The Toss: Dreaming the best finals in London
Roger Federer was perfect at the World Tour Finals last year, winning every round-robin match and knocking out Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the semis and finals, respectively. (Zumapress)
Last week, London-based sportswriter and FootFault blog author Tumaini Carayol joined The Toss to take on the issue of court speed. Players have voiced complaints about the varying surface speeds on Tour, but does the variety bring a level of excitement and unpredictability to the game? Well, more than 91 percent of readers voted "yes," that the different surfaces create parity and should be more distinct, not more homogenized.
This week, Courtney and SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno let their imaginations run wild in advance of the ATP World Tour Finals.
Today's Toss: What matchup would you most like to see in the London finals?
Courtney Nguyen: I love the round-robin format, precisely because you can think of any number of combinations of players to play the final and they're all mathematically possible. No bracketology needed this time around and we’re free to dream away.
As such, in my dream world, Novak Djokovic is 100 percent healthy and motivated to tear through the London field to put a triple exclamation mark on his incredible year. The tennis brain in me would love to see him face Roger Federer in the finals. Those two have such a prickly relationship (I say this based on my own observations and not based on anything on the record) and it is at its most tenuous when the two clash in high-stakes matches. Djokovic's roars are never louder than when he beats Federer, and Federer is never as smug as when he beats Djokovic. Would Roger ever have wagged that finger after beating Rafael Nadal? I have my doubts. So a rematch of their epic U.S. Open semifinal would be fraught with tension and intensity. I believe that Federer hates losing to Djokovic more than he hates losing to anyone and that sentiment just oozes on court.
Similarly, how great would it be to see Nadal get one more crack at Djokovic before the year is over? He's lost six straight finals to the Serb this year and each defeat looked more painful than the last. By the time Djokovic fell to the ground in a relieved celebration of his first U.S. Open title, Nadal looked utterly lost. He's had six tries to solve the Novak Riddle and he's come up short every time. Now rested and motivated to get his confidence up for the Davis Cup final, I'd love to see him try one more time. As for Djokovic, a win over either Nadal or Federer (or both as the case may be) would be the perfect way to wrap up his year.
But being both the pragmatic and sentimental person that I am, what I'm really looking forward to is an Andy Murray-Federer final. This is the one that I think is most likely to happen, the two hottest players meeting for the first time all year. It's no secret that I have a soft spot for Murray's game, which can be fun to watch when he's playing well (read: aggressive), and absolutely infuriating when he's not (read: passive). The Scot leads their head-to-head 8-6, but Federer has won many of the big ones. Murray has shown that he's not really one for "breakouts," that he's more of a steady climber. Defeating Federer on home soil at the fifth-biggest tournament of the year would do wonders for his confidence.
C.W. Sesno: First things first: You’re right that Murray-Federer is the most likely scenario. Too many players are either banged up or mentally exhausted from a long season. Federer is obviously hot right now, winning back-to-back titles in Basel and Paris. Murray had his 17-match post-U.S. Open winning streak snapped in Paris last week by Tomas Berdych in a tight, three-hour match that “was good at the end,” according to Murray. Good throughout, really. I was more impressed by Berdych’s confidence to play big-man tennis and wallop forehand after forehand than I was distressed by Murray’s loss.
With Djokovic owning the headlines in 2011, Murray has quietly had a solid year. But you never know which Murray will show up. A match against Federer could certainly pack a punch as they’re undoubtedly the players with the most momentum. But the past five matches between the two have been decided in straight sets, dating to the 2009 Australian Open. Sometimes Murray has Federer’s number. Sometimes Federer gets in Murray’s head. Either can result in a lopsided, uninteresting match.
