There were signs over the past two weeks that the men's tour was stumbling to the finish line. Roger Federer withdrew from the Paris Masters, Rafael Nadal was nowhere in sight, and a distracted Novak Djokovic seemed most concerned, understandably, with his father, who had been hospitalized in Belgrade with a respiratory condition.
You wouldn't say this seemingly endless tour has come alive with the year-end championships in London, but something fairly significant is at stake: the ATP's Player of the Year award. Wednesday's round-robin confrontation between Djokovic and Andy Murray will bring this issue directly into the spotlight.
I made a case for Murray after his breakthrough win at the U.S. Open, which is right about the time most sports fans check out of the tennis theater. Some of my SI.com colleagues disagreed, opting for Djokovic or Federer, although Jon Wertheim also sided with Murray. The reasoning: For the first time, Olympic Games tennis carried the weight of a fifth major. All of the great players were in attendance, motivation was high, the setting was Wimbledon, and the event was followed with great passion around the world.
In the wake of Flushing Meadows, I felt the edge went to Murray, who had also reached the Wimbledon final and the quarterfinals of the other two majors. When it came to playing under pressure and changing the landscape of the tennis elite, Murray achieved more than anyone else.
I still feel that way, although Djokovic will make an awfully strong case with a win in London. That would give him the Australian Open, six tour titles, the year-end championships, the final No. 1 ranking and a formidable win-loss record (70-12 going into Wednesday).
Not that Federer should be discounted -- for the moment, and for as long as he walks onto a tennis court. He heads into London with six titles (including three Masters 1000s), his 17th career major at Wimbledon and a 17-week stretch as No. 1. Some would say he could steal Player of the Year with one of his signature indoor masterpieces.
To me, this award has a connection to baseball's Most Valuable Player. It's not about who had the best year, statistically, but who had the most impact -- the player to be most remembered in a given year. To me, that's Murray, no matter what happens in London. He's playing in front of the British public for the first time since the U.S. Open, and this would be a satisfying win on many levels -- not the least of which involves his performance at crunch time, having held match points against Milos Raonic (Tokyo), Djokovic (Shanghai) and Jerzy Janowicz (Paris) before losing those three recent matches.
Should Djokovic prevail, on the other hand, who could argue against his case? We should all be glad that the discussion even exists. After 10-plus months of non-stop tennis, it's remarkable to see so much on the line this week.
A star is born
The Paris Masters lost plenty of steam in the absence of Federer, Nadal and a thoroughly engaged Djokovic. Still, there was high drama to the tournament's final day. Everyone wanted to see how Janowicz, the ATP's latest sensation, would fare against David Ferrer.
Perhaps the result was predictable -- straight sets for the Spaniard -- but only because Janowicz was, in his own words, "exhausted" after qualifying for the event and then knocking off five top-20 players -- Philipp Kohlschreiber, Marin Cilic, Murray, Janko Tipsarevic and Gilles Simon -- to reach the final. This is a man who began the year with a No. 221 ranking and now sits at 26 after such a sensational week.
If people weren't initially thrilled by the sight of yet another ATP beanpole (he stands 6-foot-8), they could be forgiven. As John Isner and Sam Querrey often remind us, exceptionally tall players don't have the quickness, variety or all-court movement to make a serious impression in the majors.
Janowicz appears to be a notable exception. He moves extremely well and he's refreshingly creative, especially with a drop-shot attack that confounded Murray, Ferrer and everyone else he faced in Paris. Perhaps he tries it too often, but it's delightful to watch, and when it comes to a tall man's staples -- big serve, huge off the ground -- he really fits the bill.
This engaging Polish athlete didn't exactly come from nowhere. He qualified for Wimbledon, beat Ernests Gulbis in the second round, and took Florian Mayer to a fifth set before losing his third-round match. But with so much shuffling at the top, Paris gave him a chance to shine. He may well remember the Simon match as the highlight, for he was up against a partisan crowd "clapping after my double-faults and my missed first serves," he said. "Somehow, I was able to handle it."
It's nice to know that, for a change, he can start off 2013 as a legitimate professional. Last year, after a long grind on the Challenger circuit, neither Janowicz nor his parents had enough money to send him to Melbourne for the Australian Open qualifying. That shouldn't be a problem this time.
(Thanks to Richard Evans, by the way, for pointing out that only main-draw players on the ATP tour get their hotel rooms paid, and that all players pay their own airfares.)
As for Ferrer, when was the last time a No. 5 player earned such deep respect? This man always prevails in the matches he's supposed to win. Paris marked his first-ever victory in a Masters 1000 event. And it was his tour-leading seventh title of the year. Ferrer has reached the age of 30, ostensibly with several good years ahead of him, and we should savor each one.
Fed cup drama
Petra Kvitova was a physical and emotional wreck during the year-end championships in Istanbul. She eventually withdrew with what was described as a viral illness, but it seemed nerves were her biggest enemy in a disappointing 6-3, 6-2 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in group play. Her fans found themselves in a familiar mode -- cringing, in anticipation of every errant groundstroke -- and wondering if the Fed Cup final could revive this highly vulnerable player. Happily, Kvitova set the tone for the Czech Republic's triumph with a first-day rout of Jelena Jankovic. Lucie Safarova staged a downright heroic performance in winning both of her singles matches, taking the sting off Kvitova's loss to Ana Ivanovic.
So all is well with the Czechs, now winners of two consecutive Fed Cups. Kvitova has won 11 or her last 12 singles matches in that venue, and Safarova erased some bitter memories of her own performance against Russia last year. Now it's the Serbs who are in turmoil.
Ivanovic can talk all she wants about defeating Kvitova, and what it meant to her career, but the fact is that she couldn't handle the opening-day pressure, and admitted as much afterward. She was disgracefully petulant against Safarova, angrily throwing her racket on four different occasions, and she couldn't even do so with conviction, rather guiding her instrument to the ground, so as not to inflict too much damage.
As Matt Cronin wrote on TennisReporters.net, the Serbian players and coaches expressed a collective disgust with their national press after Sunday's final matches, claiming "they write much more favorably about male players than they do women." Well, hey -- no kidding.
Djokovic is not only a national hero in Serbia and the No. 1 player in the world. He overcame significant physical and mental issues to get there, dramatically re-shaping himself as a man. Tipsarevic doesn't possess nearly that much talent, but he has made the most of his career, scoring several dramatic upsets and earning worldwide respect.
Matched against this weighty standard, Ivanovic and Jankovic are simply too soft, vulnerable to a crushing defeat at any given moment. They've given the tour a ton of glamour and personality -- things that really count within WTA circles -- but each has been a painfully inconsistent performer since reaching the world No. 1 ranking. Jankovic even admitted, at the conclusion of the Fed Cup final, that "It's a big occasion for me or for Ana, and we all want to do well at the highest level, and sometimes nerves get the best of you and you can't do it."
Honesty? No question. Pleasant reading for the folks back in Serbia? Not so much.