Always deflating are the days that the round-robin format can produce late in weeks when all players involved already have decided their fates. That day will not arrive in London, where every man remains at least in theoretical contention as each Group enters its last day. Group A concludes first as Djokovic and Murray attempt to seal their semifinal berths.
Djokovic (2-0) vs. Berdych (1-1): Bruised but unbowed after another epic with Murray, the world #1 stands within range of a perfect record in Group A if he can extend his mastery over a player long dominated by him. Only once in eleven meetings has Berdych solved Djokovic, and not at all in the six since the latter evolved into the terror of the Tour almost two years ago. In fact, the Czech’s sole victory may have played a role in galvanizing the Serb’s emergence from his sophomore slump in late 2010, for that Wimbledon semifinal suggested his mental frailty so clearly that it may have awakened a determination in him to prove the contrary. Despite that generally one-sided trajectory, Berdych has tested the world #1 severely in several of their matches and has won the first set in four of his ten losses. Moreover, the fast, low-bouncing court in London has inspired comparisons to the Wimbledon grass where his one victory came, parallels that resonated when he nearly doubled that total here last year. Extending Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak in their 2011 round-robin meeting, Berdych must win a few more points this time to reach a second straight semifinal.
In each of his five round-robin matches over the last two years, the sixth-ranked man has played a final set. Fortunate to enjoy a rest day between each bout, he showed no physical or emotional fatigue from his loss to Murray in the final set against Tsonga, which he won convincingly in an impressive display of resilience after the second set had slipped away. Resilience also defined Djokovic’s comeback against the aforementioned Scot, for he started much the inferior player and did not wrest away the momentum until he trailed by a set. Entering the week with uncertainty surrounding his energy level and competitive appetite, he dispelled any lingering concerns in that triumph over a key rival. A more versatile and balanced player than Berdych, Djokovic should prosper in most of the baseline rallies as long as he varies his ball placement and keeps his opponent moving. Lethal when he has time to set up his forehands, Berdych grows erratic when stretched along the baseline and lacks the Serb’s ability to create offense from defense. To secure the upset, he must strike a high percentage of first serves and look to step inside the baseline with the first stroke after the serve. Rarely high in self-belief, Berdych surged in confidence late this summer and may have become dangerous with the momentum from his last victory. Djokovic in three
Murray (1-1) vs. Tsonga (0-2): A shadow of the exuberant ball-striker who roared to the London final last year, Tsonga has trudged within one match of the end to a thoroughly disappointing season. Or so it would seem, recalling his inability to topple anyone in the top 10 on any surface this year with the exception of a clay victory over Del Potro. Ominously, Murray has won all four of their previous meetings on fast surfaces, three on British grass and one on an indoor hard court in Metz. Although he yielded a set in three of those four matches, he has not lost to Tsonga since the 2008 Australian Open, which marked the latter’s breakthrough and a period of stagnation in the former’s career. Just as ominously, Murray has halted this rival on occasions when momentum rested squarely in the Frenchman’s favor. One of his victories came a day after Tsonga upset Federer, and another two days after he ambushed Nadal. Whereas the seventh-ranked man needs assistance to keep his frail semifinal hopes alive, the home hope knows that he can secure the runner-up position with a victory in the likely event that Djokovic defeats Berdych. Often at his best on British soil, Murray should not need much more fuel to ignite his resolve after that deflating loss to Djokovic.
Early in both of his round-robin matches, though, Tsonga competed better than expected and especially served at an almost untouchable rate. Few were the points that Djokovic, arguably the ATP’s best returner, and Berdych could secure from his first serve, so his ability to deliver that stroke consistently piled pressure on opponents. Tsonga did not face a break point against the Serb in their first set, and he lost serve only once in the first two sets against the Czech, so Murray cannot afford to suffer an early wobble on serve as he did in his first match. Passively submitting when Djokovic took an early lead against him, Tsonga fought back with tenacity in the same situation against Berdych. The mercurial Frenchman has developed a habit of doing the opposite of what one would anticipate in any given situation, which suggests that he might swing freely against Murray when little hope seems rational. But the Scot’s strengths in his return game and passing shots shield him well from Tsonga’s greatest weapons, serve and net approaches, which explains his control over their rivalry. Murray in two