Aces and Faults recaps the week in tennis. Last week, Novak Djokovic and the Bryan brothers won titles at the ATP World Tour Finals.
Novak Djokovic: In an era when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal seem to hold a firm monopoly in the appreciation games, is the Serb the most underappreciated player in the game? He finished a season full of personal and professional highs -- and a smattering of not-so-highs -- by once again playing the best at end of the season. He went undefeated in group play at the ATP World Tour Finals, losing just five games to the two other reigning Slam champions in the field to clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking. Setting aside a second set lapse, he threw down a 6-1 and 6-0 pair of sets on No. 5 Kei Nishikori.
Was it awkward for him to win his third straight ATP World Tour Finals via a rare walkover from Roger Federer? Absolutely. All of a sudden the story was about Federer, his back and its implications for Davis Cup. The withdrawal denied Djokovic his crowning moment as he finished the year on top of the pack. Following the U.S. Open, he completed his season with a 17-1 record, three of his seven titles on the year and his fourth ATP Finals crown.
Djokovic finished the season with the year-end No. 1 trophy for the third time in his career by virtue of his consistency, his first major title in over a year at Wimbledon and his physical resiliency, which was unmatched by the rest of the ATP's Big Four. Rafael Nadal's body broke down once again, Andy Murray fought to recover from last-year's season-ending surgery and in the end, Federer's back flared up. The game has never been as physically demanding as it is right now and Djokovic was able to recover and withstand the season.
Bob and Mike Bryan: The Bryans' longest running title drought at any Slam or Masters tournament ended on Sunday, as they came back from a set down to beat Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo to win the ATP Finals title for the first time since 2009. It was their tenth title of the season and they finish the year at No. 1 for the tenth time in the last 12 years.
Roger Federer: He did everything he needed to do to keep the pressure on Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking, punctuating his 3-0 run through group play with a 6-0, 6-1 win over Andy Murray (Federer came within two points of getting the double-bagel). He followed that up by saving four match points to win for the third time this season, beating Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(6) in nearly three hours -- all while his back was compromised. Federer described it as a "lucky escape" and it was. He lucked out when Wawrinka, overcome with nerves and fatigue, tried to serve and volley multiple times on match points instead of making Federer play from the baseline.
Despite all of that, Federer’s final matches of his ATP season reminded us that he remains fragile. His back flared up against Wawrinka (and possibly earlier, if you believe Ivan Ljubicic's eagle eye) and he couldn't take the court against Djokovic in the final. It was just the third time in 1,221 matches that Federer had given a walkover in his career (he still has never retired from a match). Federer proved this season that he is more than capable of playing his best tennis at 33, but the recovery between matches (he had about 16 hours to bounce back for the final) will always be a question mark. He is human after all.
Doubles: As the singles competition flagged with rout after rout until the semifinals matches, the doubles competition more than delivered. The margins in doubles are razor-thin, and in a best-of-three format with no-ad scoring, every point matters. More than half the matches ended in a match-tiebreak. Fans who were smart enough to spend the two hours before the singles matches watching doubles got a great show.
Kei Nishikori: Anytime you can qualify for the semifinals in your first go-around at the ATP Finals, it's a good tournament. Nishikori lived up to his No. 4 seeding with wins over Murray and David Ferrer, who stepped in when Milos Raonic withdrew with injury. Nishikori earned two break points in the first game of the final set against Djokovic, but went too big and missed. Still, he finishes the season at No. 5, -- a remarkable feat considering he skipped four Masters 1000s (Monte Carlo, Rome, Toronto, and Cincinnati).
Stan Wawrinka: Four match points! Four match points and he couldn't convert to beat Federer and advance to his first ATP Finals title match. But after a fall season that included three consecutive opening round exits, Wawrinka seemed to find his game just in time in London. That bodes well for Switzerland in the Davis Cup final.
Still, four match points seemed even more brutal after Federer's withdrawal.
David Ferrer: The Spaniard showed once again why he's the most respected man in the locker room. He failed to qualify, came to London anyway and practiced every day as an alternate. Then when he got the call to replace Raonic on Friday, he (along with Nishikori) delivered the best round robin match of the tournament.
Marin Cilic: No one played worse in London than Cilic, who barely looked like a top 20 player as he went 0-3 through Group A. He gets a pass given he's still enjoying his post-Slam honeymoon, but there will be pressure on the U.S. Open champion to deliver in 2015.
