November 21, 2010 -- So here we are again at the end of another season. We meet for the second time in London at the O2 Arena situated along the winding Thames. Players arrive by water taxi from their hotels and exit to a stage fit for smack-down wrestling, The Black Eyed Peas, or sport. In this case it's The Barclay's ATP World Tennis Finals and only the best eight men have been invited.
The end of another ATP season is really an oxymoron. These great eight don't have an offseason of any consequence, although that's about to change. For now Novak Djokovic seems more pumped about December's Davis Cup Finals, where his team will confront France, than any commitment or desire to fill the shoes of the #3 player in the world who is making his fourth successive appearance. Maybe he'll use the big blue stage for practice. Or repeat his one title that came in 2008.
Whatever the intentions are for the eight elites -- Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Andy Roddick -- center court is certainly a beauty of a spot to show off their talents.
The lighting dramatically focuses fans' attention on center stage court. The audience is blacked out, for the most part. Their only recognition comes from applause and cheers. Players can't look to their boxes unless they're seated in the first row, like Andy Murray's Mom, girlfriend, et al. Does this bothers players?
If for the entire season they've been able to catch a coach's eye and now they can't make that connection it could cause a bit of a gap in their minds. Let's hope the best of 2010 can stand alone, like for real, without having reassurance.
Rafael Nadal was fined at Wimbledon this year, during his come-from-behind five-set win over Phillipp Petzschner in the quarterfinals. Without much of an answer to Petzschner's aggression, the Spaniard took a time out in the middle of a game and was caught red-handed by the chair umpire leaning back in his chair and listening to one of his coaching team. Anyway you slice it that was coaching and illegal.
Nadal denied the allegation fiercely at his post-match press conference. However the next day he was contrite in his apologetic appeal to fans, saying if you break the rules you must pay. Quite a turn around, but the correct one.
The darkened audience could then be one reason Nadal said, "It's harder to win five matches against the top eight than seven rounds of a Grand Slam." He can't look to Coach Uncle Tony. And, Rafael is an extremely habitual guy -- does obsessive work here?
His pre-match routines and match habits border on legendary. The shower ten minutes before he enters a court, the order of the bottles under his chair, the sweat wiping between points, and the tug ... ah, yes, the tug. Nothing but the best from the world's number one.
Coming into the ATP Championships as #1 holds extra weight over this proud man's head. He performed miserably in 2009, entering London tired and injured. He didn't win one set, which is extremely uncharacteristic of El Toro, the player frequently described as the one who plays every point like it's match point.
This year is different. Nadal won three consecutive majors and stands atop the ATP Rankings by a margin of nearly 4,000 points to #2 Federer. Nadal skipped the Paris Masters 1000 to nurse a sore serving shoulder, too, so he is fresher than any other player in the draw. He won the ATP Tour's Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award for the first time, even with the coaching fine. Federer had won the award for the six previous years.
However, lacking match play could deter Nadal's success, especially when every match is akin to a quarterfinal match and your match record is the worst of all players in attendance. He won't have the luxury of a couple first rounds to play into shape, either. His first opponent is a top-eight player: Andy Roddick.
Rafael is making his sixth straight appearance at the ATP Champions. For Federer, it's his ninth straight appearance. For six-and-a-half years these two men have held the number-one ranking. Their rivalry has been expressed as the best sport has to offer. Their matches make headlines, and they galvanize fans to their respective opinionated corners.
Since the top two ranked players are relegated to separate groups -- Nadal in Group A and Federer in Group B -- the possibility of a crowd-favorite final looms. Last year's titleholder, Nikolay Davydenko, isn't on hand to defend his title. It's the first time in five years he won't play, having ended the year ranked 22.
First-time entrant Tomas Berdych has the most reasons to be nervous. Rising to heights as Wimbledon's runner-up this year, the Czech Republic man imploded from the pressure of his achievements the remainder of the season. However, this stage could be just as much of a turning point for him and a way to end the constant skepticism about his ability to consistently perform up to top-ten standards.
2010 marks the 40th anniversary of a men's year-end championship. Tokyo was the inaugural home of the 1970 Masters. After several years of re-branded championships and moves from multiple European cities to Madison Square Garden in New York City, The Tennis Masters Cup was born in 2000 as a jointly owned extravaganza by the Grand Slam Committee, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the ATP Tour.
Unlike the women's year-ending event, which spends three years in one location, the ATP Championships share four-year contracts with each of its host cities. London's spaceship shaped O2 arena remains the venue through 2012.
And as far as title leaders, the guys who have proven themselves worthy champions during a season and culminating at the finale, we have to look back to the 80s and 90s. Sharing the number one position are Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, each having hoisted the trophy five times. Ilie Nastase and Roger Federer share the number two spot, with the Swiss maestro winning in 2003-04, and 2006-07. However, Andre Agassi holds a most prestigious record having qualified 14 times between 1988 and 2003.
This year, though, the last of the first decade of the 21st Century pits eight men of superior tennis skill and fitness, something that distinguishes them from the best of the last two decades of the 20th Century.
The group breakdowns go like this: Group A -- Nadal, Djokovic, Berdych, and Roddick; and Group B -- Federer, Soderling, Murray, and Ferrer. Group B has been deemed the 'harder groups' by fans worldwide and multiple net survey results.
First out from Group B was the hometown hopeful Andy Murray and Robin Soderling, hot off his first Masters title in Paris two weeks ago. Murray, intent on separating himself from his group, defeated the Swede 62 64 and jumped around in victory, an odd reaction from the normally docile Scot. Murray also could have satisfied a minor strife as Soderling one-upped Murray in the last week's ranking. Murray is now at #5 and Soderling at #4.
Roger Federer defeated David Ferrer 64 61 in the second singles match from today. Three games extended beyond eight minutes. But, in the end, Federer proved himself and rose to 11-0 against the Spaniard.
And what about The Barclay's ATP World Tennis Finals marking the end of the men's season and signaling relaxation and rest for the players? President Adam Helfant and the ATP Board of Directors announced today that they have extended the offseason from five to seven weeks, beginning in 2012. The number of tournaments will remain the same, the AP reported.
"Our 2012 and 2013 calendars each provide for the 7-week offseason, meaning our players will have an additional two weeks to spend away from the rigors of life on tour before taking up the cause again in the following year," President Helfant said.