LONDON — Thoughts from Day 5 at the ATP World Tour Finals, where Jo-Wilfried Tsonga scored an upset over a passionless Rafael Nadal.
Knockout power: Sometimes you watch a tennis match and marvel in the skill, shot production, speed, decision-making, and precision. And sometimes that match doesn’t deliver on many of those counts, but as you watch two players battle through, the pleasure is no longer the game itself but in the tussle, both with themselves and each other.
Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga each held serve — with varying difficulty — for 21 straight games before Nadal finally got a sniff at Tsonga’s serve at 4-5 in the second set. He hadn’t been able to put any pressure on Tsonga up until then, but he finally found himself with multiple set points. Tsonga saved three of them with some aggressive, athletic play that saw him charge the net and put away his volleys with authority.
The Frenchman was getting amped, snarling and screaming as he fought off Nadal to stay in the set. But there comes a point when you can be too fired up and the adrenaline gets to you and forces you to make bad decisions and affects your mechanics. That happened to Tsonga on Nadal’s fourth set point, overcooking a relatively easy forehand that hooked well wide. With that Nadal was back in the match, firing his patented fist pump toward his camp. Nadal, who had struggled to hold serve all match had somehow clawed his way back in and seized control of the momentum. The match seemed surely his for the taking.
But then the players both took a bathroom break before the start of the third set, and when they returned it seemed as though the break had cooled off Rafa and calmed down Jo. Nadal simply could not get his teeth back in the match, while Tsonga kept his composure throughout, building a two break lead to 5-2. Of course, Tsonga being Tsonga, you could hear the collective groans of “uh oh” when Nadal broke him while serving for the match. But once again, maybe having learned his lesson from the second set, Tsonga stayed calm.
When he earned a match point on Nadal’s serve, and got a ball to hit, he didn’t snatch at it, he didn’t panic and he didn’t over-hit. He calmly ran around his backhand, reared back and fired a forehand winner that screamed through the court to seal a 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-3 win and clinch a spot in the semifinals. Composure wins matches and Tsonga did well to show some maturity in reeling himself back in.
A passionless Rafa?: Watching Rafa on Thursday felt a lot like watching Novak Djokovic on Wednesday. These two have played at such an incredible level to dominate the last two years (Nadal’s 2010, Djokovic’s 2011), that it’s hard to remember the last time they looked, well, ordinary.
Rafa looked ordinary tonight. He was listless for most of the match, a step slow, his serve looked completely ineffective and he sprayed 24 unforced errors (to 14 winners) and went 3 for 12 at the net. Even on changeovers, where he normally looks like an agitated fighter waiting to strike at the sound of the bell, Nadal looked more like a man who had to be there, not one who wanted to be there.
Asked in his press conference whether he had an explanation for his post-U.S. Open slump, Nadal shrugged.
“Seriously, I can talk one hour [about] that,” he explained. “It’s because of lot of things. Because probably I was little bit less passionate for the game probably because I was a little bit more tired than usual.”
It’s not a surprising statement in context. Nadal has played the most matches of any player on Tour and he’s still set to play Davis Cup next weekend in Spain. But to hear one of the game’s most mentally driven players say that he had less passion for the game these days is a sobering thought.
Fish gives thanks: Mardy Fish was able to take a set off both Nadal and Federer this week but leaves London having failed to win a match. Fish was clearly disappointed that he wasn’t able to perform as well as he’s capable of due to injuries, but kudos to him for taking the time to soak in the experience of the World Tour Finals. There was no player in London who seemed to relish and appreciate this as much as Fish did. While some players seemed to treat the tournament as a bit of a chore, Fish reveled in it. Age and experience can make you appreciate things as simple as towels.
“We get our own locker rooms back there, our names on our towels,” Fish explained. “For me, that doesn’t happen every year. A lot of guys have made this a lot of times, but I haven’t and I can appreciate it a lot more. Maybe I can appreciate it like how they appreciated it the first time. Maybe I can appreciate it more because I know it’s very hard to get back there. I know there’s a chance I won’t ever come back to this event, so I wanted to take it all in.”
“I’ve taken 10 towels already. We’ve taken a lot of pictures. We’ve taken the shower door, the mirror,” he joked. Take what you want, Mardy. You’ve earned it all.
Seeing as how it was Thanksgiving, Fish also took the time to once again thank the USTA, his team and his family for being there through his rollercoaster of a career. It hasn’t always been easy.
“I remember 2010, the beginning of the year when I was in Memphis, I was recovering from knee surgery, and it wasn’t going well. I was losing to a guy that I probably shouldn’t have been losing to pretty badly. I wasn’t healthy, I remember someone yelling out, ‘Quit tanking! Why don’t you start trying harder?’ I could barely move. That was the lowest moment of my tennis career by a mile. The same people that were here in my box now were there. They remember it as well. It’s been a rollercoaster, but they’ve been there the whole time.”
And so Fish’s breakthrough season ends. He’ll head to the off-season knowing that he can compete with the elite and that all the hard work that he put into revamp his career has finally paid off. His has been a fantastic story to watch develop throughout the year.
Friday Preview: Things are still in flux in Group A, with three players in the mix for the semifinals and the possibility of tiebreakers being used to determine who qualifies and in what position. We know that David Ferrer has clinched a semifinal spot. What we don’t know is who will win the group and who will qualify second. That’s right. Despite the fact that Ferrer has knocked off Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic without dropping a set, there is a scenario wherein he might not win the group. Further complicating matters is that we won’t know for sure who has qualified and in what position until after Ferrer plays Berdych, which is scheduled as the evening match.
Why does the qualifying position matter here? Because the second qualifier will have to play Federer in Saturday’s semifinal.
Here are Friday’s qualification scenarios:
• If Ferrer wins, then regardless of the Djokovic’s result, Ferrer wins the group and Djokovic qualifies second.
• If Tipsarevic and Berdych win, then Berdych wins the group and Ferrer qualifies second.
• If Djokovic wins in 2 sets and Berdych wins in 2 sets, then Ferrer wins the group and Berdych qualifies second.
• If Djokovic wins in 2 sets and Berdych wins in 3 sets, then Ferrer wins the group and Djokovic qualifies second.
• If Djokovic wins in 3 sets and Berdych wins in 2 sets, then Ferrer wins the group and Berdych qualifies second.
• If Djokovic wins in 3 sets and Berdych wins in 3 sets, then Ferrer wins the group and Berdych qualifies second.
Get all that?