The Not-So-Year-End Men's Tournament, London
November 23, 2009 -- An ATP year-end tournament has been a staple ever since Jack Kramer became the first person to head the organization. That was 1970. But this year's Barclay's ATP World Tour Finals should probably be renamed.
You can bet there weren't some seventy tournaments on the calendar almost forty years ago. Therefore, perhaps a more descriptive title for the 2009 event would be The Barclay's ATP World Tour (Almost) Finals. That would leave room for Davis Cup, which is played the weekend of December 4.
And, it would acknowledge that players can only now take about one week to relax before they begin to train for tournaments that begin as soon as January 4 in Brisbane, Australia, followed closely by The Australian Open on January 18.
If The Barclay's ATP World Tour Finals were a year-ending tournament for the top eight players in the world, then these high performers should be rewarded at least two months of down time at the close of the week. The ATP should take a page from the WTA's notebook and shave off a month from its schedule. It's the only way the ones who end up on top can remain healthy, which should be a goal for the ATP. Instead the best end up paying for their performance.
The packed O2 arena in southeast London, though, was a sure sign that the ATP's production was a hit with fans. They were not disappointed today, either, when the two singles matches from Group B took to the court.
Up first was probably the most anticipated match of the day between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling, who had his best year in 2009. His name reverberated over international media wires for weeks and months after The French Open. Soderling had become the first man to beat an undefeated Nadal at Roland Garros, ending the Spaniard's choke hold on this major after four straight titles.
Their match this afternoon in London was the first since Roland Garros. Nadal looked anxious to get his revenge. Soderling looked certain he would hold off the #2 player in the world. There was no love lost between them.
Soderling broke Nadal the very first game of the match. The Swede's gigantic serve, huge forehand, and willingness to end points at the net after pulling Rafa wide, were his keys to success throughout the match. For every step Nadal took forward, Soderling sent him backwards twice as far. Nadal's short loopy shots set up into a perfect strike zone for Soderling's punishing flat responses.
In the fifth game of the second set, both players sucked air after excruciatingly long rallies. The game went to seven deuces and lasted a touch over 12 minutes. It was Nadal's game to win, but the Swede was greedy and adamant in his conviction to hold, which he did. Score: 3/2.
At 4-5 Nadal served to stay in the match, but couldn't muster the offense needed to hold off Soderling. He closed out the match 64 64, a disappointing start to the tournament for Nadal.
In order for Nadal to take over the number one ranking, he has to win the tournament. With a start like he had today, prospects aren't bright. Additionally, because of the round-robin format, the number of sets won becomes part of the score line. He earned zero points for the match and zero points in sets, taking away nothing positive.
On the other side of the court, Soderling improved his confidence and scored an early match win and two set wins.
The second singles match was a repeat of last year's final between defending champion Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko.
The first set was all Davydenko. He took the ball earlier, his movement was better, and his will steely. The Serb looked a step slow only because Davydenko stole so much time away from him when he kept up an onslaught of rapid-fire shots that left Novak off balance and defensive.
At 3/5 in the first, Novak served to hang in the set. But with two break points to his credit, Davydenko ran Djokovic from side to side the way Andre Agassi punished his opponents. The Russian hit a winner off a body serve that then clipped the baseline. He had earned the first set 6/3.
Djokovic showed positive signs in the second set that he wouldn't bow out from emotional indulgence. He can quickly crawl in his head and live there for too long, during critical spans of a match. His head drops. He stands along the baseline with his hands on his hips, looking off toward his box as if he had deserved to win the last point.
Djokovic had break points on Davydenko at 2-games all, but blew both on forehand returns and lost the game. However, in the next game he came out firing on all cylinders, winning it at love. His reversal of attitude was pronounced and to his credit. Earlier this year, he might not have had the ability to alter his course so quickly.
His positive mindset came in handy as he served for the second set at 5/4. Davydenko threatened to even the set when he held a break point. But Djokovic remained steady and evened the match.
Djokovic didn't necessarily ride the wave of momentum in the third as much as Davydenko's game fell off. He was off balance and a half step slower. He began to wrack up unforced errors. Djokovic's game maintained a level good enough to edge up a break. In the sixth game Davydenko squandered three opportunities to even the set in an eleven-minute game. And when Novak served for the match at 5/4, Davydenko pounded the Serb and tied up the set. But, to no avail.
Novak Djokovic won his first match 46 63 75. It now will be much easier for the defending champ to maintain his momentum in the next round.