors final two Sundays ago.  One Sunday ago, their rollercoaster meeting reflected traits familiar from watching both players.  Habitually a slow starter, Tsonga did not find his emotional intensity throughout a first set controlled by Federer.  Increasingly susceptible to mid-match lulls, Federer then faltered early in a second set dominated by Tsonga.  With both players finally fully engaged at the same time, the third set followed a pattern of service holds as neither could string together a series of penetrating returns to create pressure on the other’s serve.  Federer enjoyed the crucial advantage of serving first, though, and his assassin-like timing allowed him to strike for a match-ending break when Tsonga let his guard slip.

Among the questions for the final match of the ATP season, then, are whether the Frenchman can elevate his intensity earlier in their encounter and whether the Swiss can maintain his own intensity as the match progresses.  In a year filled with unpredictable narratives, a title for the mercurial Tsonga would seem a fitting finish.  On the other hand, a year dominated by two members of the top three would seem more complete with one notable statement from the third.

 

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Roger Federer - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Five

Federer vs. Ferrer:  The only undefeated player remaining in the tournament, its five-time champion looks poised to extend his perfect record into the final Sunday.  On hard court and clay, indoors and outdoors, Federer has throttled Ferrer in all eleven of their meetings, including an ignominious rout in the 2007 final of the year-end championships.  That match halted one of the finest weeks of the Spaniard’s career in emphatic fashion while marking the endpoint to one of the finest seasons not only the GOAT’s career but perhaps in tennis history.  During the four years that have passed since then, they have collided only three times.  Although Federer dismantled Ferrer once more in London last year, the diminutive counterpuncher extended him to a final set in their other two encounters.  As the Swiss master’s career wanes, his consistency has begun to ebb in occasional lulls that could play into his opponent’s hands.  After dominant first sets against Fish and Tsonga here, for example, Federer’s focus waned early in the second set and resulted in a victory less straightforward that it initially seemed.  But equally significant was his ability to regroup in the third set, especially on serve, and reaffirm his authority rather than letting the momentum turn against him for good.

With that ugly head-to-head record looming over his head, Ferrer shoulders the burden of proof to demonstrate that he can challenge the defending champion.  From the outset, most options lie closed to him.  Despite his improved serve, he cannot rely upon that shot to equal or surpass Federer’s deadly delivery.  Nor can he outhit the Swiss from the baseline in a battle of bruising forehands; the contest for court positioning inevitably will tilt in Federer’s direction, considering his far superior shot-making ability and heavier first strike.  If Ferrer scurries frantically behind the baseline, simply focused on retrieving everything that he can, he will allow Federer to close off angles and methodically finish off points at the net, an area in which he excels.  Instead, Ferrer must remain in the counterpunching mold (for he has little choice but to do so), but he must counterpunch intelligently with groundstrokes as deep as possible that keep his opponent moving and off balance.  For two and a half matches this week, the Spaniard executed those tactics to perfection by displaying uncanny anticipation and redirecting the ball down both sidelines with sparkling timing, albeit not pinpoint accuracy.  Meanwhile, his passing shots threaded needles that left Murray, Djokovic, and initially Berdych raising their eyebrows in grudging admiration.  His compact physique and efficient ball-striking can profit from the surface’s low bounce, a characteristic that Federer’s low contact point also exploits.

Rarely short of willpower, Ferrer proved this week that his game can succeed against elite if battered opponents on the surface least suited to it.  Few players would have rebounded from a disastrous 0-3 collapse in London, when he failed to win a single set, and marched within two service holds of a 3-0 record there a year later.  Nevertheless, he bitterly regretted letting Berdych slip away in a match when a victory would have allowed him to play Tsonga rather than his perennial nemesis.  Should he bring that fatalistic attitude to his semifinal, he will not seriously threaten Federer.  If Ferrer needs a timely injection of optimism, though, his coach could remind him of what happened to the Swiss star two years ago in a semifinal on this court.  Armed with a 12-0 record against Nikolay Davydenko, Federer stumbled to a shocking defeat that propelled his conqueror to the most significant title of his career.  Will another ambush await him against another of his long-trampled victims?

