Road to London: Breaking down the Elite 8
Novak Djokovic has been dominant in 2011 but heads into the World Tour Finals with a shoulder injury that hampered him in Basel and forced him to withdraw from the Paris Masters. (Aurelien Meunier/Icon SMI)
The ATP World Tour Finals don't start until next Sunday. But the field of eight is finally set after the season's final Masters tournament in Paris last week. With no Tour-level tournaments this week, let's stop and take a look at how each player forged his way to the land of Tubes, chips and stiff upper lips to earn berths at the unfortunately acronymed WTFs in London.
1. The Wrecking Ball: Novak Djokovic
There's breakout seasons and then there's what Djokovic has done in 2011. Starting the year at No. 3, Djokovic became the first player other than Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal to hold the No. 1 ranking since 2004, and no one can say he just fell into it. Djokovic is 6-0 against Nadal this year (all six matches were finals), and he was 3-0 against Federer until losing to the Swiss in the semifinals of the French Open.
The Serb hasn't gone around the two top dogs; he has gone through them, with an 11-1 record against the players who have dominated the game for seven years. Djokovic's 41-match winning streak over five months made him the second player to qualify for the WTFs before Roland Garros (Nadal accomplished the feat in 2009). He enters the year-ending event with a 69-4 record, including three majors and 10 titles overall, and he is the first player to win five Masters titles in a season. Yup, not even Federer or Nadal has done that.
2. The Fighter: Rafael Nadal
Nadal spent 2011 fighting his body and his newfound nemesis. Felled by injury as he attempted to capture the Rafa Slam (holding all four majors) in Melbourne, Nadal rebounded in the spring only to run into the immovable force that was Djokovic. Nadal has won "only" three titles this year (French Open, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona), all on clay, mainly because he couldn't solve Djokovic. The Serb snatched six big titles away from Nadal (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) as the two clashed in final after final throughout the year.
But Nadal was right there, making 10 finals, compiling a 66-13 record and continuing to add his name to the record books. He captured his seventh consecutive title in Monte Carlo, made his fifth straight Wimbledon final and became the second youngest man to reach 13 Grand Slam finals and the second youngest player in the Open Era to win the French Open six times.
3. The Improved: Andy Murray
When you suffer under the Curse of Expectation (translated: The entire hopes of British tennis rests on you), perspective must be your best friend. While the debate continues to rage as to whether Murray's earned his right to be included in the Big 3 (probably not until he wins a Slam), the Scot rebounded from what could have been a cliff-like fall in the spring to put together a season that shows he's still on the up. Aided by a 17-0 post-U.S. Open winning streak, Murray is 56-12 with five titles. He had the best clay-court season of his career, making the semifinals of Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros, and became the seventh man in the Open Era to reach the semifinals of all four Grand Slams in the same season.
4. The Legend: Roger Federer
He may have been the fourth man to qualify for London, but Federer goes in as the hot hand after back-to-back titles in Basel and Paris. He's only the third player to qualify for the WTFs for 10 or more consecutive years. A win in London would redeem (somewhat) his disappointing season, which saw him go Slam-less for the first time since 2002.
Federer, who is 59-12 with three titles, holds the distinction of being the only player to flat-out beat a healthy Djokovic in 2011 (Djokovic's retired in two losses and he was clearly affected by an ailing shoulder in his three-set defeat to Kei Nishikori at the Swiss Indoors). Something tells me that's a victory that always brings a smile to his face.
5. The Grinder: David Ferrer
Ferrer may not have the firepower to stay relevant when the Slams roll around, but the gritty Spaniard is always in the hunt and always up for the challenge. He's made it to his third WTFs on the strength of his semifinal appearance at the Australian Open, where he beat a hobbled Nadal in the quarterfinals, and a solid clay season, making the finals of Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But when the top four players are dominating as they have, there isn't much low-hanging fruit for the little guys. A 56-17 record with two titles is a solid year for the Spaniard. Unfortunately, his form tailed off after the first half of the season so it's tough to expect much of Ferrer in London.
6. The King of Quarters: Tomas Berdych
How in the world is Berdych the No. 6 qualifier for London? That's the question many fans were asking last week before he put together a fantastic performance to snap Murray's 17-match winning streak in a tightly contested three-setter in Paris. Berdych didn't make much noise at the majors this year, but he's where he's at in the rankings because of his consistency. In 23 tournaments, he has made 15 quarterfinals or better.
7. The Spoiler: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Tso much talent, Tso much inconsistency. But Tsonga can always be counted for at least one big upset in any given year, and this year he had one of the biggest ones in history, snapping Federer's 178-0 record in Grand Slam matches when he leads two sets to love. In an incredible comeback in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, Tsonga battled his way back to shock Federer in five sets and make the second major semifinal of his career. The Frenchman backed that up with another win over Federer in Montreal a month and a half later. With a 52-22 record and two titles, it's been a good, if not up-and-down year for Tsonga. It would be exciting to see him finishing it out with an upset or two under the lights at the O2. The man loves a stage.
8. The Rookie: Mardy Fish
This is Fish's first appearance at the WTFs, and it's much deserved after the revelatory year he's had. He overtook Andy Roddick's spot as the No. 1 American in April, and Fish's success on the North American hardcourts propelled him into the top 10. He made the semifinals in Memphis, Delray Beach, Miami and Cincinnati, the finals of Los Angeles and Montreal, and successfully defended his title in Atlanta. Not only was he able to consistently make deep runs into tournaments, but Fish also chalked up some quality wins throughout the year, beating Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Berdych and Ferrer just to name a few. Unfortunately, the effort took its toll. Fish is hobbling into London, having retired due to a leg injury in both Basel and Paris. He'll have a week to heal, and will be dangerous if he's healthy.