Sunday, November 22, 2009

ATP Tour Finale: London at Last

The Barclays ATP World Tour Finals began in London today. The top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams all qualify. Everybody plays three matches in a two-group, round robin format. The top two from each group advance to the semis, winners to play in the final on Sunday.

This is one event that does right by doubles. Each session begins with a doubles under-card followed by the marquee singles match. Tennis Channel is airing all of the matches except for the singles final which will be on ESPN2.

The day session began with an upset as the eighth-seeded Polish team of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski took out the top-seeded Nestor (Canada) and Zimonjic (Serbia) in straight sets. Nestor and Zimonjic are also the defending champions so this is big. For me, the best part of doubles is the play at the net. Pessimists will say that doubles specialists are players who couldn't cut it on the singles tour. While that may be true for a lot of them, from what I see, the top doubles players are just better at certain skills than their singles counterparts. They approach the game more tactically and have a softer touch on their volleys, thus allowing better control. What's nice about this particular event is the opportunity to see the top teams playing each other. If doubles is included in the coverage of other tournaments, it's often in the early rounds with only one quality team involved. This is a lot more fun.

Andy Murray's three-set victory over Juan Martin del Potro followed. If you've read my US Open posts, you've no doubt already surmised that Murray is not exactly my favorite. He's got plenty of game, of course, but has yet to exhibit the fighting spirit he's going to need if he's ever going to pose a real threat to the Federer-Nadal axis. I also resent the fact that he seems to get a lot more attention than the already more accomplished Djokovic and del Potro.

Del Potro's game still seems unformed to me, despite his US Open triumph. On the one hand, his running, cross-court forehand is absolutely nuclear, a weapon far greater than any one shot either Murray or Djokovic has in the bag. On the other hand, I don't feel that he yet has as strong an all-around game as the other two. His shots down the line are strong but not nearly as ferocious. He attempted a few cross-court backhands of similar pace today but dumped them in the net. If the rest of his arsenal ever catches up to that one point-ending shot, he may have the top tier all to himself in a few years.

The night session's doubles match was not as dramatic, with Bhupati (India) and Knowles (Bahamas) taking out Cermak (Czech Republic) and Mertinak (Slovakia) in straight sets, much as expected. In the final match of the night, Federer beat Fernando Verdasco, yet another left-handed Spanish Adonis, in three sets. Fed looked sluggish in the first but, as usual, dug deep and delivered an authoritative 6-1 third set to leave no doubt. This, to my mind, is what del Potro needs in order to become king: tricks to fall back on when his usual overpowering stuff isn't enough.

For Murray and Djokovic, on the other hand, I think Nadal should be their model going forward. They've both got all of the shots but they lack Rafa's competitive ferocity. Needless to say, it should be an interesting week.

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