Berdych vs. Tsonga:  Down a set and twice down a break in the second set to the ATP roadrunner par excellence, Berdych certainly could have let his mind drift towards the offseason and 2012.  Then he Yet he swiftly broke back immediately after surrendering his serve both times and denied Ferrer any fresh hope in the third set.  After he had carelessly thrown away a tight second set to Nadal, Tsonga also could have wandered mentally when the tide seemed destined to flow against him decisively.  Yet he reeled off 11 of 12 points from a span that started in the second game of the third set and ultimately decided the match.  Not normally known for as much fortitude as each of their opponents, both the Czech and the French proved themselves unexpectedly durable in the efforts that earned them their first semifinal berths at this tournament.  Supplanting the ATP top two, who dominated most of the season, are two more mercurial but immensely talented figures who have approached this week with far more desire than either Nadal or Djokovic.  Their semifinal should compensate in substance for what it lacks in glamor.  Whereas a title here would add a relatively minor luster to Novak’s or Rafa’s resumes, it would represent the most significant achievement of Berdych’s or Tsonga’s career.

Only once have these sporadic ambush artists and sporadic underachievers collided on the court.  In a Beijing semifinal, they split two competitive sets before Berdych established control in the decider over Tsonga en route to his only title of the last two seasons.  Unlike the contrasting styles of Federer and Ferrer, the tactics of these two semifinalists distinctly resemble each other.  Both men will unleash explosive first serves that they complement with massive forehands.  Both men have built their accomplishments this week upon their ability to follow either a penetrating serve or forehand to the net, Tsonga more often than Berdych.  For significant stretches this week, both men have struggled with their timing on returns or their rhythm in rallies that lasted more than a few strokes, Berdych less often than Tsonga.  Neither possesses many alternatives if their serve falters or their fierce groundstrokes misfire, so each should hammer away with their trademark weapons regardless of results.

Among the factors that could separate them is the Frenchman’s vibrant imagination, which crafted exquisite drop shots that left Nadal helplessly marooned in the forecourt.  More straightforward in his approach, Berdych did display an acute sense of the court’s geometry with his volleys this week and during his semifinal run at the Paris Indoors.  Nevertheless, he lacks Tsonga’s ability to combine bone-crushing power with a feathery touch, a mixture probably absent from everyone else outside the top 5.  Berdych’s main advantage lies in his steadier focus, a factor separate from his (sometimes unsteady) nerve.  Although he can crack under pressure, the Czech generally does not let a lead escape him through the complacency that saw Tsonga donate three double faults as he served for the match against Nadal.  Deep into his third three-setter of the week, he delivered the coup de grace to a reeling Ferrer with minimal ado.  But will his accumulated fatigue haunt him as Tsonga stretches the court both laterally and vertically?  With players so evenly matched in strengths and weaknesses, the second semifinal should offer the superior suspense to justify its selection as the evening showpiece.

Novak Djokovic - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Four

Djokovic vs. Tipsarevic:  Ambling aimlessly along the baseline, the world #1 looked as though he would have preferred to have spent his evening basking in his Monte Carlo home rather than toiling through an arduous battle against David Ferrer.  After the first few games of their encounter, Djokovic exuded few sparks of energy while retreating into the self-deprecating mannerisms familiar from his struggles in 2009-10.  Having branded his hegemony upon the ATP and devoured the majority of its elite titles, Djokovic now seems somewhat satiated with success.  Under the chilly blue lights of the O2 Arena, his movement often has looked labored, his shot selection perfunctory, his technique unsteady, and his emotions somewhere between negative and nonplussed.  As his match with Berdych edged towards its climax, he released none of the full-throated roars that accompanied similar suspense in his victories earlier this year.

And yet Djokovic remains in contention for a fourth consecutive semifinal berth at the year-end championships, in part because of Murray’s withdrawal.  Fortunate to have escaped with a win against Berdych, who outplayed him for much of their encounter, he would consider himself unfortunate not to secure a vital second win against an accommodating compatriot.  Never has Tipsarevic defeated Djokovic, although never have they met as a pair of top-10 opponents.  As proud of his countryman’s rise as any other Serb, the veteran may have accumulated too much respect to thwart his chances of advancing from the group.  Unable to advance himself after his loss to Berdych, Tipsarevic may content himself with serving as the platform for his nation’s greater good.

