Archive for November, 2009

ATP World Tour Finals In London: Lessons Learned From Shanghai

November 30, 2009

The World Tour Finals, the ATP Tour’s year-end championships, which has now been completed following Nikolay Davydenko’s singles victory, has re-established itself as the ATP’s premium tournament following its premiere in its new home of London’s O2 Arena.

The Shanghai experiment (the Tennis Masters Cup—the Finals’ previous name—was played there for the past four years) now looks like a woefully unsuccessful misadventure, a notion underlined by the fact that the ATP pulled the plug on the event one year before the original contract expired in favour of the newly sponsored and newly organised event in London.

The mainland Chinese made a good effort to get up to speed with state-of-the-art, Western-style sports promotion, particularly with tennis. With team-based sports already popular in Asia (football being a clear example), individual sports were the next emerging area.

The likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal already had huge fanbases, as well as sponsorship, in China, and it was hoped that staging the Tennis Masters Cup in a cosmopolitan and accepting Chinese city like Shanghai would capitalise on this interest.

A brand new arena, introduced solely for the Tennis Masters Cup, was inaugurated in 2005 by Federer (the “lucky” 8-leaf, magnolia-shaped roof does not seem so lucky anymore).

But despite Shanghai’s—and the ATP’s—best efforts, certain difficulties remained insurmountable. The most significant of these was the painful reality that the Chinese equivalent of a “typical” tennis fan didn’t have the disposable income, or free time, to buy a ticket.

Equally, for the majority of overseas fans, China seemed just too far to travel even to see the best tennis players.

The event, in its innovative stadium and with presidential-like benefits, seemed like a futuristic novelty for the majority of its prospective visitors.

From the offset, it was different in London’s O2. Hosting other events such as unique music concerts, gymnastic championships, and exhibitions, the location is already well-known as a prestigious location for the world’s best entertainment.

As soon as tickets were released for the World Tour Finals in February, sessions began selling out. By August, only 20,000 of 250,000 tickets remained available.

An unstoppable hype machine, combined with a thrilling 2009 tennis season and, most crucially, an enormous, long-established, and relatively affluent Western fanbase whose constituents are already familiar with the sport, made the move to London profitable before the event even started.

The media presence in Shanghai was also limited; organisations that usually send reporters abroad found the lack of activity in Shanghai a reason for home reports instead. The time difference only compounded issues for broadcasters, reporters, newspapers, and fans alike.

London, on the other hand, is well positioned geographically and chronologically for the broadest range of countries and individuals. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to visit and report from London, one of the financial and cultural hubs of the world?

The sheer number of accreditation passes hanging around the necks of those who wandered the O2’s alleys provided the evidence that this event would be comprehensively documented by the world’s media.

The ATP positioned the move to Shanghai as a (incredibly) forward-looking gamble based on China’s booming economy and growing interest in tennis. A progressive mood was in the air, especially as this event is second only to Grand Slams in terms of importance. Shanghai seemed like the perfect location to compound the global aspirations of the widespread ATP tour.

Although it is advantageous to maximise the market for tennis by taking the sport to emerging or exurban regions, there is no doubt that the most important event should be held in mature markets and big cities, purely because of the limited style and duration of the event.

The Shanghai event was out of sight, out of mind.

How many neutral television viewers were around at two a.m. GMT to flick to the TMC and suddenly find an interest in tennis? This shortsightedness has cost the ATP in the long term and is why it is even more crucial that the event is taking place in such a global, high-octane centre such as London.

The TMC events held in New York in the 1980s have always been the benchmark, and perhaps the reason why only a city like London can come close to that success.

From all accounts, it appears that the past week’s World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena has well and truly achieved that.

The London event was a stunning success, with the quality of the tennis providing an uplifting end to the 2009 season.

The crowds were unexpectedly huge, the staging was brave and innovative, and, most importantly, the players gave absolutely everything to what has now been acknowledged as one of their favourite locations and events.

From the first ball, this was a classy competition, ambitiously staged by the tournament directors. The light shows and emotive musical introductions created chilling pre-match hype, and the practice court in the middle of the public walkway added to the fan experience.

