Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will meet for the first time since the French Open. (Dubreuil Corinne/Abaca)
The draw is set for the ATP World Tour Finals, the season-ending, eight-player event that begins Sunday in London. Here is how the round-robin format shapes up, with the top two from each group advancing to the semifinals:
Some thoughts leading into the tournament:
• Rafa vs. Roger, Part 26: This is the round-robin match everyone is anticipating. The rivals have been drawn into the same group so we're guaranteed at least one clash (possibly two if they face off in the finals) before the week is over. Nadal leads the series 17-8, but he's 0-3 against Federer in the World Tour Finals (formerly known as the Tennis Masters Cup) and he's never played particularly well indoors. That said, the Spaniard is 3-0 against the Swiss this year, the last meeting in the French Open final.
• The Rafa factor: He hasn't played in more than a month, so it's easy to overlook Nadal. I suppose the question is: Should we? It's been a relatively tough year for Nadal. I still do a double-take every time I see that 0-6 stat against Djokovic (twice on clay!). But one thing the world No. 2 will have going for him is motivation. Unlike six of the other seven participants, this isn't his last tournament of the year. The following week he'll return to Spain (along with Ferrer) to contest the Davis Cup final against Argentina. That makes me think he'll be mentally dialed in to win matches and aggressively fine-tune his game in London. Watch out.
• Blood in the water: Djokovic, of course, would be the man to beat if he were 100 percent. But he's not fit physically and one wonders whether he's even 100 percent mentally. How brightly can the fire possibly burn at this point given his momentous year of three Grand Slam titles, 10 titles overall and a 69-4 record?
With Djokovic nursing a shoulder injury, the other players have to feel that they now have a good chance against the Serb. That's particularly the case for one of Djokovic's group mates, Murray, who would love to get revenge for that Australian Open loss in front of his hometown crowd.
If there's anyone looking forward to a break, it's Djokovic. He hasn't had a real offseason in two years. It wouldn't be shocking if he is unable to make it through the three round-robin matches. His good buddy Janko Tipsarevic, sitting on the sideline as an alternate, should stay loose.
And Tipsarevic will also be keeping his eye on the hobbled Fish ...
• Sorry, Mardy: There are winners and losers in every draw, even in one that would seem to result in fairly even groups, as you'd expect at the World Tour Finals. It's clear that Fish was dealt a tough hand in his WTF debut.
Already ailing with a leg injury that has forced him to retire in back-to-back tournaments, Fish was drawn into the minefield that is Group B, alongside Nadal, the surging Federer and Tsonga, who is 17-4 indoors this year. If that wasn't tough enough, he won't benefit from an extra day of rest either, as his group will open Sunday with Fish playing Nadal and Federer facing Tsonga.
The 29-year-old American, who is a combined 2-14 against the three players in his group, had a typically Fish-like response when sizing up the draw.
"There's really not too many holes there … apart from me," Fish joked on a conference call Tuesday. "I still don't think I really belong in that group, but I'll take it."
• Spoiler alert: Federer and Murray, who haven't played this year, are considered the favorites. The oddsmakers are tipping Federer, who has won 12 consecutive matches and is coming off titles at the Swiss Indoors and Paris Masters. Murray is 17-1 since the U.S. Open, a run during which the Scot supplanted Federer at No. 3. Grouped separately, the two could match up in the semifinals or final.
Who could spoil that potential showdown? Berdych snapped Murray's winning streak last week in Paris in a high-quality performance, improving to 3-1 head-to-head; both are part of Group A. Meanwhile, in Group B, we know that Tsonga has no fear of Federer. He's beaten him twice this year, including the historic comeback in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, though Federer has won their last two matchups without dropping a set.
Berdych and Tsonga should fare well against the other men in their respective groups. Berdych has the firepower to take on Djokovic and Ferrer, and Tsonga could have his chances against a rusty Nadal and should feel good about his matchup against Fish, who lost to the Frenchman at the U.S. Open and is dealing with an injury.
Group A: Murray, Berdych
Group B: Nadal, Federer