On the other hand, history suggests that the older Serb can challenge the younger Serb despite the marked gulf in talent between them.  In all three of their meetings, Tipsarevic has won at least one set, and he traded blow for blow with Djokovic on even terms for two sets at the US Open this summer before an injury led to his retirement.  Undaunted by his exalted surroundings, the tattooed eccentric marched to a match point against Berdych on Wednesday with the bravado that has accumulated throughout his breakthrough season.  Once again, however, he fell just short of victory in a theme that has plagued him throughout his career, most notably in a five-set loss to Verdasco at this year’s Australian Open.  Down a match point to Berdych, Djokovic displayed a keener survival instinct by trimming his unforced errors and elevating his focus as he tottered on the edge of defeat.  Despite his depleted condition, the willpower of a champion briefly flickered from him.  Moribund against Ferrer as the match slid hopelessly out of his grasp, he might have mustered more competitive muscle had not the Spaniard so resolutely denied him all hope.  His loyal friend should not prove so merciless.

Even if Djokovic does dispatch his compatriot and survive until the semifinals, though, his chances of challenging Federer or Tsonga look slim indeed.   In his last round-robin match, the world #1 should capitalize upon the chance to deliver a statement more worthy of his ranking before the opposition stiffens this weekend.  And maybe release a roar or two as well.

Ferrer vs. Berdych:  Asked to predict which player would not drop a set through two matches in London, few outside Ferrer’s native province would have named the Spaniard ahead of the usual suspects.  As Murray and Djokovic have faltered, though, the world #5 has burst into the lead of Group B with his familiar fortitude.  Renowned for one of the most consistent returns in the ATP, Ferrer displayed an improved serve this fall as he once cruised through eight sets without a break.  But more remarkable is his ability to play game after game, rally after rally without committing a single unforced error from the baseline.  The Spaniard’s seemingly inexhaustible patience reaped rewards repeatedly against the injured Murray and a disinterested Djokovic, whose frustration mounted with each penetrating reply to a groundstroke that would have hurtled past many an opponent.  By playing each point with the same intensity, Ferrer won the psychological battle over both of his higher-ranked opponents well before the match ended.  Unlike Tsonga against Nadal, moreover, he did not grow careless even when his lead looked insurmountable.

Those traits should bolster Ferrer’s cause on Friday much as they have in his previous encounters with Berdych, the type of more powerful and more mentally fallible foe whom the Spaniard delights in defusing.  After consecutive epics in his first two matches, the Czech may arrive emotionally if not physically weary from the experience of losing after holding match point and winning after saving match point.  A point more against Djokovic, and Berdych would have qualified by now.  A point less against Tipsarevic, and his chances of advancing would have expired.  To be sure, his fortunes do not look especially bright against an opponent who has won their last four meetings, including two on indoor hard courts, and five of seven overall.  Despite his capacity for ball-striking ferocity, Berdych generally will find that rallies tilt against him if Ferrer survives his first strike.  As he spars with the heavy-footed Czech, the Spaniard’s superb footwork and agility should enable him to outmaneuver his opponent in most rallies that last longer than five or six shots.  For that reason, the length of their exchanges should offer a guide to the outcome.  Central to Berdych’s semifinal appearance in Paris was his willingness to attempt volleys and exploit the angles of the court.  Will Ferrer’s court coverage negate that strength?

With his semifinal berth assured, the Spaniard may lack some of his trademark intensity.  Even if he loses in straight sets, he will advance to meet Federer on Saturday.  Still, a competitor of his caliber might not know how to reduce his energy level at will, so Berdych should not expect complacency across the net.

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?

Tomas Berdych - Swiss Indoors Basel - Day Two

Tipsarevic vs. Berdych:  Twice during his tense duel with Djokovic, Berdych edged to the verge of a victory that would have positioned him auspiciously for a semifinal appearance.  With the world #1 far from his suffocating self, the Czech stood within two points of triumph at 4-5 in the third set and within one point at 5-6.  Both times, unsightly unforced errors squandered the opportunities, most notably a wayward forehand on match point that wandered outside the line had it crossed the net—which it didn’t.  A sloppy tiebreak later, Berdych finds himself without margin for error and with a familiar nemesis across the net in another Serb.  Toppling the Czech in four of their five previous meetings, Tipsarevic replaced the injured Murray, ironically an opponent whom Berdych probably would have preferred despite his higher ranking.