Andy Murray: Playing in his seventh tournament in eight weeks, Murray was wiped. His straight set loss to Nishikori, 6-4, 6-4 was a substandard performance. But in his next match against Federer -- aware that he had to win in straight sets to qualify for the semifinals -- Murray lost 11 straight games to the Swiss before he was defeated 6-0, 6-1. Some called for Murray to take a healthy break from tennis during the off-season. Ever the contrarian, Murray said he planned to get back on the practice court sooner than usual to get his game and body ready for the Australian Open.
Little did he know how prescient he was. Two days after losing to Federer, he was sitting on the couch playing Mario Kart when he got the call from ATP head Chris Kermode about Federer’s withdrawl. Murray didn't hesitate to come do an exhibitions set with Djokovic, didn't demand any money and packed his bags and drove himself to the O2 Arena. If you know Murray, none of that comes as a surprise. He's a good guy like that.
Tomas Berdych: The Czech had been playing so well heading into London, but he looked out of his league in his 6-1, 6-1 loss to Wawrinka and his 6-2, 6-2 loss to Djokovic. He took some rad selfies though.
Milos Raonic: Trying to build confidence from his run to the Paris final two weeks ago, Raonic never found his serve or forehand. He withdrew after two matches due to a leg injury. Tough debut.
Photo of the week
Edited Photo of the week
Tweet of the week
In case you missed it
- John McEnroe dropped a bombshell on ESPN on Sunday, telling viewers that Federer and Wawrinka got into a protracted row (sorry, I've been in London too long) after their semifinal match on Saturday. Wawrinka snapped at someone in or around Federer's box late in their match, and photographers say Wawrinka was directing his comments at Federer's wife Mirka. "She did the same thing at Wimbledon," Wawrinka told umpire Cedric Mourier, according to French TV. A visibly emotional Wawrinka declined to comment much on the incident during his post-match press conference. Federer also declined to address reporters after withdrawing from the final on Sunday.
It all smells fishy and if you deign to dabble in speculation, the pieces easily fall together. But let's not forget that with the Davis Cup final coming up, the French have some incentive in magnifying any real, perceived or completely made-up discord within the Swiss Davis Cup team. I doubt we'll ever get the real story behind it all, but if the favored Swiss blow it in Lille this weekend, it will be because of Federer's bum back or Wawrinka's inconsistent play, and not because of any spat. It will be interesting to see how Federer and Wawrinka address it when they face the press later this week.
- Bryans tweener shot:
- Poor Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo. The No. 7-seeds got nipped in the super-tiebreaker by the Bryans to lose their fourth final of the year. Despite qualifying for the Finals, they failed to win a tournament this year and have only won one together to date. Dodig looked so sad.
- No player reacts as negatively and defiantly as Djokovic when faced with a crowd cheering against him. Then again, no other top player has to deal with it as often. He lashed out at the crowd during his semifinal against Nishikori. After he won, with a third-set bagel no less, he gave a subdued and abrupt salute to the crowd and then signed the camera with nothing more than a dot, as if to say, "Period. End of sentence. Mic drop."
The crowd wasn't so much cheering for Nishikori as they were for a competitive match. Djokovic had won seven of the first eight games of the match when fans at the O2 began to applaud his errors. His reaction was entirely human, but hen again, so was the crowd's response. It's impossible not to sympathize with Djokovic. "You guys want good tennis, I'm playing great tennis, and now you're cheering my errors?" Sometimes the tournament's acronym is on the nose.
- Much was made, and rightfully so, about how much of a dud this year's tournament was. Federer and Wawrinka played the only match that felt worthy of the year-end finals, and Federer said afterwards even that was a scratchy level of tennis. But it also bears emphasizing that this was an anomaly. One tournament -- played at the end of the season under unique conditions and circumstances -- doesn't change the story of the 2014 ATP season. The men you expect to dominate the tour -- Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal -- continue to do so. But the gap is closing.
- There are many perfectly good and honorable reasons to move the ATP Finals out of London, whether for money, tennis evangelism, or just to keep the event fresh. But having covered this tournament since 2011, one thing has remained clear: Nowhere would you be able to get the crowds and media attendance that London delivers. The Finals has never felt like a pop-up temporary event at the O2. It's always been incredibly well-managed and well-supported. That's a lot to risk by moving its location.
- Has there ever been a more heavily-anticipated Davis Cup final than what we have coming this weekend? Federer trying to fill the one hole in his resume, an exhausted and hobbled two-man Swiss team up against a well-rested and modular French squad on home soil? It's an impossible tie to call. To quote PseudoFed: "#excited".