Thursday, November 19, 2009

8 is Great: Barclays ATP World Tour Finals Preview

Next week at this time London's O2 Arena will be popping with the sounds of tightly strung racquets and fresh yellow tennis balls.

For the tennis obsessed, there is no sweeter music.   Beyonce Knowles (Last weeks O2 Arena headliner) may be quick, but she's got nothing on the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray.

The Basement Jaxx  (Upcoming act) may be cutting edge, but not nearly as cutting edge as a Federer slice backand or Soderling paddling a winner crosscourt.  And they don't groove as well as Nadal's inside-out forhehand, either.  Ah, that souped-up finish-at-the-ear forehand.  Picasso couldn't have painted it better than Nadal can hit it.  Is there another man in the land that violates the rights of tennis balls better than Nadal?  And if so is his name Nole?

Tennis obsessed: the stage is set. The best racqueteers in the world have come to one of the finest facilities in all of Europe to show us what they're made of.  

The Prize:  More than you can imagine, unless you can imagine $4,450,000. 

Each round-robin win is worth $120k, the semis are worth $380k additional, and the finals are worth $770k.  Visa and Mastercard accepted.  

Understatement of the week:  "Whoever you draw is going to be tough." - Andy Murray

The Rules:  Two Groups of 4 play one another for the right to make the semis.  

Group A:

Roger Federer:  Normally the master of the cupcake draw, Mr. Federer will have his hands full with Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro in group A.  If that's not enough, Fernando Verdasco will be there to give him a lefty to deal with.  

Verdasco vaulted into the top 10 on the strength of his off-season commitment, but to his credit, he remained there in all but one week (10 August) of 2009.  While he didn't break through like many who were spellbound by his run to the Semi's in Melbourne, he did manage 52 wins and nearly 1.6 Million in prize money.  

This is the 25-year-olds first ticket to the WTF.  

Murray, who has been dealing with a wrist issue since the U.S. Open, comes in on a sort of high.  His return with Valencia netted him his tour leading 6th title of the season.  Like Verdasco, only to a larger extent, many wanted more from Murray this season.  Murray Mania turned into Andymonium in July, but a determined Andy Roddick kept the Dunblane, Scotland native from the Wimbledon final by spiriting him away in the semis.  

Murray ran the table at the WTF's last year in the round-robin, then got dusted by a money-hungry Nikolay Davydenko in the semis.  But that was Shanghai.  This is London.  Murray may not be as good at playing the home crowd as Monfils, but he is no stranger to dealing with, and capitalizing on, the energy of a partisan crowd.  

Del Potro is limping in to London.  But much to group A's chagrin, Del Potro, even while limping, is a dangerous and worthy opponent. After a physically exhausting and emotionally gratifying dethroning of Roger Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open Finals, Del Potro has yet to regain the belligirence that enabled him to become the most difficult player in the world to play against for the New York fortnight.  

His summer results bring Del Potro's autumn slumber to light:  After losing in straight sets to No. 189-ranked Edouard Roger-Vasselin in Tokyo, then retiring to Jurgen Melzer in Shanghai, Del Potro again retired in Paris, after losing handily in the first set to Stepanek last week.  Still, the quarterfinal appearance was his best of the fall.

It is becoming apparent that Juan Martin may need a bit more of the local Tandil cuisine before he reaches his peak again, but I wouldn't put a miracle past the firebombing 21-year-old. Remember the conclusion to the 2nd set in the U.S. Open final?  None of us expected that either.  

Group B:  

Novak Djokovic is playing like he's found god.  Or maybe he's found love.  Whatever it is that he's found, it certainly isn't hurting his performance on the court, as he ran roughshod over the entire field last week in Paris, securing his tour-leading 76th win and his 5th ATP title of 2009.  
The Serb seems to be trusting in his nature a little more on the court, and when Djokovic is playing instinctively he can truly dominate opponents.  

He has the hottest hand coming in, and he'll certainly benefit from experience.  But last year's champion was able to escape without playing Federer or Nadal - that won't happen this year. 

Rafael Nadal, of all the qualifiers at the WTF's, may have the most to prove.  After winning his first and only hardcourt Slam in Australia he has been on an emotional roller coaster that unceremoniously started when he suffered the worst sneak attack in tennis history at Roland Garros, at the hands of suddenly invincible Robin Soderling.  

The Spaniards wild ride pushed him off the tracks when he missed Wimbledon and the chance to renew his rivalry with the newly deified Roger Federer, and when Nadal finally got on the tracks again he hit a major bump in the road by the name of Juan Martin Del Potro in New York.  

Rafa's health is better, but he has had trouble finding that 5th gear as early and as often as he did before he went down with knee tendinitis and the subsequent abdominal strain.  It is only a matter of time before he does find that crusing gear, and if it is this week, Rafa may improve upon his previous best in the WTF's, which were his semifinal losses to Federer in '06 and '07. 

Make no mistake about it, world No. 7 Nikolay Davydenko belongs in this event.  He scored wins over Tsonga, Del Potro, and Murray to gain a finals berth against Djokovic last year, and in 2005 he won all three round-robin matches before losing to Nalbandian in the semis.  Make no mistake about it, the diminutive Russian affectionately known as Kolya can play with the big boys.  Anyone who is not up for running this time of year is going to have a hard time dealing with the precision that Davydenko hits with when he is on.  He doesn't garner much attention around the star power of the rest of the top-10, but when the money is on the line, Kolya is frequently the player who you want your money on.  

Le Sod a.k.a Robin Soderling is filling the spot that an ailing (and off-season craving) Andy Roddick left vacant when he announced his withdrawal  from the WTF's due to a nagging knee injury.  

Soderling has nothing to lose and 1.6 million to potentially gain, so he may be the loosest of all the players in the bunch.  The Swede seems to be enjoying his now address in the nice neighborhood known as the ATP's top-10, and he is living proof that if you come out with attitude and strive to play with gusto, fire, and belief, you just might make the headlines.  

With a 47-19 record in '09, Soderling was also impressive in that he wasn't beaten by anyone but Federer in the final 3 slams of the year.  Don't you remember watching him implode against Baghdatis in the Australian Open (he lost in the 2nd round).  Back then we were sure that he was his own worst enemy.  

Now Soderling is his own best friend.  What a difference a friend can make.  

Here are my picks for next weeks throwdown at O2 Arena in London:  

Group A Semis:  1. Murray 2. Federer
Group B Semis:  1.  Davydenko 2.  Soderling

Semis:  Murray over Soderling, Federer over Davydenko
Finals:  Murray over Federer

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