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Reviewing the Elite Eight at the World Tour Finals in London

Nov 11th 2013

The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals offered most of the ATP top 10 a chance to deliver a last statement in 2013 or build momentum moving into the offseason.  Most of the usual suspects shone, but a surprise or two still lurked.  Read about what each of the eight men accomplished in London. 

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic:  The three-time World Tour Finals champion could not have scripted the end to his season any better.  After he slightly disappointed at majors, judging by his lofty standard, Djokovic reeled off four straight titles, 12 straight wins (eight in 11 days) against top-10 opponents, and a second straight undefeated week at this tournament.  None of those achievements mattered more to the Serb, the first man to win his first three finals at the year-end championships, than the authoritative victory over Rafael Nadal that ended his week in London.  Djokovic saved his best for last this week, as he often does, wavering in focus during stretches in his round-robin matches before blazing through the knockout rounds in straight sets.  Echoing the 2011 editions of this rivalry, he dominated Nadal from the first ball to the last in a final that never seemed in doubt.  That victory may have created a new plot twist in the ATP’s leading rivalry heading into 2014, although Djokovic still must defeat his archrival at a major to truly turn the tide.  The Davis Cup final awaits next weekend as a second capstone to his season, and Djokovic did rather well in the season after he won the Cup last time. 

Rafael Nadal:  Regardless of what happened this week, Nadal came to London already having established himself as the men’s player of the year.  That situation might have sapped the motivation of a lesser man, but the Spaniard did not emit a flicker of deflation.  He secured a goal arguably as important as winning the title when he finished a season at No. 1 for the third time (2008, 2010) by capturing two round-robin victories.  That moment marked the fitting conclusion to a comeback among the most stunning in ATP history in terms of immediate success.  Even then, though, Nadal was not content.  He showed the obsolescence of the game’s greatest rivalry by easing past Roger Federer, his first win over that opponent on an indoor court or at this event.  Brilliant returning from Djokovic kept Nadal on his heels and floundering for answers throughout the final of a tournament that he never has won.  That hole in his resume will remain for now, but few can doubt that he will place himself in position to fill it someday.  Nobody other than Djokovic—or perhaps the absent Murray—looks able to challenge him.

Roger Federer:  Having won just two matches against top-10 opponents all season, Federer doubled that total at the World Tour Finals.  The six-time champion at this event often plays his best tennis there, welcoming the controlled conditions of the indoor hard courts.  This year, the slower pace and higher bounce of the surface in the O2 Arena did not favor Federer as much as the surface in previous visits.  Undeterred by those developments, he reeled off several inspired passages of play against Juan Martin Del Potro in their winner-take-all match with a semifinal berth at stake.  Federer has regained some momentum in that rivalry between two of the key challengers to Nadal and Djokovic.  On the other hand, he has made no ground at all in challenging that pair, losing all six of his meetings with them this year.  Recovery from long, physical matches, even in the best-of-three format, has become as serious an obstacle as any for Federer in his effort to reinvent himself as a contender.

Stanislas Wawrinka

Stanislas Wawrinka:  A first career trip to the World Tour Finals ended happily for Wawrinka with a semifinal appearance, rare among men making their debuts there.  Granted, he needed some help from Nadal in the last round-robin day of Group A, for he would not have advanced if the Spaniard had not defeated Berdych.  But Wawrinka continued his own dominance over Berdych and capitalized on a fatigued David Ferrer, showing few of a first-timer’s nerves.  He also deserves credit for a gallant effort against Nadal, who has won all 24 of the sets that they have played.  The most recent two of those sets did not come easily, both extended to tiebreaks by Wawrinka after he trailed midway through both sets.  He may be winless against Djokovic and Nadal since the start of 2007, but that fact has not destroyed his belief against either of them.  Wawrinka recorded more victories over top-10 opponents this year than anyone outside the top two, and he will rise further if they remain his only recurrent nemeses.

Juan Martin Del Potro:  Victimized by a theft in a Paris train station en route to London, Del Potro could be forgiven for not focusing his faculties entirely on tennis.  He narrowly avoided an upset by Richard Gasquet in his opening match, failing to serve it out on his first attempt as he displayed scant appetite for the competition.  Once again, the former US Open champion extended Djokovic to a final set, as he had at Wimbledon and Shanghai.  Once again, he failed to win the key points when that set hung in the balance.  Del Potro may lose some sleep after allowing multiple chances to slip away against Federer, whom he led by a set and a break, and later by a break in the third set.  And yet he still nearly qualified for the semifinals, a decent result considering the quality of his rivals in Group B and the emotional adversity confronting him.  The gentle giant produced a fall campaign so strong, moreover, that a mild disappointment should not ruffle him.

Tomas Berdych:  One wonders whether he regrets a moment of hubris in Madrid seven years ago after absorbing a 16th straight loss to Nadal.  Despite that champion’s brilliance, Berdych has too much talent to lose 16 straight matches over a seven-year period to anyone.  With a semifinal berth at stake, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after outplaying the world No. 1 for long stretches.  Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory defined much of 2013 for Berdych, the only top-10 player not to win a title this year.  A similar narrative unfolded in his loss to Wawrinka.  As he did against Nadal, Berdych started slowly, appeared to turn around the match in the second set, and then lost the plot again in the third.  Six losses in seven meetings with the Swiss No. 2 is an ominous trend.  On the other hand, Berdych continued his London voodoo spell over Ferrer, who has throttled him everywhere else.

David Ferrer

David Ferrer:  Three consecutive weeks of finals appearances sent Ferrer into his fourth straight week of tennis with depleted energy.  For the second time, he failed to win a match at the World Tour Finals during its London tenure.  Two of his three losses, curiously, came against men whom he had defeated in Paris a week before:  Nadal and Berdych.  While the first of those setbacks followed the overall trend of that matchup, in which Paris was an anomaly, the second of those setbacks departed from Ferrer’s usual success against Berdych.  No conclusions need be drawn from his last match of 2013, for the aging Spaniard had been eliminated from contention before then.  In general, though, this week marked a tepid finish to an enigmatic second half that left Ferrer with something to prove in 2014.

Richard Gasquet:  The lowest-ranked man in the London field found no favors from a draw that positioned him in a group with three major champions.  Gasquet brought a 1-14 record on hard courts against those three men into the tournament, so it was hardly a surprise to see him finish winless.  To his credit, he nearly upset Del Potro in his opening match, able to blunt the Argentine’s power on the atypically slow court.  But Gasquet once again coughed up a lead against an elite opponent, failing to sustain his level throughout that three-set affair and letting Del Potro off the hook near the end.  He finished the 2013 season with just three victories over top-10 opponents, two of them over Ferrer.