Among the most notable headlines of Tuesday in London was the victory of Wimbledon champions Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielsen over a higher-ranked squad. As with the WTA year-end championships, the World Tour Finals have limited the upsets to the doubles draw, while round-robin matches in singles have proceeded according to plan. Wednesday showcases the only round-robin match between top-four opponents, when the spotlight in the O2 Arena will shift onto Marray’s more famous but similarly named compatriot.
Djokovic (1-0) vs. Murray (1-0): In a battle for control over Group A, the two men who won hard-court majors this year meet for the seventeenth time. One could view their past several clashes in 2011-12 as charting the emergence of Murray into a contender on a level with the Big Three, leading from his Melbourne humiliation last year through his near-victory (and moral victory) on the same court this year before culminating with consecutive marquee triumphs at the Olympics and the US Open. Less easy to interpret was the thrilling Masters 1000 final in Shanghai, which looked likely to continue the theme of the Scot’s dominance over his former nemesis—until Djokovic stunningly turned the tables after saving five match points. Cultivating a complicated relationship with pressure and the spotlight, both champions alternated the sublime with the absurd in that match as their body language soared and sagged in inverse proportion. Not a feature of the rivalries between Federer and Nadal, Djokovic and Nadal, or Federer and Djokovic, this moodiness can create an uncomfortably weighty atmosphere during non-critical sequences while enhancing the moments of drama that they create together.
Late in the season with neither man at his best, moodiness should descend again when they meet at the O2 Arena, where each survived a less than stirring victory on Monday. After Murray lingered long enough for Berdych to lose focus in a third set, Djokovic meandered to a first-set tiebreak against Tsonga and gladly accepted the Frenchman’s errors therein as well as his capitulation thereafter. Neither man relishes a surface that does not showcase their court coverage and explosive movement to the fullest, though, so both should take satisfaction from those successes against more aggressive shot-makers. Strikingly similar in playing styles, they will engage in rallies longer than usual for an indoor hard court while capturing more frequent service breaks. (Even at the US Open, arguably the fastest major, they combined for 17 breaks across five sets.) Curiously, almost all of their matches have tilted to the man who won the first set, and Djokovic in particular may lack the emotional energy to reprise what he did in Shanghai. The best player of the season from start to finish, the year-end #1 may summon less motivation than the best player of the second half on his home surface. Murray in two
Berdych (0-1) vs. Tsonga (0-1): Although they have collided on just four occasions, two of them occurred during the post-US Open fall season. As he strives to keep his semifinal aspirations alive, Berdych surely will gain confidence from those victories over Tsonga in Shanghai and especially in Stockholm, a final on an indoor hard court that he rallied to win after trailing by a set and a break. While that match illustrated a resolve surprising in the Czech, it also revealed the depth to which his rival has sunk during a thoroughly disappointing season. Ending the Stockholm final in dispiriting fashion with a double fault, Tsonga still may suffer from the lingering effects of his loss to Djokovic at Roland Garros. Or he simply may have contented himself with strong results on clay and grass that garnered him plenty of headlines, for his second half has displayed no intensity or ambition at all. The Frenchman outplayed Djokovic for much of the first set on Monday, not facing a break point until the tiebreak, but he deflated immediately when he lost the first point on his serve and never again mustered the courage to threaten his higher-ranked opponent.
Unable to convert early momentum into a straight-sets victory over Murray, Berdych must regroup from the disappointment of failing to take control of his group. Even if he defeats Tsonga, he faces the daunting prospect of reversing a history of futility against Djokovic on hard courts, without which he probably cannot reach the semifinals. Able to advance from his group last year, however, Berdych succeeded in rebounding from an opening loss against the Serb to win his next two matches. Both of them unfolded into grinding three-setters, in both of which Berdych lost the first two sets, so memories of that week might steel his determination again. Like the afternoon encounter, this match features two players with a similar approach to the game built upon overpowering serve-forehand combinations, although Tsonga approaches the net more frequently than his opponent. Never outstanding returners, the Czech and the Frenchman struggled equally in that regard on Monday, even when returning modest second serves from Murray and Djokovic, respectively. This match thus should hinge upon a small handful of points that define the opportunities wasted or exploited, and another tiebreak or two might well unfold. Berdych in two