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Fall Frenzy

The annual ATP World Tour Finals has a special place in tennis lore for many fans and players alike. However, it is a topic of heated debate, as gripes surrounding scheduling at the end of a long year, seem to be an annual event as well. Critics and detractors of the event often cite that the significance of the tournament should not be on even footing with the Grand Slam events, when considering career resumes between the all-time greats. Some prefer Davis Cup titles, others just prefer to either diminish the tournament or raise it’s importance, simply in an effort to portray their favorite players in a better light.

So my question becomes – What is the true significance of the ATP World Tour Finals? I like the idea of a year ending tournament, a kind of “playoff” for tennis, comparable to the very successful FedEx cup in golf, however, I’m not sure all of the players take it seriously. In 2010, question marks surrounded Novak Djokovic’s true motivation, because he was preparing for a Davis Cup final a few days later. Are we supposed to expect that same attitude from Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer in 2011?

Rafael Nadal has never won a ATP World Tour Final, and it’s a slight hole on his career resume, depending on who you are asking. He made a strong case in 2010, and let it be known that he had his sights set on winning in London. Will he be as focused this year, as Spain prepares to take on Argentina in the Davis Cup Finals?

The Calendar

As we are all familiar with by now, the players (Murray, Nadal) are unhappy. Talks of a strike are dominating the tennis headlines, and the threats appear to be real, although nobody has formally met at this point. Leading the charge are Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. While I am of the opinion that a player strike is bad for the sport, I do think having a players union might be a progressive move in the right direction.

Murray’s threats of strike might be a little premature, but his frustrations stem from the annual ATP calendar and the strict requirements. Sixty-seven events are played on the men’s calendar across 32 countries on six continents. Events are classified as Grand Slams (four in a year), ATP World Tour Masters 1000 series (9), Barclays ATP World Tour Finals (WTF; season-finale event), ATP World Tour 500 series (11) and ATP World Tour 250 (42). This is excluding the Davis Cup. In accordance with ATP rules, players are ranked on the basis of the past 52 weeks’ performance.

A player’s total points from four Grand Slams, nine Masters 1000 series, the Barclays ATP WTF (if he qualifies) are accounted for, in addition to the best four and best two results from any of the ATP 500 events and ATP 250 events, respectively. In all, he needs to play at least 18 events to prop his rankings.

The ATP calendar is admittedly long, and despite the unusual spike in retirements at the 2011 US Open, statistics* show that overall retirements were down in 2011 compared to years past.  There had been 187 withdrawals this year leading up to the US Open, against 378 in 2006, 270 in 2007, 256 in 2008, 242 in 2009, and 309 in 2010.

I found that number to be very interesting, and led me to question what the complaints were all about. Was it just a bad day at the office, that led to some misplaced thoughts, that maybe Murray shouldn’t have aired in public forum?

One telling stat is the number of matches played by the top players each year. Since 2005, Andy Murray has never once played more then 80 matches in one season.

Murray has played an average of 58.85 matches per year, his highest being 77 in 2009. During that same time period, Nadal has played an average of 81.57 matches per year, his highest being 93 in 2008. Federer has played an average of 78.85 matches per year, his highest being 97 in 2006; and finally, Djokovic has played an average of 70.42 matches per year, his highest being 97 in 2009. Of all the people to be most outspoken, Murray has played the least amount of tennis since 2005.

AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF

Tennis at the highest level, is a grind, which makes the 30-year-old Federer’s staying power all the more remarkable. He has had recurring back problems in the past and had mononucleosis in early 2008, however, he has not missed a Grand Slam tournament in the last decade and has played in the tour championships every year in which he has qualified, beginning in 2002. Federer is the exception not the example. His longetivity is something to be admired, and something today’s generation willl most likely not be able to emulate. The physical toll Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal put on their body, will not allow for the type of run Federer has endured.

“It means a lot to him,” said Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick. “Not enough for him to go chase the points in Asia when he was hurt and risk further injury. Guys don’t seem to take a lesson from Roger in terms of giving their body a break. But Roger wants this.”

The lesson here is that a player’s true legacy is marked by winning. Whether it be a Masters 1000, or an ATP 250, a Grand Slam, or the World Tour Finals.

