In the first of our daily previews, we look at the more intriguing of the round-robin groups, with which the World Tour Finals opens. Unlike Group B, every man in Group A has reached a major final and won a Masters 1000 tournament. But only one has won this event before, and none has won it in London.
Murray vs. Berdych: Even as he has excelled at Wimbledon each year, Murray has not quite dazzled at the other key tournament on home soil. Crucial to his struggles in the O2 Arena from 2009-11 is a fast surface that punishes passivity, the trait that especially has undermined the Scot against the elite competition that he encounters there. Until the end of last year, that passivity also cost Murray regularly in his matches with Berdych, against whom he had a record even less impressive than his record in London. With two hard-court victories this year, however, the US Open champion may have stemmed the tide in a rivalry controlled by the Czech. On the other hand, Berdych nearly extended Murray to a fifth set in New York despite conditions designed to frustrate his game, and most of their matches have hinged upon a handful of points no matter the winner.
Both men have recorded fall campaigns best described as enigmatic, looking impressive for extended periods before suddenly looking mortal. Subdued by Djokovic in a scintillating Shanghai final, one of the best Masters 1000 matches this year, Murray mustered little energy for Paris. Neither did Berdych, who won Stockholm with a strong three-set comeback over Tsonga and reached the semifinals in Shanghai, only to succumb meekly to Simon last week. While the Czech usually garners more attention for his serve than does his opponent, the Scot will want to avoid resorting to his second serve too often, for even Janowicz pounced on the only significant chink in his armor. A man of greater chinks but stronger armor, Berdych will seek to consistently take the initiative, which Murray cannot permit him to do on this offensively oriented surface. Considering their history, a three-setter might loom, and the Scot has struggled to deliver the coup de grace in those situations since his breakthrough in New York. Berdych in three
Djokovic vs. Tsonga: In this rivalry defined by alternating spans of dominance, Djokovic has swept all six of their meetings since evolving into the Djuggernaut of 2011-12. Previously, Tsonga had won five of six following their collision in the 2008 Australian Open final. Despite the intimidating power projected by the Frenchman, then, their shifts in fortune have mirrored the trajectory of Djokovic’s career. Whether his form ebbs or flows here will depend on how successfully he has recovered from an illness that troubled him a week ago and how much his father’s recovery from a more serious illness distracts him. When fully focused on a match, he usually dismisses Tsonga without difficulty by setting up an impenetrable fortress behind the baseline and forcing his rival to cross the line from bold to reckless. While Djokovic can stay even with the Frenchman in most forehand-to-forehand rallies, he holds an enormous advantage in points constructed around their backhands, which he has exploited in meetings on faster surfaces.
But Tsonga reached the final in London last year by denying his opponents the time to settle into rallies, instead pounding a high percentage of first serves before taking a massive swing at the next ball that he saw. His staccato tempo suits this court more than Djokovic’s fluid style, a reason why the higher-ranked man has not yet found notable success in London. Among the other reasons for the Serb’s modest results there, especially his round-robin exit last year, is the long season that drains more energy from a competitor who invests himself so deeply physically and emotionally in every match. By contrast, Tsonga enjoys turning the court into a stage to entertain an audience and exhibits a nonchalance that combines the charismatic with the frivolous. That attitude has availed him little in his clashes with top-ten opponents this year, an area in which he has failed as spectacularly as he has succeeded in others. Only one of thirteen matches against that group has ended with Tsonga’s joyous victory celebration, which does not bode well for his week in London. Djokovic in two