An early criticism related to the lateness of the match finishes. Some of the evening singles sessions ended close to midnight, a spectacle that would normally be appreciated if it were not for the lack of public transport from the East London location at a late hour on chilly, rainy November evenings.

The atmosphere would change completely if the evening session started earlier, even by half an hour, so that all fans could stay until the conclusion of the final match without worrying about missing transport connections.

The only real disappointment of the week was the farcical indecision of Thursday night, at the conclusion of Group A singles matches, when dithering ATP officials failed to announce the two winners of the group to the players and spectators.

Given the nature of the event—the same layout, and same rules, remain every year—the situation should have been thought through properly, especially as one who had even basic computer spreadsheet competency could have disclosed the result immediately following the evening match.

All in all, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the World Tour Finals’ new home in London. We have plenty to look forward to next year…

(Published on Bleacher Report; 30th November 2009)

Serena Williams And The Final Result Of Her US Open Outburst

November 30, 2009

Serena Williams, the world No. 1 in female tennis, has been fined and given a suspended three-year ban from the US Open for her tirade at a line judge at the US Open in Flushing Meadows.

The American verbally abused a line judge official at a crucial point in her semi-final against Belgian Kim Clijsters in September.  A foot-fault on a second serve gave Clijsters a match point—a point she subsequently won after Williams’ outburst was punished by a further point penalty.

As the American walked over to the official, she used her racket to gesture angrily as she verbally abused the official.  The official reported what she had heard to the umpire, and Williams was given the point penalty by Brian Earley, US Open tournament referee, who came onto the court.

Williams will incur the ban if she commits any further “major offence” before the end of 2011.  If this is the case, her fine will also double to £106,000.

After the match, Williams was fined £6,000—which has been included in the latest penalty of £53,000.

This is a quarter of the £212,000 Williams received for reaching the semi-finals.  Many believe that this fine is fairly lenient given Williams’ prize money, but that the ban will be a huge incentive for Williams to curb her behaviour.

The fine still tops the previous highest Grand Slam fine of £38,000 given to Jeff Tarango in 1995.

After the incident, Williams released an initial statement, which did not include a straight apology, but later said she wanted to “sincerely apologise” for her behaviour.

The International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam Committee met last week to agree on a punishment. It found her guilty of “the Grand Slam major offence of aggravated behaviour.”

(Published on Bleacher Report: 30th November 2009)

Evening Sessions Become Late Night Sessions At The O2 Arena

November 25, 2009

The day started well enough. In fact, the whole tournament started splendidly.

A highly successful first Sunday with plenty of top players in action (Andy Murray’s and Roger Federer’s wins being the notable highlights).

On Monday, a day session with enough upset (Soderling beating Nadal in straight sets in a repeat of this year’s French Open fourth round) satisfied tennis fans, neutrals and journalists. A session that ended with time aplenty to grab a bite to eat and settle down for a doubles-singles match duo in the evening.

But then the trouble started to mount. We heard rumblings from the Media Centre about the previous evening’s exploits and the horror that Roger Federer’s press conference would commence at midnight. Oh well, fans thought. Journalists have to do their (very privileged) job. What does it matter to them that they have to share taxis, instead of ride the tube, to get home?

However, on Monday night, journalists’ worries extended to the mass crowd. After a slightly late-running doubles match, the hotly anticipated singles match between Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko (a rematch of last year’s final) started at around 9pm. Both counter-punchers clearly wanted to win, and how; in 30 minutes, a period in which a set can often be complete, the Serb and Russian had only played four games.

For many spectators, their travel arrangements only extended until midnight—and, given the tenacity and endurance of the two players, a long night was predicted.

In fact, many spectators had to leave at 11:30pm in order to secure transport home. Some were even forced to leave at 9:45pm to ensure getting home safely. Many ended up being stranded in East London after staying on to applaud Djokovic’s victory over Davydenko, with tubes into Central London stopping at midnight.

Not good, especially when a session only comprises one doubles and one singles match, the latter being the most favoured for the majority.

Clearly, this isn’t good for the audience—and nor for the players, who must dislike playing in front of a half-capacity crowd at such an important event.

Can anything be done? Well, somehow, London transport authorities must know that such events, with effectively late-night conclusion certainty, are due to take place. Can connections from the O2 Arena and North Greenwich be improved for such occasions?

