Fans came out in numbers to support their favorite players at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. (Sang Tan/AP)
LONDON -- It's been a wild, injury-heavy week at the ATP World Tour Finals. Roger Federer notched his record sixth title at the year-end dance, while the other top dogs limped their way toward the offseason. (Well, except for Rafael Nadal, who still has the Davis Cup finals.) Here are my grades from the ATP Tour's final stop:
London: A-minus. Tennis doesn't make its way over to England often, considering the tournaments that lead up to Wimbledon in June are all effectively Wimbledon-lite. Picturesque grass courts, fans clapping quietly, no pomp, no glamour. So while those of us who attend tournaments outside of the UK regularly don't see the spectacle of the 02 Arena as any different, the World Tour Finals in London are definitely a techno-slap to the face for many locals.
The blinding light, the blaring dance-pop music, the blatant commercialism: This isn't your British grandpa's tennis tournament. The World Tour Finals, as embraced by London, seem to have been organized as the anti-Wimbledon. So much so that as you wander the arena and listen in on conversations between young and old (not creepy, I swear), it's easy to overhear people make comparisons. Most fans overwhelmingly love the lively atmosphere that stands in stark contrast to the quiet confines of Wimbledon, Queens, Birmingham and Eastbourne. But you'll also hear a few dissenting voices in the stands who scoff at the dry ice entrances, the strobe light dramatics and the inescapable corporate signage that adorns the court.
But aside from the small number of dissenters, it would be impossible not to recognize that the World Tour Finals' move to London has been an unqualified success. It turns out the O2 Arena -- which used to sit as the unused debacle that was the Millennium Dome -- serves as the perfect stage for the year-end finals. More than 250,000 fans attended the week, with 10 of 15 sessions selling out.
The reason London gets an A-minus instead of an A: I think it's rough to ask fans to shell out good money to watch only one singles match per session. Credit the ATP for trying to give the doubles teams equal spotlight -- certainly the players appreciate the stage -- but I'm not sure the fans are taking to it. Most elected to hang out at the pubs outside the arena while waiting for the singles matches.
Tournament director Chris Kermode says he's already looking into putting together a bid to keep the WTFs in London for another five years. The ATP may move the tournament for growth or financial reasons, but it's hard to think of another place where the year-end tournament would be treated with the excitement and respect it deserves, and the fans and players would enjoy.
Good job, London. Now keep calm and carry on. You've got a big 2012 ahead of you.
Roger Federer: A-minus. Much like Petra Kvitova's win at the WTA Championships in Istanbul last month, Federer's London conquest seemed inevitable before the tournament started. As the event unfolded, Federer's chances boiled down to whether he could hold his nerves as the finish line approached.
More than any of his 17 straight wins this fall, Federer's beat-down of Rafael Nadal lent an air of legitimacy to what he had accomplished after the U.S. Open. Without it, we might be a bit more inclined to buy the "He didn't beat anyone relevant during his streak" narrative. But that win was decisive, it was ruthless and it seemed to buoy him with the confidence needed to keep his head when things got a bit dicey in Sunday's final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The Other Three: F. Five months ago, Andy Murray, Nadal and Novak Djokovic left London as semifinalist, finalist and champion of Wimbledon, respectively. This week they won two matches between them and all fell with injuries, both physical and mental. Murray's withdrawal on Tuesday due to a groin strain took a bit of air out of the festivities, and the dome covering the O2 Arena just kept leaking air as the week went on.
Nadal was struggling with food poisoning and a shoulder injury and admitted to playing with a lack of passion for the game, and Djokovic was clearly not in form from the get-go, noting his exhaustion and lack of freshness at the event. Here's the conundrum of the World Tour Finals: It's hard to accept how significant winning the year-end championship is if everyone hobbles in and can't compete at their best.
The Headcases: B. This one goes out to the men who kept things interesting this week, not necessarily because of their results, but because you couldn't look away from the nervy mess they made of their matches. They keep things interesting, that's for sure, and there's no belittling that.
No one embodies this ethos as much as Tomas Berdych, nominated for this week's Heimlich Award by our very own Jon Wertheim. Berdych's propensity to choke in the tight moments used to be laughable. This week it was just painful. He had match point against Djokovic in his first round-robin match on Monday and he dumped a middle-of-the-court forehand into the net signage. His slim win over Janko Tipsarevic a couple of days later was another nervy three-setter, though this time he benefited from Tipsarevic's missed forehand volley on match point, followed by a double-fault to give Berdych match point.
Then, of course, there's Tsonga and David Ferrer, both of whom had fantastic tournaments that are just as notable for their results as their ability to keep their wavering at a relative minimum. For Ferrer, his wins over Murray and Djokovic were huge. He should have gotten nervous, we expected him to get nervous, but he didn't. His composure in those two matches, both straight-set wins, gave hope for his prospects for the rest of the tournament. Alas, the Spaniard dropped his first set of the tournament to Berdych on Friday, switched to a hot pink eyesore of a shirt and he was never the same, losing to Berdych and then Federer in the semifinals.
As for Tsonga, he's another one we expect to fall apart when things get tight. But his composure in beating Nadal in three sets was surprising, as was his ability to come back and save a match point in the second-set tiebreaker against Federer in the final. With wins over Nadal, Berdych and Mardy Fish, the Frenchman has a lot to be proud of on the week.
London Calling?: Please allow my moment of self-indulgence here to rant on something that has bugged me all week. Does no one listen to lyrics anymore? Are we OK with punk songs about disenfranchisement being misappropriated for commercial purposes? Why does London insist on using The Clash's London Calling as an unofficial anthem for all things London? It's used in advertisements and promotional videos for the London Olympics, and it was used every time the players were introduced this week at the WTFs.
London Calling is not an invitation for tourists to visit London. It is not, a la Dr. Dre's California Love, a proud anthem of one's hometown or home state. It's a politically charged call to arms that sings of a London where the cops swing their batons freely, drug use abounds, flooding is eminent and authenticity is nowhere to be found. Also, something about zombies. With references to famine, nuclear meltdowns and apocalyptic imagery, it's not exactly Let's Get It Started or Pump Up the Jam. (Note: I don't want those two played either. Ever.) Basically, the Clash sing of a London that no one would really want to visit, one in turmoil, fraught with instability and apathy. In fact, the song choice was even more inappropriate given certain recent events in London. If the British love irony, then this definitely worked. I mean, the guitar feedback at the end of the song feeds out into an "S.O.S" signal being beeped in Morse code. It's one of the most ironic uses of a song I've heard, second perhaps only to hearing the bride and groom dance to One by U2 (a song about The Edge's divorce) at a wedding I attended. Read the lyrics, people!