The Toss: ATP Finals' impact on legacy
Roger Federer won a record sixth title at the World Tour Finals, passing Pete Sampras' and Ivan Lendl's previous record. (Zumapress)
In the last Toss, Courtney Nguyen and SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno cooked up the best scenarios for the ATP World Tour finals. Courtney wanted to see Andy Murray take on Roger Federer, Chris wanted to see Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic square off again, and the readers wanted to see Federer vs. Djokovic. None of those scenarios happened, but we got an exciting, three-set final nonetheless, where Federer downed the electric Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to become the winningest player at the Tour Finals.
Today’s Toss: How much does winning the ATP’s year-end finals factor in to a player’s legacy?
C.W. Sesno: There are a few ways to look at this. On the one hand, the ATP Finals certainly don’t stack up to anything close to the Grand Slams. Ask Federer if he’d trade in any of his World Tour Finals trophies for a Grand Slam title and I'm quite sure he’d jump at the opportunity.
Of course the WTFs aren’t on the same page as the four Slams. But there’s something about being able to finish the season strong that carries weight. Tennis is different from virtually every other sport in that the “playoffs” -- to the extent a postseason exists in tennis -- aren’t held at the end of the year. Instead, we have what basically amounts to four Super Bowls scattered throughout the calendar with the season sputtering on after the U.S. Open. It’s easy to look at the WTFs as the tennis equivalent of the NFL Pro Bowl -- all the top players are there but the rules are softened and nobody seems to care who wins.
But here I disagree. Federer just became the winningest player at the WTFs, passing Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras with six titles. That’s some good company. SI.com’s Bruce Jenkins recently compared Federer’s late-season surge to Sampras' tearing through the post-U.S. Open tournaments to reach year-end No. 1. To Jenkins, “When it comes to Sampras' place among the all-time greats, those feats of endurance carry equal weight with his 14 major titles.”
Indeed, Federer’s longevity and ability to stay healthy are major factors in what makes him a front-runner in the GOAT debate. It’s one thing to be great, it’s another thing to stay great. Nobody can dominate through the finish line quite like Federer.
Courtney Nguyen: No one likes asterisks. We want our competition to be pure. Winner, loser, statistics, let the results and legacies be decided on the court and nowhere else. But asterisks are necessary because context is necessary. "The Narrative" is born out of context, without it we're left to report the "what" and not the "why." Why was one match more significant than another? Why is one performances given more weight than a similar one just weeks before? Why is it so difficult to compare results as apples to apples? Because of context. It matters.
Context is why the World Tour Finals lack a certain level of significance in my book. Much like you point out, the WTFs are the tennis equivalent of the Pro Bowl. It's at the end of the season, the players have checked out either mentally or physically, and for as much as we want to prop up the tournament as a prestigious battle of the best in the world, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the level of competition very rarely lives up to the hype.
The fact that the tournament has been moved from the best-of-five format (just like the Slams) to a best-of-three format also hurts the prestige level. If you step back and look at it now, the WTFs are basically a Masters tournament that isn’t single-elimination, knockout format. You could lose a match and still win it all, and the best players come in too tired to play.
Having said that, the fact that a player can accomplish anything six times in a career is a remarkable feat, and it speaks to consistency, health and talent. That Federer has won six year-end titles is simply another "wow" line on his still-growing CV. Of course it will factor into his legacy. But do I find it any more amazing than, say, Rafael Nadal's seven straight titles in Monte Carlo? Not really.
Sesno: You’re right that context is everything. Let’s compare Nadal’s seven straight titles with Federer’s six at the WTFs. In Nadal’s 37-match winning streak in Monte Carlo, only 13 of those were against top-10 players. In Federer’s six wins at the WTFs, he’s never faced a player outside the top 10. Monte Carlo was played on clay -- Nadal’s best surface -- for all of his titles; Federer has won on both indoor and outdoor hard, and nearly won on carpet before losing a five-setter to Nalbandian in the 2005 final. Monte Carlo is played in April; the WTFs in November. The field is energized and healthy for Monte Carlo, but banged up and exhausted for the WTFs.
Look, both feats are impressive. Both come from two of the best (if not the best) players of this era. But I can’t shake the feeling that dominating the season through the end should carry substantial weight. That’s a big part of the reason why I think Caroline Wozniacki gets too much criticism for topping the rankings. Will she be considered the best ever? Not until she wins some Slams. But nor is Serena Williams in the mix for GOAT because she only shows up at Slams. Federer is the perfect combination of both. He dominated the Tour (minus Rafa) and the rankings for almost a decade. He’s always healthy and ready to play. When the WTFs roll around, he’s still churning at 100 percent.
I do agree the round-robin format takes a little importance away from each match. But in Federer’s six title runs, five of those came without dropping a match. The switch to a best-of-three format in 2008 seems to be a concession to gripes on the length of the schedule, but Federer, as savvy a calendar manager as there is, voiced his preference for best-of-five. Yes, at 30 years old, the Swiss wanted to play more tennis, not less.
It's not about the tournament itself, more what it stands for. It’s about being able to compete and win over the long haul, to beat the absolute best in the world in the season’s final showdown. The greatest champions have done so. Just look at the all-time match wins leaders there: Federer, Lendl, Becker, Sampras, Nastase, Agassi, McEnroe, Edberg, Conners, Borg, Vilas. The best of the best don’t ever pack it in.
Nguyen: Touché on the stats (darn you and you commitment to empirical data!). No doubt that the field is, at least on paper, much more difficult at the year-end finals than say, Monte Carlo.
But I'm not sure I can equate winning the World Tour Finals with "dominating the season through the end." In some cases, yes, Federer capped off dominant season after dominant season with a year-end title. But he hasn't had year-long dominant seasons lately. Last year, Federer won the Australian Open right out of the gate, and then went sputtering until the fall indoor season, where, like this year, he went on a run and captured two titles and the year-end championships. This was his worst year since 2002, failing to win a major and going 10 months without a title until Basel in November. Sure, he had a great fall, ending the season undefeated after the U.S. Open, but to paraphrase Federer's great dig at Murray regarding his three fall titles in Asia, "With all respect to Roger, but was London really that strong this year?" See? Even Federer agrees context matters. I definitely think picking up the year-end trophy after a strong season is a significant accomplishment. It can be the exclamation point on a year and make a player a front-runner for the next season. But if you don't do much all year and then finish strong to win the season finale, it just feels like any other tournament win.