Television schedules, too, could bring some common sense to proceedings.  Tennis approaching midnight in the UK, while being advantageous for those in North America, is not necessarily what the public wants to watch on a weekday night when they have to get up for work early the next morning.

Of course, the obvious answer is to commence the evening session a little earlier. Even a 30 minute advance in scheduling could make the difference between worry and enjoyment for the crowd, players and even sponsors.

For this event to continue in the utterly successful manner in which it started, surely such an improvement must be made for future years.

(Published on Bleacher Report; November 24th, 2009)

ATP World Tour Finals: First Impressions Of A Truly Impressive Event

November 25, 2009

Well, the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals got underway in London. And what a spectacle!

This is an event in the truest sense of the word.  London’s architecturally stunning O2 arena has been transformed into a gladiatorial tennis arena—a setting to inspire, or perhaps intimidate, the world’s best tennis stars. The spotlight is on the players, a one-on-one, week-long fight for the title—let’s hope they shine the entire week.

The view from the bleachers is just as spectacular as the court itself. Each of the 17,000 seats have a brilliant view of the court, in an atmospheric, theatre-like environment. The cheers and electricity emanating from the many thousands of fans to the players on court is addictive. Tennis in Great Britain is alive and well.

What a first day it was. The event kicked off in style with practically a full house observing the first match between No. 1 in doubles, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, and No. 8 seeds Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski.  To spice up the proceedings, an upset was duly served, with the eighth-ranked Poles beating the seasoned veterans.

The atmosphere only grew when No. 1 Brit in singles, Andy Murray, took to the stage against 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. Predictions expected the match would be tight—the world Nos. 4 and 5, a Slam Champion and potential future Slam Champion, battling on their favourite surface.

For the passionate home crowd, Murray did not disappoint. The match, full of blinding rallies, fast serves and awe-inspiring talent, culminated in a Murray victory that sent the crowd into a frenzy.

The conclusion of the day session gave the many fans a chance to relax, recharge and get ready for an eventful evening. The alleyways around the arena became full of chatter and excitement, the electricity overflowing from the tennis court.

There are plenty of food and drinks outlets to satisfy every taste. But beware of the horrendous queues.

Being such an open, important and publicity-packed event, people-spotting is a great activity to make the time fly by. From ex-players, to umpires, to commentators, to journalists, all variety of tennis enthusiasts mingle with the crowds. It’s a true tennis fan heaven under one roof.

More capacity-crowd doubles commenced during the evening session. This time, it was an expected win from No. 3 seeds Mark Knowles and Mahesh Bhupathi.

At 8:45 p.m., however, the “real” match started—Roger Federer against Fernando Verdasco.

The tension mounted until the two greats made their way to the court—a tension that was so greatly exacerbated by dramatic music, emotive video montages and player interviews being broadcast on the big screens.

This event certainly is epic in all its elements.

When Federer arrived, the applause was thunderous, the atmosphere intense. We all knew we were in for a good show.

The Spaniard started on a blinder, pummeling every shot and serve. Federer seemed unnerved at times, yet remained calm, knowing that his chance would come. And it did.

While Verdasco continued his successful shot-making, with a little encouragement from the audience Roger found his groove and started to retaliate. Cross-court forehands, volleys and drop shots all found their mark and soon, Roger was well in control in the third set.

Not even a few scoreboard glitches—Federer became Spanish for three minutes and the big screen went partially black for a significant part of the third set—could dampen the fresh, exciting mood of the first evening singles match to be held in London.

At 11:05 p.m., a thoroughly energised, but hoarse, collection of tennis fans emerged from the O2 arena fully satisfied—the home favourite was triumphant, as was the sentimental favourite. But given the success and enjoyment of the day, the thousands of people swarming about the arena appeared to be craving another dose of high-quality, high-drama tennis on the best, brightest stage.

ATP, we salute you. After an only semi-successful Shanghai venture, we worried if the over-commercialised, over-publicised and over-sponsored season-ending finale in London would be a media and fan nightmare.

But all fears were in vain. You chose the city, you chose the venue and we cannot thank you enough.

Let the Battles Commence.

