Ten thoughts on the ATP Tour World Finals, culminating Sunday with Roger Federer's convincing 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal ...
1. Even with a 6-1 finish, this was spectacular entertainment. It came at the wrong time of year, in an improper setting, but the scintillating first-set exchanges -- drawing gasps of admiration from ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe -- made the telecast worthwhile. Nobody snaps a cross-court backhand like Federer, and few could even dream of Nadal's ability to turn a difficult baseline short-hop into an absolute bullet forehand down the line.
2. Colleague Jon Wertheim summed it up perfectly: "Anyone questioning the health of tennis wasn't in London last week." It must have been heavenly to be there. From the standpoint of sophistication, international glamour and celebrity influence, the crowds at London's 02 Arena were penthouse quality.
The rest of the world? Bored, confused, or perhaps not even aware the event was taking place. It got terrible media coverage, as always, because the general public shuts down interest at the close of the U.S. Open -- exactly when the tennis tours should end. Insiders can marvel all they want about the game's endless appeal, but they can't see past the money, the exotic venues, the lifestyle in general. Sports fans need their sports to disappear for a while, if only to celebrate a sense of renewal when they return.
Besides, this "year-end championship" didn't decide a damn thing. There's nothing "ultimate" or reputation-changing about it. Nadal was clearly the No. 1 player in 2010. Federer will always be the one capable of playing the best all-around tennis. Andy Roddick came up short, Tomas Berdych wasn't prepared for the moment, Andy Murray mixed pure genius with inexcusable malaise ... what else did you need to know?
3. Tennis fans are used to classic outdoor settings when things really get important. The London arena came across as a weird sort of blue-on-blue affair, perhaps lifted from the Disney catalogue. It was wonderful television if you like aquariums.
4. The two all-time greats may not face each other indoors for another five years, but if they do, bet on Federer (not you, Teddy Forstmann) every time. Nadal's at his best with a bit of a breeze at hand, something he can easily overpower, while he literally immerses his body in a patch of red clay. Give Federer an indoor surface, no wind and a bit of motivation, and it's all over.
5. They must be joking with that format. As the round-robin event unfolded, wins were deceiving, losses were acceptable, and few people knew exactly where things stood. Put it this way: In an eight-man field, Roddick lost his first two matches and still had a chance to win. Preposterous.
6. All you need to know about the season running too long: For the first time all year -- perhaps his entire career -- Nadal looked flat and disheartened at the finish. He's the stampeding warrior who fights for every point, yet as Federer's climactic forehand sailed long (most of the fans seemed to feel that way), Nadal just surrendered. He's far too classy to make excuses in defeat, but tennis.com's Pete Bodo said Nadal's voice "creaked with fatigue" in the post-match interview. It was highly encouraging to see the ATP extend its off-season to seven weeks, but as Federer said, it's only "a step in the right direction." At least Novak Djokovic is on cruise control. He has all of, what, 20 minutes to get ready for the Davis Cup final?
7. As Federer's off-and-on year unfolded, a number of insiders felt he could noticeably improve by charging the net more. He clearly took that to heart under new coach Paul Annacone, who did so much good work with Pete Sampras. Federer's volleying on Sunday was simply elegant. McEnroe and broadcast partner Cliff Drysdale drew comparisons to Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe and Rod Laver.
8. How do you characterize the Federer-Nadal rivalry? Does it resemble any you've seen in the past? There's no question it's based on deep, sincere respect. Federer realizes he'll never match Nadal's brutally relentless mindset, and Nadal knows that Federer plays the most beautiful game. But the element of friendship has become startlingly pervasive.
A couple of months ago, the two men filmed a TV spot and fell into hopeless fits of laughter, a can't-miss bit of viewing (on YouTube) for any sports fan. Then there was Nadal, late Sunday, explaining that, "We have a great relationship all the time, no? The only way it can improve is being closer and closer, because we spend more time together ... so I think is not a rivalry."
