The four Grand Slams in a year may hog the limelight in tennis but the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals (WTF) is not far behind. With the crème de la crème of the sport descending upon this event, every match is expected to be supremely competitive, adding to the intrigue factor, thus making it an absolutely unmissable affair for tennis aficionados.
This year, there is a different flavour to this much-vaunted tournament. An eclectic mix of megastars, next generation leaders and debutants – Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils, Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem – make up the Final Eight. There is no doubt that each is a powerhouse of talent but did you envisage them to be the London line-up nearly 11 months back when the season kicked off in January?
The answer would definitely be no for most tennis fans.
The major absentees: what does their absence signify?
The two grand daddies of modern tennis are conspicuous by their absence. No discussion of the greats is complete without the inclusion of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and you certainly always pencil them in blindly at the WTF every year. Except this time, that’s not the case.
Since 2002, with the exception of just two years, Federer along with Djokovic had made this event their duopoly, sharing as many as 11 titles between them. Federer, though, remains the unrivalled king of this indoor gala, not just because he amassed six crowns, but also because of his consistent mastery that is evident from his 10 finals which in itself is another record.
Nadal’s performance at the WTF might not be as immaculate as his long-time rival and friend. However, he is no slouch either having reached the finals twice. The Spaniard, who wrapped up a season hobbled by wrist injury, did miss the WTF even before unlike the 17-time Grand Slam winner for whom this is unprecedented.
Since 2001, the Swiss maestro never had to skip the year-ender until a knee surgery and its subsequent rehabilitation robbed him of a chance to extend his 14-year-long uninterrupted appearance. That’s indeed a bitter pill for his legion of fans to swallow.
Their concomitant no-show which follows their fall together from the top 4 rankings for the first time since 2003, is perhaps a harbinger of what’s to come. Even Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone echoed the same thoughts that are swirling in every Fedal admirer’s minds.
“For a long time, we’ve wondered when this era will end. Maybe this is the start of it. I hope not. Roger and Rafa have been the cornerstones of greatness for so long, it’s shocking to the system when they are not there,” he said to the New York Times.
The flipside of every greatness is that, like everything else in life, it also has its own expiry date. That Federer and Nadal won’t be there forever is a realization that is every bit unwelcome and depressing. There’s no denying that we have been spoiled by Fedal magic over the years so much that we even refuse to look beyond them.
They might still be in the thick of things when they come back next year but it won’t be inane to say that their days at the top are numbered.
The 2016 WTF might be preparing us for the days ahead of a still unimaginable world sans Fedal, no matter how much we are unwilling to accept it. And that’s what compels us to look at tennis beyond these two lofty pillars.
A dream come true for two debutants - what can they make of their chances?
As always, one man’s loss is another’s windfall. Fedal’s voluntary early end-of-season opened up possibilities for two gifted players who are making their much-coveted debut this year. Interestingly, though both are making their maiden appearances, they are in different stages of their careers.
Gael Monfils’s transition to the senior circuit did not live up to the promise he showed during his prolific junior days. Finally at 30, the Paris-born Frenchman is showing sparks that fans long yearned to see from his racquet.
Having resigned himself to being tagged a true entertainer with his incredible acrobatics, this year is the first time that he has displayed he is much more than just that. With a never-before-seen equanimity under pressure and a serene consistency, Monfils justified his talent by becoming the oldest first-time WTF qualifier since 1972.
His fellow debutant – Dominic Thiem – in contrast, has just begun to assert himself as the leader of the rising pack of youngsters. 2016 has been a season to remember which awarded the 23-year-old four titles as well as his first Major semi-final at the French Open. The single-handed backhand that has been hailed a lot, has been his major weapon of destruction and helped immensely in his climb to the top echelons.
However, his late season has also been marred by some preposterous scheduling that contributed to fatigue and multiple early losses. He has definitely not come to the tournament soaring high on confidence. To add to that, nerves will certainly be a factor with this being his first taste of the glittering, mind-boggling extravaganza that the WTF could be.
Monfils might be an older statesman but that doesn’t exempt him from jangling nerves either especially when both him and Thiem have been saddled in the same group as the five-time champion Djokovic and their losses in their first group matches on Sunday vindicate it further.
Having said that, more new names at the WTF indeed do add to the diversification of talent at the top tier which is indispensable for the sport to progress.
For Monfils, it is a reward for being able to channelize his energy in the right direction after years of failure and Thiem’s qualification bolsters further that the change of guard is well and truly under way.
There is no doubt that for both this is a dream come true.
The grand chase for the year-end No. 1 ranking
Remember the grand chariot race sequence from the multiple Oscar winner ‘Ben-Hur’ where the eponymous character was doing a seemingly improbable chase to usurp the favourite Messala? In one of the most vibrant and dazzling chases ever, Ben-Hur ultimately did succeed in doing the unthinkable as he claimed the victory.
Andy Murray was the Ben-Hur in this race this year. He shaved off a colossal 8000 + points between him and Djokovic in five months to do the impossible as he dethroned the latter from the pinnacle after the Serb’s 122-week continuous reign in his latest stint. That race for the No. 1 was what kept tennis lovers engrossed for the entire second half of 2016 with the Scot looking absolutely unstoppable as he notched up eight titles in the best season of his career.
As Djokovic stuttered and plummeted to implausible defeats after completing a Career Slam at the French Open, the sizzling Scot’s graph soared higher and higher. But even having conceded his prized No. 1 ranking, the 12-time Major champion can still wrest it back, despite currently trailing Murray by 405 points and that is what adds an extra dimension to the competition at WTF. It thus won’t be wrong to say that Djokovic and Murray will be the cynosure of all eyes this year as fans wait with bated breath to see who emerges as the final winner in this ranking carousel.
Djokovic’s erratic form perhaps is not so shocking after all. He had been relentlessly chasing the French Open dream for many years now and with it being fulfilled this year, it is only natural that there would be an emotional void for the Serb. Evidently, he has still not been able to reset his ambitions and find another goal to work for. The steely resolve and the sharpness have been eroded beyond any doubt.
Nevertheless, what sets him apart is his astounding ability to bounce back any time. The WTF has been where he has dominated the last four years and London’s O2 Arena can only help to fuel the dormant fire in Djokovic. Having to share a group with two debutants apart from Raonic makes his task even easier on paper.
Murray, on the other hand, has to ward off the surging Serb and that is as hard as it can get. Also having never made it to the summit clash of this event, he needs to outdo himself. The Briton just cannot afford to slip and has to outperform his nemesis for him to retain the No. 1 ranking that he fought so hard to get.
His focus should be on the whopping 1500 points that an undefeated triumph can guarantee but it is easier said than done. He has to counter the likes of Slam winners Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic along with Kei Nishikori in the round robin stages all of whose presence makes his group a thoroughly exciting and unpredictable one.
Murray, however, does have two assets that Djokovic does not possess right now – an exceptionally high level of self-belief and the resounding support of the home crowd. And he can count on them any time should he find himself in dire straits.
The eight men at this year’s WTF might not have been the most predicted set. That said, on their day, they can surely rise to the occasion and give the very best in the game a run for their money. And that’s what the season-ender is all about. Just like debutante Dominika Cibulkova’s win in the women’s counterpart this year showed us that all you need is heart and desire, the 2016 WTF too will be much more than just the towering names. It is a rare chance to prove that you too belong there and each one of these men will be looking to grab this opportunity with both hands.