(Published on Bleacher Report; November 24th, 2009)

Inspiring The Nation With The ATP World Tour Finals

November 21, 2009

In diverse societies, fragmenting media landscapes and recessionary eras, a big sporting moment is one of the few instances where people can come together, unite, and often escape the daily grind. For many, they are the cornerstone of our leisure-time, benefitting, inspiring and enthralling audiences in ways that few other events and systems can manage.

The ATP World Tour Finals in London should be no exception. The O2 Arena, one of the world’s most iconic stadia, sets the perfect stage for a truly inspiring event that will showcase the world’s greatest athletes at the highest level of tennis.

A truly global event, with contending players hailing from 7 countries that span 3 continents, as well as national and international broadcasting, journalistic and fan interest, only adds to the excitement and drama of the event. London, one of the financial, political, chronological – and now sporting – centres of the world, seems a perfect backdrop to this prestigious tournament. Being the high-stakes climax to the arduous tennis calendar, expectation of the event is truly building.

This event is set to offer a series of tremendous matches between the world’s top eight tennis players; it is at this unique tournament that every match permits fans to view the highest quality, and most competitive, rivalries in a one-on-one, unrelenting and fast-paced sport.

20,000 sets of eyes, plus millions watching from home, will be transfixed on two players alone, fighting at every opportunity and with every sinew of their finely-tuned bodies, to see who will become the ultimate champion. A modern sporting classic.

Sport is an intrinsic part to the cultural fabric of many nations, as well as being indispensable for the good health and well-bring of individuals. Research shows that watching live sport, either on television or in a stadium, can genuinely promote interest in sport.

Let us all hope that the World Tour Finals will encourage a new generation of tennis stars, from all corners of the globe, to emulate their idols and succeed.

ATP World Tour Finals: With Groups Determined, The Scene Is Set

November 20, 2009

Now that the competitors of the two round robin groups for the ATP World Tour Finals have been finalised, and official photos taken, the first day of hotly anticipated competition is less than 48 hours away.

In the first time that the event will be hosted in London, the location seems especially apt for an almost wholly European participation (following Andy Roddick’s withdrawal due to a knee injury and Swede Robin Soderling taking his place, only Argentine Juan Martin del Potro does not hail from the European continent).

Equally, the huge, modern, architecturally stunning location of the O2 Arena in the east of the city seems apt for the newly rebranded and highly anticipated end-of-season spectacle.

In Group A, the first of the round robin groups, Roger Federer will face Del Potro, Scot Andy Murray, and Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in what is described as the toughest of the two groupings.

The first singles match on Sunday, the first day of the eight-day tournament, will be home hope Murray against Del Potro—surely a highly entertaining encounter from the two young talents—followed by Federer against Verdasco.

The other group consists of world No. 2 Rafael Nadal, defending champion Novak Djokovic, Russian Nikolay Davydenko, and Robin Soderling of Sweden, who will play on Monday.

Group B will start with Nadal against Soderling in a rematch of the French Open fourth round, where the Swede knocked out the four-time defending champion. Djokovic and Davydenko will conclude the first round robin matches late on Monday.

Djokovic goes into the finals as the in-form player, having won last week’s Paris Masters title, brushing aside Nadal in straight sets on the way to the final. The week before he beat Federer on his home court in Basel to win the final of the Swiss Indoors.

Although the players do not have to win every match in the round robin stage in order to progress to the semifinals, with such stiff competition, every victory will matter this year.

The top two players in each of the round robin groups advance to the semifinals of the tournament, with a possible $1.63 million on offer to a champion who is also undefeated in group stages.

An important side story will be the ongoing battle for year-end No. 1, a position which is still yet to be determined. Federer, who took over as world No. 1 in midseason as Nadal was sidelined by injury, could still lose the No. 1 ranking to the Spaniard.

An undefeated winner of the tournament will claim 1,500 points in the rankings, with the Swiss star’s lead over Nadal at 945 points, meaning that effectively Nadal will have to reach the final of the event in order to recapture the No. 1 position.

While this year is undoubtedly Roger’s year, with final appearances in all four Slam finals and wins in the French Open and Wimbledon (securing a career Grand Slam and record-breaking 15th Slam title), it is clear that the final plot line of Roger’s annual story is yet to be written.