A tribute to sport’s mental dimension, the second-ranked Serb’s dominance over the top-ranked Czech perplexes when one considers the latter’s superior firepower on serve and groundstrokes.  Shorter and more compact, Tipsarevic covers the court more efficiently than the lanky Berdych, but movement alone does not win matches on the slick surfaces where they have clashed.  Instead, the world #9 simply has exuded more competitive desire than the world #7, diffident too often in his underachieving career.  Inspired by the feats of his compatriot, Tipsarevic in fact has overachieved considering his limited talents by reaching the top 10.  As his Slam upsets over Roddick and near-upset over Federer attest, the Serb habitually rises to the occasion when the spotlight shines most brightly.  Although he never has appeared at the World Tour Finals, his mental fiber should not buckle in his unfamiliar surroundings.  Since he missed only one round-robin match, Tipsarevic still theoretically could advance

While Berdych favors a more straightforward, programmatic approach to the game, his quirky opponent often eschews the tennis textbook for spontaneity.  Only if his streaky serve stays steady, though, can Tipsarevic compensate for the Czech’s superior weight of shot from the baseline.  Against an opponent who can scramble with abandon, Berdych will want not only to stretch the court but to follow his forehands or even some serves to the net.  That strategy aided him in securing his first career victory over Tipsarevic in Paris.  Although it earned him less success against Djokovic on Monday, the Czech should remember that not all Serbs thread their passing shots so expertly.  Across the net, Tipsarevic should aim to redirect his groundstrokes, since Berdych becomes much less dangerous when he leans in the wrong direction or fails to set his feet properly.  In a match between two baseliners with generally similar styles, execution should prove more decisive than strategy.

Djokovic vs. Ferrer:  Moping and seemingly resigned for much of his first London match, the world #1 proved how far he towers above most of his competition by defeating a top-eight opponent with (for him) a mediocre performance.  Much less explosive and much more erratic than for most of 2011, Djokovic won mostly by staying alert to prey upon his opponent’s nerves when they arose at the climactic tiebreak.  Two or three years ago, he probably would have lost this match in straight sets or when Berdych surged forward by a break in the third, but comebacks have grown routine for him in a year that has ranged from the implausible to the surreal.  With his most difficult match of the round-robin phase behind him, Djokovic likely will score the crucial second win over an obliging Tipsarevic on Friday.  Before then, though, the Serb faces the unexpected leader of a group that also once included  the recently scorching Murray.

Only once has Djokovic lost to Ferrer in six hard-court meetings, relying upon his far superior serve and somewhat superior return to seize control of points immediately.  The most tenacious workhorse in the ATP, the fifth-ranked man normally requires greater effort to win rallies after starting many of them on neutral terms.  But observers such as ourselves envisioned Ferrer’s Monday meeting with Murray in parallel terms, anticipating an uneventful passage for the local favorite.  What unfolded instead was an uneventful passage for the Spaniard, or at least as uneventful a passage as his strenuous style of endless baseline exchanges permits.  In fine fettle since the US Open, Ferrer reached two semifinals and a final during a fall season that normally doesn’t welcome most players who have forged their reputations from the red clay of spring.  An indefatigable man for all seasons, he arrived in London seemingly untroubled by either fatigue or the specter of his disaster in the O2 Arena last year.

Eager to profit from Murray’s accumulating injuries, Ferrer could repeat that ambush against a physically and mentally weary Djokovic.  Observers might recall their meeting at the year-end championships four years ago, when the Spanish retriever sank his teeth into a staggering Serb during the first appearance at this tournament by both players.  As Murray discovered in the seemingly endless sequence of rallies, Ferrer can make even a fast court feel very slow indeed through his keen anticipation and instincts.  On the other hand, Djokovic can project more firepower on both groundstrokes than can the Scot, so a technically and tactically crisp effort would smother the Spaniard.  Even when they met during the Spring of the Serb this May, though, Ferrer managed to mire the future #1 in the grinding style that he prefers.

The initial stages of the match might prove critical in setting the tone.  If the world #5 claims an early lead, as Berdych did, he won’t let it disappear without a struggle for which his opponent may not have the appetite.  But he will lack an answer if Djokovic delivers a performance worthy of his stature.  Like a blank canvas, Ferrer allows opponents to paint an image of their choosing on his matches.

