We offer thoughts on the performances of the elite eight at the World Tour Finals in London.
Djokovic: If he aimed to validate his status as the year-end #1 with a suitable exclamation point, the Serb could not have scripted a better narrative for the week. Not only did he win thrillers over his two main rivals, but Djokovic also dispatched a dangerous trio a half-step below the elite—Del Potro, Berdych, and Tsonga—as he rolled through the draw at this tournament without a loss for the first time. Once his greatest weakness, Djokovic’s fortitude in adversity became the hallmark of his game in one electrifying comeback after another during 2011. That trait shone brightly under the lights of the O2 Arena as he rallied from losing the first set to Murray, rallied from a set-and-break deficit to Del Potro, and almost cruelly let Federer sniff triumph in each set before snatching both of them away from him. Winning just a single point more than the Swiss in that rollercoaster final, Djokovic recaptured the momentum in that key rivalry just as he had from Murray in the round-robin phase. Although he endured the most physically and emotionally exhausting season of his career, the Serb rose above its frustrations to finish in command of the competition again.
Federer: Handed a cozy round-robin group, he must have gained his greatest satisfaction from a semifinal victory over Murray, which avenged the Olympics gold-medal match and a desultory Shanghai meeting. In retrospect, Federer benefited from his decision to forgo the Paris Indoors and surrender his hope of retaining the year-end #1 ranking, for he showcased by far his most purposeful tennis since before the US Open. Although he could not retain his title, the Swiss left no doubt of his renewed willpower even in a final that he lost by the narrowest of margins. The defending champion will rue opportunity after opportunity squandered in one of the most tightly contested straight-setters imaginable, for he will know that he could have won routinely had he managed to secure a few more key points early in both sets. But Federer also knows how to turn such setbacks into future motivation, as he has proved more times than one would think possible.
Del Potro: Following three straight losses to the Serb, the Olympics bronze-medal victory that seemed to signal the end of his futility against Djokovic now looks like a mirage. On the other hand, his ambush in Basel that seemed to signal the end of his futility against Federer does not look like a mirage. Reprising that result in the round-robin phase, Del Potro exploited his formidable serve to the fullest and once again held firm as the match escalated to its climax. Of course, he still must duplicate that result in a match more meaningful to Federer during a more meaningful part of the season, but finally he has dispelled the hopelessness that pervaded his losses to the Swiss earlier in 2012. Next on Del Potro’s agenda should stand the task of asserting himself against Federer, who strangely jerked him around at will for a third time on a third surface this year. One giant step at a time, though.
Murray: On his home soil, the gold medalist could not rise to the occasion in a surprisingly flat semifinal against Federer, in which he failed to close out more than one first-set lead and surrendered meekly thereafter. In the round-robin phase, he similarly could not finish off Djokovic after winning the first set and threatening early in the second set of a match that recalled their Shanghai final. Having lost the momentum for now in both of those rivalries, Murray concluded a post-US Open span filled with failures to sustain leads in tight matches. More impressive was his own comeback from a one-set deficit against Berdych, who has troubled him indoors before and entered in fine form. In general, though, the post-tournament rankings that placed him well behind the two players above him looked all too accurate. Like Djokovic before him, Murray may require an adjustment period to his new status after winning his first major.
Ferrer: A semifinalist in London last year, he could not escape from the round-robin group despite winning two matches, an uncommonly unfortunate position. Competing creditably in yet another loss to Federer, notwithstanding an 0-13 career record against him, the Spaniard exceeded expectations by executing an intelligent strategy to defuse Del Potro. More telling of his character was his effort in his last match, which both players knew to mean nothing before it began. Almost any player would have conceded swiftly when losing the first set to Tipsarevic in those circumstances. Showcasing his integrity and resolve, Ferrer battled all the way back to a victory that allowed him to leave London on a positive note as he prepares for Davis Cup.
Berdych: Destined to clash with Ferrer in Prague, the Czech mirrored him in falling short of last year’s semifinal appearance. Unfortunate to draw both Djokovic and Murray in his group, he came within a point of a third set against the former and extended the latter deep into that final stanza. Berdych may share Federer’s regret for opportunities wasted, but his ability to stand toe to toe for long stretches with two of the top three illustrated the consistency that he has sustained more effectively this year.
Tsonga: A ghastly 0-12 against the top eight this year, the Frenchman completely lost the impetus that he carried from an outstanding close to the 2011 season. After he ended his week in London winless, his new coach Roger Rasheed claimed that Tsonga used this week to prepare for 2013, which provided a more positive gloss for this latest debacle than seemed reasonable. While any coach should serve him better than none, this partnership with a mentor best known for working with notorious underachiever Monfils bodes little better for the future.
Tipsarevic: At the opposite end of the spectrum from his compatriot stood the second-ranked Serb, who won one set in three matches and lost twelve straight games between his first and second matches. Like Fish, who went 0-3 in London last year as a first-time qualifier, Tipsarevic could not bridge the gap between his limited abilities and those of his higher-ranked opponents.