Brawn GP No More: Mercedes Buys Out Team For 2010 F1 Season

November 20, 2009

German car giant Mercedes has bought the Brawn Formula One team, with Jenson Button set to join Lewis Hamilton as his McLaren team-mate.

Mercedes will buy 75 percent of Brawn in partnership with an Abu Dhabi investment company but will also continue as McLaren’s engine partner until 2015.

The Brawn GP team won both world titles in their debut season in 2009—with Brit Jenson Button winning the Driver’s Championship.

Following the purchase by Mercedes, the team will be rebranded as Mercedes Grand Prix, giving a somewhat mythical ending to the one-year old, doubly-successful Brawn GP team that triumphed over initial financial adversity to become champion after only one season.

Ross Brawn will stay on as team principal. He and chief executive Nick Fry will retain a 24.9 percent shareholding in the team. The remaining 75.1 percent will be split between Mercedes, which will own 45.1 percent and Abu Dhabi company Aabar Investments, which will own 30 percent.

Nico Rosberg will be their lead driver, with Nick Heidfeld his likely partner. Neither driver has yet been confirmed but Rosberg, who drove for Williams in 2009, is widely known throughout F1 to have already signed for the Mercedes team.

As part of a deal that will see the McLaren Group buy back Mercedes’s 40 percent shareholding by 2011, the German company will continue to supply free engines and sponsorship to the McLaren team for at least the next six years. Additionally, the team’s official name will remain as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.

Button, who won the drivers’ title this year, has been trying to secure a pay-rise from his £3.5m salary but it seems Mercedes is not interested in keeping him on. He and his manager Richard Goddard visited McLaren on Friday and Button now looks sets to join the McLaren team on double the salary that Brawn were offering.

Button’s decision is understood not to be solely about money—sources say he considers McLaren might have a more competitive car than Brawn in 2010. Button and Hamilton are likely to end up as McLaren team-mates for the 2010 F1 Championship, a formidable British world championship-winning pair.

In other news, former McLaren driver Kimi Raikonnen is likely to be out of the 2010 F1 season, having so far failed to find a team.

The BBC and Editorial Standards: Where To Draw The Line

November 18, 2009

In a recent BBC meeting, Director-General Mark Thompson has urged presenters and executives to continue their creativity and not feel stifled by the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.

In the high profile meeting, which was attended by the likes of Bruce Forsyth, Jeremy Clarkson and John Humphrys, Thompson stressed that the recent taste and decency rows should not limit the BBC’s innovation in other areas.  It is believed that the meeting’s aim was to act as a ‘moral boost’ to the corporation’s talent following the recent intensification of politically correct programme content.

The decision to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question TIme and airing the political satire ‘The Thick of It’ shows that the public service broadcaster was not afraid of controversy.

According to Thompson, the BBC should not be afraid to ‘push boundaries’ and make risque jokes for the good of a programme, intoning that there is a ‘freedom at the BBC to take risks’.

This is in direct contrast to the ‘climate of fear’ that has seemingly been induced among the corporation, where comedians, presenters and producers are constantly aware of breaking strict editorial guidelines.

Recently, a furore broke out over the ‘unjust’ content of ‘Mock the Week’, where Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s appearance was criticised; in the political programme’ This Week’, Andrew Neil’s comments about a black MP were erased from the iPlayer edition after they prompted complaints from viewers.

Now, it appears that the atmosphere is one of retrenchment.  However, with new Editorial Guidelines due for release in early 2010, many key individuals remain unclear as to where they stand and to what extent current policy will intervene in programme production and content.

Equally, it is unclear whether comedy, entertainment or political programmes will suffer as a result of the misty circumstances.  Nonetheless, all parties hope that 2010 will bring more clarity to the tangled mess of 2009 legislation and broadcasting.

Top Gear: The Boys Are Back

November 15, 2009

I was never a big fan of Top Gear.  Yes, I may have watched every so often, when I happened to be sat in front of the television at 8pm on a Sunday night, or when friends suggested it was worth a look, but I had never really given in to the seemingly universal adulation that the two words ‘Top Gear’ appear to generate among young and old, male and female.  The show that everyone seems to love never really did it for me.  Until now.