Fish vs. Tsonga:  Only once have they met in their long careers, a five-setter at this year’s US Open that oscillated restlessly between them.  Through most of the first four sets, Fish matched Tsonga serve for serve and forecourt charge for forecourt charge.  But the American flinched when victory loomed, signaling his uncertainty with untimely unforced errors and setting the stage for an emphatic final set.  A similar fate befell Fish in his first round-robin match against Nadal.  Thoroughly outplayed in the first set, he nevertheless stayed alert and capitalized upon a dip in the Spaniard’s form to win the second set and establish a lead in the third.  At that stage, though, the first-time entrant in the World Tour Finals looked intimidated by the occasion as he lost his serve with poor tactics and worse execution.  Although he displayed courage in saving two match points on his serve, Fish missed all but one of his returns during the decisive tiebreak and ended in the match with a badly bungled smash.  Having played himself to the brink of an unexpected victory, he could not quell his nerves but allowed the pressure to envelop him.

Far from nervous on any occasion, Tsonga falls victim to complacency rather than from a lack of self-belief.  Whereas few fail to notice Fish’s intense desire to win, many have questioned the Frenchman’s competitive steel.  More of a showman than a strategist, he swings for lines and corners with the first forehand that he sees more often than organizing a point.  So dangerous a shot-maker is Tsonga, though, that his rudimentary shot selection skills have not hindered him against most players outside the elite.  Moving surprisingly well against Nadal, Fish will need to cover the court just as assiduously on Tuesday and will want to extend rallies whenever possible.  Gifted with an excellent two-hander himself, the eighth seed gained repeated success at the US Open when he stretched Tsonga into his backhand corner and invited him to run around that weaker shot to hit forehands.  But Fish will want to maintain better depth than he did against Nadal, whose style did not punish him for numerous medium-pace, mid-court groundstrokes.  If he feeds Tsonga a steady diet of balls like those, the Frenchman will not hesitate to pummel them and charge towards the net for an acrobatic volley.

Among the keys to this match is the first-serve percentage of both players, neither of whom aims to win a war of attrition and both of whom rely on their delivery to gain free points.  Through most of his career, Tsonga has earned renown for balancing pace and accuracy with consistency in his first serve, while Fish’s delivery has hovered in a more typical range.  Against Nadal, though, his kick serve proved especially effective in moving the Spaniard off the court from the outset.  Another key to watch lies in the court positioning of both players, who will want to cling closely to the baseline in order to exploit any opportunities to move forwards.  Inclined to passivity when not at their best, Tsonga and Fish should seek to exploit the indifferent passing shots of both opponents by forcing the issue as often and as soon as possible.

The loser of this match almost certainly faces elimination at the round-robin stage, while the winner will live to fight another day but will need to defeat either Nadal or Federer to advance.

Federer vs. Nadal:  Arriving at the same destination, the two former poles of the tennis universe took the divergent routes that have characterized their rivalry.  Littered with service winners, rapid holds, and brisk sallies into the forecourt, Federer’s three-set victory lasted just 88 minutes.  In just a few minutes short of three hours, by contrast, Nadal eked out a series of deuce games, salvaged strings of break points, and battled through rally after rally of a dozen strokes or more.  As with their previous 25 encounters, therefore, the player who imposes his tone and tempo upon the match should seize the initiative.  Winning all three of their meetings this year and nine of eleven since the start of 2008, Nadal has forced Federer into the prolonged groundstroke duels that he favors more and more over the years.  In the sets that the Swiss master has won from him recently, such as the third set of the Roland Garros final this spring, only the most ruthless aggression and pinpoint accuracy could frustrate the Spaniard.  Observers have wondered whether any player, even one of Federer’s spine-tingling genius, could maintain that level throughout an entire match.  And routs unworthy of their rivalry now can develop when the aging legend’s artillery misfires, such as in their Miami semifinal and the fourth set of their Roland Garros final.

Nevertheless, three of Federer’s eight victories over his nemesis have occurred at the calendar’s final tournament.  Although fast indoor courts have played a role, his dominance over Nadal here stems less from the surface from the season.  While Federer has flourished in the fall with 19 career post-US Open titles, Rafa has collected just three such crowns (one since 2005) as he normally limps towards the end of an exhausting season.  This year has proved no exception but rather has accentuated the trend, with the Swiss sweeping through a Basel/Paris double and the Spaniard skidding to a Florian Mayer loss in Shanghai before withdrawing from Paris.  Within the broader narrative of Nadal’s dominance in their rivalry, therefore, lies this oasis of relative safety for Federer—so far.  In last year’s final, his title defense grew perilous when Nadal extended him to a final set, but then fatigue from a protracted semifinal contributed to the emphatic restoration of the ancien regime.