9. Nadal loves to work on Federer's backhand, particularly up high. Federer had every answer this time, routinely crushing winners at crucial times. Can't wait for their next match on clay, where the high bounces so perfectly suit Nadal's strategy.
10. Nadal owns nine major titles as the tennis year ends.When the tour starts preparing for Wimbledon next summer, he'll have 11. He'll be intensely motivated to turn the Australian Open into a "Rafa Slam" -- the distinction of holding all four major titles at once -- and nobody's beating him in Paris.
As this column shuts down through the holidays, here's a farewell to a couple of very interesting people who recently retired from tennis.
It was the destiny of Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova to leave Russia, capitalize on their looks and become two of the most sought-after athletes in the endorsement world. Not so with the intensely Russian Elena Dementieva. She had the looks and the talent -- infinitely more so than Kournikova -- but for her, America was merely another continent on tour.
For 23 years, Dementieva shared a bedroom with her older brother in their family's Moscow apartment. She played at the aging, rickety Central Red Army Club because it was considered the gold standard of Moscow tennis, and even though the family had little money and no car in the early years, she never once bemoaned her fate. She grew up reading Chekhov, Nabokov and Tolstoy, and as one confidant described it, "She became consumed with the idea that setback is good for the soul."
It was only at the insistence of her mother, Vera, that Elena got her own place, although the family connection remained. Vera picked out two apartments: one for herself, her husband and her son, and the other for Elena. For the glamour queens of Russian tennis, free time meant photo shoots in London, Paris and New York. Dementieva always gravitated back to Russia.
The magnificence of her accomplishments is well documented, as well as her crushing failures. I strongly disagree with the assessment that Dementieva had "matchless athleticism" within the tour's elite ranks, because her strengths were fitness, speed and strength. There were many more athletic players: Amelie Mauresmo, the Williams sisters and Francesca Schiavone, just for starters, all of them wondrous in their smooth-flowing movement. Dementieva was far too mechanical, never mastering the volley or even the simple execution of a rhythmic, effective serve. But she was always there, always in the semifinals, sometimes beyond, and although she didn't win a major, thank goodness she won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No accomplishment means more in Russia, and nothing meant more to Dementieva than her homeland.
Then there's Taylor Dent, as gallant a man as the men's tour has seen in years. I'll never forget the first time I saw Dent, checked on his family connection, and realized that I once had a crush on his mom. This goes back to 1964, my first year at Santa Monica High. Although I was a decent striker of the ball, I was hardly a youth-tennis legend -- and thus I had no chance to make the team. Samohi, as we were called, didn't lose a match in my three years there. We were ranked No. 1 in the nation, the coach was Glenn Bassett (who went on to even greater glory at UCLA), and the team had such Southern California mainstays as Mike Talmadge, John Fort and Eddie Grubb, whose sister, the luminous Betty Ann, went on to be an excellent doubles player on the pro circuit.
I learned that Taylor Dent is a son of Betty Ann and Phil Dent, the sturdy Australian who reached the 1977 Wimbledon quarterfinals (losing to the upstart John McEnroe) during a long career. I was stunned at the sight of Taylor, who bears so much of his mother's countenance, and he became one of my favorites on tour with his swashbuckling, old-style tennis.
Few players have paid such a physical price. Dent retired at 29 in the wake of three back surgeries, each with career-ending implications. Most players, in the wake of such pain, would have come back as baseliners. Not Dent. He serve-and-volleyed to the end, saying, "It wasn't my nature. I like to be aggressive, attack and force the action. I don't like to hang back. That's just not my personality."
Looking back on Dent's Slam-free career, people said he should have played it "smarter" by joining the baseline brigade. Not a chance, Taylor. You played it right. None of that tedious monotony for you, even though a lot of those robots sent blazing returns right past you. Not enough athletes are true to their heart, and far too many tennis players cheat their natural athleticism by staying back. You played real tennis, and you were a pleasure to watch.