Curious events in my summer notwithstanding, I now cannot bear to miss a minute of any connotation of Top Gear hype, drama, excitement and the show’s unique, but utterly believable, style of ‘cocking about’.

The bizarrely hypnotic presenting trio of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond seem to seduce even the most discerning viewer to their fun, enthralling, ambitious and often obnoxious banter, challenges and features that are the fundamentals of the escapist Top Gear hour.  This trio of middle-aged men, that (they agree) could so easily belong to ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, are the twenty-first century equivalent of comforting, British Sunday-night television.

Attempting, and sometimes achieving, tasks that only a little boy could dream of, the programme strikes the perfect balance between fun and excitement with the precision, planning and intelligence that is so evidently beneath the surface of the show’s jokes.  It takes a lot of skill and talent to make a niche motoring show so appealing to the broadest demographic, and it is clear the the presenters and production team have these qualities in spades.

I am not alone in feeling this way.  Each new episode of BBC2 attracts over 7 million viewers, often acquiring a 25% audience share.  The show is frequently the most watched show on BBC iPlayer, the online programme playback website.

Its appeal is not limited to the UK.  Over 350 million viewers worldwide watch the BBC production; broadcast in over 100 countries, with spin-offs in places as obscure as Romania and Russia, as well as magazines, live shows and every merchandise under the sun, it seems that the world and his dog cannot get enough of the Top Gear juggernaut.

The Top Gear phenomenon is the one of the most lucrative arms of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the public service broadcaster; with one quarter of Top Gear’s Worldwide profits being delivered straight back to the programme, it is no wonder that the show can consistently pull off daring and dramatic stunts that other shows could only dream of.

The main pull of Top Gear is simple – it is fun.  Pure, unadulterated fun.  It is a seductive world, where there is no need for politeness, consideration, duty or cultural engagement.  Each presenter offers a different spin on proceedings, while all maintaining the addictive undercurrent of amusement, delight and naughtiness.

It is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

Of course, there are critics.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its risque content, language and opinions.  Only this past week has the regulator deemed the last episode of the most recent series to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show showed a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).

Other incidents have included drinking a gin and tonic on the way to the North Pole, naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes, and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.  All events have incurred the wrath of the regulators and generated considerable newspaper column inches, but none have done so much as dent the show’s immense popularity.

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently push the boundaries of responsible and acceptable television.  Yet for others, this politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is the principal reason why the show remains so popular and alluring to the majority.  The show is escapist, giving viewers the opportunity to untie themselves from the shackles of restrictive and oppressive daily life, with Clarkson as prophetic leader of this image.

It is clear that Top Gear is Clarkson’s vehicle, his baby; his personality, enthusiasm and driving runs through every vein of the production.

How ironic it is, then, that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.

The fourteenth series of the show begins in earnest this weekend, at 9pm rather the traditional 8pm, due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls the ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’.  The boys know when to surrender to other children, then.  The first episode will show all three presenters take expensive cars to Romania, with what will surely be side-splitting consequences.  I, for one, can’t wait.

ATP World Tour FInals – The Contender Run-Down

November 14, 2009

Now that the final tournament of the season is reaching its conclusion, the 2009 ATP Tour will culminate in the ATP World Tour Finals at London’s O2 Arena between Nov. 22 and Nov. 29, less than two weeks away.

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.  These players have produced consistently exemplary results throughout the season, thoroughly deserving their place at the O2.  But who will be the ultimate champion?

Rafael Nadal of Spain was the first player to secure a spot in the end of year championships as a result of his stellar start to the season.  Following on from his French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic success in 2008, Nadal continued the trend by defeating Roger Federer in an epic 5-set final at the Australian Open in early February.  His hot streak continued into the Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome Masters 1000 tournaments, until he faltered in mid-May against Federer in the Masters 1000 Madrid Final.

From that point, his recurring knee problems seemed to get the better of him; he lost to Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, his most lucrative tournament (he had not lost at the event in 31 matches over five years) and was unable to defend his crown at Wimbledon, pulling out with patellar tendonitis.