Especially notable from that match, though, was the unexpected boldness of Federer’s backhand, which so often betrayed him against Rafa.  Delivering for him on key points, that elegant shot crackled with a venom that seemed to surprise the Spaniard and made the Swiss forehand even more lethal.  If he can recapture that confidence in his weaker groundstroke, Federer likely will prevail once more on a surface that blunts the notorious Nadal topspin.  Still, he lapsed into an erratic passage after opening his first round-robin match with authority, although timely serving allowed him to recover.  More likely to capitalize upon a momentum shift than Tsonga, Nadal withstood steady pressure on his serve throughout the second half of his more arduous victory.  His level of execution may have suffered from a lack of tournament preparation, but his shot selection remained keen and his backhand fiercer than for much of the second half.  Unless Federer enjoys a spectacular serving performance, not a totally implausible prospect, their 26th meeting should hinge upon which backhand buckles sooner under the pressure of the opponent’s forehand.  A key question to ask:  which player will run around their backhand to hit forehands more often, a dangerous strategy on this fast surface?  And will Nadal gain more comfort from his dominance over Federer than he loses from his lack of dominance on this type of surface at this time of year?

 

Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Murray vs. Ferrer:  Straightforward to the point of pre-ordained are the eight meetings between the Scot and the Spaniard.  While Ferrer has won all of their clashes on clay, Murray has collected all of their encounters on hard courts.  This predictable trajectory extended through a Tokyo semifinal and Beijing final, during which Ferrer’s monochromatic retrieving emboldened the world #3 to swing more freely than against opponents whose offense can damage him. Safe in the awareness that the Spaniard possesses minimal first-strike power, Murray can relax as he maneuvers smoothly through points and waits for the ideal opportunity to finish them.  Only when he grows unfocused or passive can Ferrer threaten him.  More aptly, only in those situations can Ferrer enable Murray to undermine himself with purposeless unforced errors accompanied by mounting negativity.  For two sets of their Australian Open encounter, the Spaniard profited from an edgy Scot to creep within a point of a stranglehold over that semifinal.  Midway through their Shanghai final, moreover, he nearly reversed the momentum of the match simply by staying tenacious as Murray faltered.

Neither player likely would list this skidding, low-bouncing hard court among their preferred surfaces, but Murray’s much more formidable serve should profit more from it than will Ferrer’s underpowered delivery.  Like Djokovic and Berdych, this pair of competitors met in London a year ago, when the home hope routed the Spaniard for the loss of only four games.  A similar result seems plausible, unless Murray still struggles with the weariness that infected his lackluster loss to Berdych in Paris.  Winning the last tournament before Wimbledon and the last tournament before the US Open, he sometimes has peaked too soon during the preparatory phases for key events.  Feasting upon the fatigued, Ferrer rarely fails to force opponents to match his gritty effort.  Since Murray has a losing record against both Berdych and Djokovic, meanwhile, he should consider a victory virtually mandatory to advance from his round-robin group.  As long he stays mentally alert, avoids complacency, and masters his emotions, nothing should prevent him from winning this match in uneventful fashion.

Djokovic vs. Berdych:  Victorious in seven of their eight meetings, the world #1 has won 11 of the last 12 sets that he has contested against the Czech.  When they met in the O2 Arena a year ago, he eased past him without tension. Nevertheless, Berdych captured arguably their most significant meeting in a straight-sets semifinal domination at Wimbledon last year.  Marking the high tide of his career, that match preceded Djokovic’s revival in late 2010, heralded in part by a four-set comeback when the two collided in Davis Cup.  To judge from their recent form, though, Berdych should bring modest optimism into an encounter with the player of the year but certainly not the player of the fall.  Occasionally fallible in indoor tournaments, Djokovic has won his last twelve titles at outdoor venues and has not held a trophy under a roof since 2009.  Although he claims to have recovered from his injuries, he has played no matches against elite competition since the US Open.  By contrast, Berdych arrives fresh from a successful fall tour that culminated by defeating Murray in Paris.  During that extended match, the world #7 displayed a readiness to attack the net that should benefit him even more on this faster surface.  Having retired twice against Djokovic this year, Berdych has acquired a reputation of physical and mental fragility, but he stayed emotionally steady more often than not throughout the rollercoaster against Murray.