So when considering the significance of the ATP World Tour Finals, I come back to motivation. What motivates a player at the end of a grueling season to compete in November?

I think it’s a player’s legacy, or his foot print on the game in the grand scheme of things. It is often forgotten, that when fans, media, John McEnroe, etc,  hand out report cards; or make claims to the “best season ever,” that we are still currently entrenched in that season, or that era.

Why not wait to make those claims. Let it play out. Write that chapter, once the current chapter is closed. I don’t think it is fair to compare Federer’s 2005-2008 with Djokovic’s one great season, or Nadal’s 2010. It is a larger picture that needs painting. Imagine if a construction company quit building a 10 story building after the 2nd floor, because they were so inspired by that floor. It would not only look incomplete, but it would be incomplete.

Barclays ATP World Tour Finals

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

The World Tour Finals draw includes only the Top 8 players of that year – essentially starting the tournament in the quarterfinal stage, where the top 8 players are “expected” to end up in a Grand Slam draw anyways.

The tournament itself has somewhat of a forgotten past. It has changed names numerous times, and spanned different continents during it’s extended history. However, one thing has remained the same. Each year it crowns a champion from among the year’s top players.

The tournament can trace it’s roots back to 1970, when it was called The Masters. Later it become the ATP Tour World Championship in 1990, when it was transported from New York’s Madison Square Garden to Frankfurt. It was renamed the Tennis Masters Cup in 2000.

In 2009, it was rebranded again as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and moved to London’s O2 Arena. Despite the challenge of locating the tournament from year to year, and the ever changing names; there has been very few weak links in its roster of champions. In the 41 years of existence, only three men have won the tournament, who have also never won a Grand Slam singles title: Alex Corretja in 1998, David Nalbandian in 2005, and Nikolay Davydenko in 2009. The three men who have won it most are Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl, and Roger Federer, each with five titles.

It is the last scheduled ATP Tour event on the long calendar, and allows for players to see a finish line. Players at that point can make a decision mentally to give it their full dedicated efforts, prior to the upcoming vacation; or check out mentally because they have visions of beaches, clouding their minds.

In 2010, Federer had by far the best fall among all the players. After losing to Djokovic at the 2010 US Open, Federer took a month off. Then he went on a 21-2 run for the fall, losing only to Murray (final of Shanghai) and Gael Monfils (semis of Paris Bercy). Looking back, it now seems that perhaps the only major difference between Federer and Djokovic in 2010 and 2011 was nothing more complicated than one or two shots at a time, in Federer’s case, two match points at a time. Djokovic lost to Federer three times last fall (in Shanghai, the final of Basel, and the semis of the ATP World Tour Finals), but has since developed into Djokovic 2.0 – losing only 3 times since his semifinal loss to Federer at the ATP World Tour Finals.

The X-factor in this situation becomes the Davis Cup. If Djokovic didn’t face the Davis Cup final immediately following the World Tour Finals, I wonder if he would have given Federer a better match. That’s not to say Federer didn’t deserve the win, he was clearly the best player on tour last fall. But the timing does have a factor in preparation.

In light of the schedule talks, and the idea of forming a players union, Jim Courier may have summed it all up best. He told Tennis Grandstand the schedule needed to be changed because it would keep the top players on the court longer, which benefits everyone. “But let’s be clear, that everyone in this sport, since Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith fought for Open tennis, we’ve all been overpaid, grossly overpaid, for what we do. So let’s be clear that this is not a pity party, but I don’t think that player representation is necessarily a bad thing.”

He added, “It’s not about the immediacy of we want this or we want that because we need immediate gain, and the off-season is a no-brainer, it needs to happen, but we’ve been saying that for thirty years and it hasn’t happened.”

The irony of all of the schedule talks is that current (not for long) ATP executive chairman and president, Adam Helfant, announced last year that the off-season on the men’s tour would be seven weeks, up from four weeks presently, starting 2012. So with that said, they are actually getting the longer off season they desire.

I hope that the fall portion of 2011 brings even a fraction of the excitement that 2010 had. The main issue here is that the focus has shifted from the tennis on the court, to the issues off the court. Change takes time.

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*Source: ATP World Tour

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