He rallied somewhat in August, reaching the latter stages of events in Montreal and Cincinnati, but was still not at his best at the US Open, later putting his sub-standard performances down to a painful abdominal muscle strain.

More recently, he was runner-up to Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai but there are signs that he is still not back at his peak fitness or skill level.  Occupying the No. 2 spot in the world, it is evident he has high hopes for the London championship.

 

Roger Federer was the second player to quality for the World Tour Finals.  With a somewhat shocking start to the year, that seemed to continue his run of bad results from 2008, where he suffered from mononucleosis and back strains—including his loss to Nadal at the Australian Open and a racket-smashing episode in Miami against Novak Djokovic—Federer rebounded with a vengeance in Madrid against Nadal.

He then went on to win his first ever French Open, allowing him to equal Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Slam victories and achieve a career Grand Slam.  In just under two weeks, Federer followed this sweet victory with a win over Andy Roddick to clinch his 6th Wimbledon title and 15th Slam overall, signalling him as the greatest player of all time.  He also returned to No.1 as a consequence of his victories and Nadal’s absence, a position that he will hold until the end of the year.

Since Federer’s amazing summer, the Swiss player’s level has plateaued somewhat, with consistent match victories but no titles.  He lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open Final and recently Djokovic in his home town of Basel, with an extensive break in between these two events in order to rest his weary limbs.

An early exit in the Paris 1000 event may mean that he has less match experience than preferred going into the World Tour Finals, but there is no doubt that his extended breaks from competition at the end of this season will stand him in good stead for the tiring tournament in London.

 

Andy Murray, from Scotland, was the third player to qualify as a result of his consistently excellent results throughout the season.  He started off as the player to beat in 2009, winning an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and a tournament in Doha.  His Australian Open tournament did not turn out as well as expected with an exit in the quarterfinals, but since then Murray has continued to outperform the majority of players on every surface.

In August he moved to No. 2 in the world, briefly overtaking Nadal and Djokovic—the first time someone other than Nadal or Federer had held such a prestigious position in over four years.  A finalist in 2008, Murray had high hopes for his favourite Slam, the US Open, but lost to Croat Marin Cilic in three easy sets.

Throughout the back end of the season, the Scot has been suffering with a persistent wrist injury, making his ranking slip back down to No. 4; but with a win in Valencia in November, it looks as if Murray is finding form just in time for the end of year championships.

 

Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick occupy three other London berths.  These players, too, have excellent chances at the season-ending tournament; Djokovic has been consistent throughout the year, beating many top players, and is the defending champion of the event.

Del Potro has been inspired throughout much of the hard court season in particular, with his US Open win a notable highlight and justification of his selection for the championship.  Djokovic is enjoying a burst of renewed confidence, with his recent win over Roger Federer to win the Basel title and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals of the 1000 Paris event.  Is he peaking just in time to defend his crown?

Andy Roddick, too, has produced stellar results, frequently reaching semifinals and finals of the biggest and best tournaments, including the Australian Open, Wimbledon and Miami.

Injuries are nevertheless a big concern for this trio; tiredness and exhaustion are playing their part, plus Roddick is suffering from a knee injury which saw his exit from Shanghai and withdrawal from Paris.  Will he be fit enough in time for London?  Only time will tell.

 

The final two players, completing the 8-man lineup, had their fates sealed in the final tournament of the year in Paris.  Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco, through their own exploits and those of the other few remaining contenders, sealed their positions as 7th and 8th ranked in the world respectively.

 

With these eight players being so consistent in their success over the past 10 months, it is incredibly difficult this year in particular to predict the World Tour Finals champion.  All players have prowess on indoor hard courts and all have shown that they can withstand the pressure of the most tense, important moments.

Andy Murray will be the home favourite, with significant column inches being reserved for the Scot’s play; however, it is difficult to ignore the experienced Federer, Nadal and Roddick in such an event, where a loss in the ’round robin’ stage does not necessarily mean the end of the player’s chances to win the event.  The defending champion, Novak Djokovic, should not be discounted, having won the most matches in total this season.

One thing is for certain; injuries and withdrawals notwithstanding, the ATP’s London masterpiece should certainly live up to its hype of being ‘The Decider’.

(Published on Bleacher Report; December 14th 2009)