Designed to defuse the programmatic Czech’s massive first strike is his opponent’s return and explosive movement, which offer him many more options to win points.  If he can extend his heavy-footed rival laterally, Djokovic can expose Berdych’s modest court coverage and sometimes unwise shot selection.  Known for the depth of his groundstrokes, he should control the majority of the neutral rallies conducted from behind the baseline.  Outside the serve, in fact, Berdych holds an advantage over a fully fit world #1 in no department except perhaps his volleys.  His forehand can smother the Serb at times but not consistently, while his backhand does not rank in the same tier as Djokovic’s unsurpassed weapon, and his return generally lies closer to functional than fearsome.  But the top seed’s reflexes and instincts, central to his game, may hover a few notches below their best in his first match of the week and first match against a top-eight opponent since early September.

Since both players will fancy their chances against Ferrer on this court, a victory on Monday will position the winner on the brink of a semifinal berth.   By contrast, the loser most likely would need to defeat Murray in order to advance.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

Nadal vs. Fish:  At first glance, the Spaniard’s overwhelming supremacy in their head-to-head record suggests that his London campaign will open uneventfully.  Even on the fast courts of Wimbledon and the US Open, Nadal ruthlessly exploited Fish’s inconsistency from the baseline and any ebbs in his first-serve percentage.  An ambitious but erratic returner, the eighth seed has struggled to crack the second seed’s serve and never even earned a break point when they collided in Tokyo two months ago.  Confirming this impression from their head-to-head are other factors, such as the injuries that have afflicted the American this fall and his inexperience at the year-end championships.  (On the other hand, Del Potro reached the final in his debut there two years ago.)  Before the question turns from whether Fish can win to whether he can stay competitive, though, one should note that Nadal nearly lost to a similar opponent in the round-robin stage last year.  Against the mighty serve of Roddick, he trailed by a set and a break before escaping a second-set tiebreak with a pair of opportunistic second-serve returns.  Much more skilled at the net than his compatriot, Fish should embrace the serve-volley style frequently both to minimize the impact of his lingering injuries and to take time away from Nadal.  Having played only sparsely—and largely unimpressively—since the US Open, the Spaniard often needs a round or two to settle into a tournament.  If Fish denies him the opportunity to settle, Nadal may not respond with the stabbing returns and pinpoint passing shots that have bedeviled net-rushers before.  Deployed by Dodig, the net-rushing, point-shortening style troubled Nadal in his first match after the Wimbledon final and a similarly long hiatus.  In order to entertain even a faint hope of an upset, though, Fish must strike at least two of every three first serves and vary the placement of that shot.  Even if he does, his hopes remain faint.

Federer vs. Tsonga:  Rarely do two players face each other in consecutive matches, and even more rarely do two top-10 players face each other in consecutive matches.  Yet such is the situation when the Paris Indoors champion meets the Paris Indoors runner-up in the opening encounter of the 2011 World Tour Finals.  Having lost twice to Tsonga this year, Federer may bring greater confidence into this most recent encounter than he would have without last weekend’s triumph, although he had won their next-most-recent meeting at the US Open.  Memories of the defeat might not trouble the Frenchman, however, for he appears to approach not only each match but each game and even each point with the same carefree attitude.  While that insouciance has undermined his efforts to sustain leads and seal victories, it conversely enhances his danger to an opponent who feels secure in a lead of his own.  At the Rogers Cup two years ago and at Wimbledon this year, Federer learned that lesson in ignominious fashion as he squandered a 5-1 stranglehold in a final set and a two-set lead, both for the first time in the Swiss legend’s career.  Notwithstanding his comeback potential, Tsonga should strive to avoid the lackluster start that he suffered in Paris and that has characterized five of his six meetings with Federer this year.  The lopsided first set last weekend in fact featured an early opportunity for the Frenchman to seize an advantage, but his failure to capitalize set the tone for what followed.  Spurning a chance to reverse the momentum midway through the second set as well, Tsonga must realize that he can ill afford to offer Federer second lives.

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

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.