But how can you not want to see Djokovic in the final? Many were ready to hail his season as the greatest ever after the U.S. Open. Had it not been for nagging shoulder and back injuries, we might still be having that discussion. A win in London over the world's best isn't enough to revive that debate after an unfortunate home stretch, but it would certainly inspire hope in the sustainability of his game. Obviously the key here is Djokovic's health, both mental and physical. Has that shoulder had time to heal since pulling out of Bercy? Even if it has, does he have the confidence to get his serve right and be able to go for his shots? Both important factors to whether Djokovic can get to the finals, and more relevant to this debate, both important factors to whether he’ll be able to give the dominant performance to make for a riveting match.
But since this is our dream final, I’m going to take a leap of faith and say Djokovic will be close to 100 percent and will beat Federer in the semis and face Nadal in the finals. What would be better than seeing the Big Three square off under the lights of 02 Arena? And what better way to close out the season than to see the top two players dance it out in the year-end jamboree?
After the U.S. Open, Nadal flat-out said his main focus is figuring out Djokovic. Here’s to hoping he gets one more chance in their seventh final of 2011. And with more than a month of rest, Nadal could definitely hang with Djokovic at the baseline if the 02 courts are as slow as they were last year. A grueling slugfest full of highlight-reel material sounds like an ideal way to close the season and give this rivalry an extra spark for next year.
Nguyen: You're absolutely right, Chris. Murray in the final, whether against Rafa or Roger, could be explosive or it could be a complete dud. It all depends on which Andy Murray shows up that day. Even Nadal-Federer matches, which get hyped to no end, can tend to be underwhelming, in my opinion. It's almost as if we all expect the level of the 2008 Wimbledon final every time they step on the court, which is natural, but wholly unfair to both players. It seems to me that the only current rivalries that tend to regularly produce fantastic matches are ones involving Djokovic. For my money, Djokovic-Nadal matches deliver every time. We'll have to see if both men have enough fuel in the tank to make that happen this time around.
Given the question marks surrounding the top four, I still think Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have very real opportunities to play the spoilers in London. Just like you, I was thoroughly impressed by Berdych's performance in Paris. He could have folded very easily against Murray but maintained his focus even when he was on the verge of choking. Maybe it helps when you're trying to impress your new girlfriend. If Berdych brings that form to London, I'd love to see him get another crack at Federer.
And then, of course, there's Jo. The Frenchman loves the stage and if the crowd gets behind him, he can electrify. He's already beaten Federer twice this year, though the Swiss got the better of him in Paris last week and at the U.S. Open in September. A rematch in the final could be fun if Tsonga promises to show up and play like he knows he can win.
Sesno: True, Nadal and Federer often get hyped off the history of their rivalry and name recognition. Sometimes those matches don’t deliver to the level fans are expecting or used to. That’s why I think Djokovic has to get the nod as the most desirable player in the final. When healthy, Nadal and Federer have to both elevate and adjust their games to have a shot. When they do, and Djokovic is on his game like he has been all year (not counting injuries, for argument's sake), we get enthralling matches like we saw in the U.S. Open semis and finals. That was some of the best tennis I've ever seen, so here's to hoping we get an encore in London.
Tsonga and Berdych are definitely the likely candidates to play spoiler. I’ll throw David Ferrer in that group as well. He and Nadal have their Davis Cup final against Argentina looming, so it’d be easy to question their motivation in London. But when does Ferrer ever give less than 100 percent? He’s had trouble with Murray this year, losing all three of their matchups (Australian Open, Tokyo, Shanghai). But you can never rule out the turbo-charged Spaniard.
While there’s uncertainty around Mardy Fish’s injured hammy, it’d be great to see the 29-year-old American make a run in his inaugural WTF appearance. He’s as nice as they come on Tour, and his commitment to his body with a rigorous diet and hard work makes his late-career push seem more rewarding. Unfortunately, I don’t think Fish's draw sets up well for him to advance from round-robin play. This year he lost to Tsonga at the U.S. Open and Nadal at Wimbledon and I just don’t see him beating a surging Federer. But if he can pull off a few early upsets, Fish could grab some momentum and a nice payday in his final tournament before hitting the big three-oh in December. You decide: Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments to let us know who you'd like to see square off in the London finals.