The ATP World Tour Finals: Expectation Mounts

The ATP Tour is set to culminate this year, at the end of a very long season, in London’s grand O2 Arena between Nov. 22 and Nov. 29, where the ATP World Tour Finals are due to take place.

The top eight players, their rankings taken from their year-long results on the tour, will battle it out in this exclusive finale in the hopes of becoming the year’s ultimate tennis champion.

In the last three years, the World Tour Finals (previously called the Tennis Masters Cup) have taken place in Shanghai, where the ATP believed the new economic and sporting revolution in tennis was due to take hold with instant ferocity.

However, events did not transpire as well as planned—the popularity of tennis in China and Asia as a whole, while increasing, has not exploded. One year prior to the conclusion of the original contract, the final event of the men’s calendar has relocated to a more fan-, sponsor-, and television-friendly hub, namely London, accompanied by much media hype, speculation, and expectation.

Currently, six players have determined their position at the event as they have already acquired the amount of points necessary to remain in the top eight until the end of the season.

These players—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Andy Roddick—have produced consistently exemplary results throughout the season, thoroughly deserving their place at the O2.

However, organisers—and fans—have reason to worry that the London premiere will not be as spectacular as first thought. Injury troubles and exhaustion have suddenly hit a multitude of players extremely hard.

Rafael Nadal, the current world No. 2 and first qualifier for the championship, and his injury woes have been well documented since his apparent fall from grace at the French Open in Roland Garros in June, where he was beaten triumphantly by an inspired Robin Soderling.

It transpired that his troublesome knees had finally got the better of his mental strength and conditioning, forcing him to take an extended break from the tour, and consequently missing out on defending his French Open crown and Wimbledon.

Even when he returned in August, in preparation for the US Open, his chances of winning the final Slam of the year were severely diminished by a persistent abdomen strain.

Having reached his first ATP Tour final since May at the recent Shanghai Masters 1000 event, critics believed that Nadal was finding his form at just the right moment. However, a subsequent defeat to Nikolay Davydenko at this event gave rise to the rumour once more that Nadal was—and is—still not the indefatigable warrior that he was in his splendid 2008 season.

Federer has only added to the significance of injury worries. Usually a beacon of time management and health, Federer has also been forced to take an extended break from the tour in apparent preparation for the Finals, by resting and recuperating after a summer packed full of long tournaments and life changing events.

Since May, Federer has reached five of his last six tournament finals (three of which were Grand Slams), as well as becoming a new father to twins.

His layoff from the tour, missing events in Tokyo and Shanghai, indicate that he is focusing his attention well and truly on one of his favourite tournaments, the Finals—but the jury is still out on whether his recurring back injuries, muscle tensions, and general tiredness will allow him at least one more successful tournament before the season ends.

Other significant figures and Final participants to fall foul of the arduous tour schedule are Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro. Roddick, in particular, has been vehement in his demands for the tour to be altered. With a troubling knee injury plaguing his preparations, the American may not be fit enough to pose a serious threat to the champion’s trophy.

Suggesting that the tour should be significantly shortened so that world stars such as Nadal, Federer, and himself are fit to play throughout seems to strike an important chord with all players at this time of year.

Roddick stresses that fans and critics alike must remember that not only are tennis tournaments scheduled in quick succession all year long, they cross many time zones, which only adds to the mental and physical tolls on such finely tuned athletes.

Del Potro, too, has suffered tremendous defeats since his victory over Federer in the US Open Final, notably loosing in the first round of the Tokyo Open to a virtual unknown, highlighting yet another case of players running out of energy before the season officially concludes.

Once again, questions are being raised over the potential quality of the upcoming London event. Will these elite players be suitably rested, injury free, and mentally strong enough to provide the spectacle that all parties so clearly demand?

There has rarely been a time when the stars of the men’s game have been so super and the depth of competition among the highest strata has been so fierce. Yet these world-class players feel as if the ATP has an inability to see that even the best athletes need time to recharge, in order to provide tournaments with their appearances, let alone professional performances.

The threat of no-shows or boycotts of one of the ATP’s most lucrative tournaments—arguably its flagship event—must be troubling for the tour’s management.

Yet, still, the present atmosphere in tennis suggests that there is a wind-down, rather than a buildup to a climax, in November; surely this is not what the World Tour Final organisers intended?

Nevertheless, what will have to change to rectify this situation, with necessary benefits for both players and tournaments, remains to be seen.

(Published on Bleacher Report; 26th October 2009)

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