LONDON — Five thoughts on the ATP World Tour Finals as we await Sunday’s semifinals and Monday’s final:
1. World Tour Finals’ place in the game: Tennis.com’s Steve Tignor had a good read analyzing the importance of the ATP’s season finale. My feeling is that year-end championships — whether for the men or the women — are only as important as the players consider them. That means the value of the tournament can vary year by year, player by player.
For instance, I suspect the tournament is quite important this year for Roger Federer and Andy Murray, who are both looking to put a stamp on stellar seasons, and less so for Novak Djokovic, who has clinched the year-ending No. 1 ranking. Also noteworthy is that the event’s significance is undermined by comments from the likes of Janko Tipsarevic, who seems to have prided himself on the work he did to qualify for the tournament rather than the work he’s done at the tournament. Tipsarevic, who has been struggling with what sounds like a cold, sarcastically bragged about making it past the one-hour mark in his 6-0, 6-4 loss to Juan Martin del Potro, saying afterward that he’s playing his worst tennis here but that he’s trying (more on him below). I’m not sure that placates the fans who shelled out a lot of money to watch an 80-minute beatdown.
And that’s the issue with the World Tour Finals. The players’ varying intensity levels — some matches have the feel of an exhibition — detract from the competitive element of the tournament. For some, it’s a few matches before they finally hit their offseason. For others, it’s a serious endeavor that can tee them up for 2013. And for another few, it’s an “Oh, it’d be great if I won this, but I’m not going to be heartbroken if I don’t” kind of tournament. Those different perspectives make it difficult to really pinpoint how much the tournament matters.
2. The format: The round-robin concept is great for marketing purposes but bad for sporting purposes. It’s nice to be able to guarantee fans three shots to see Federer or Murray, but it also takes the sting and urgency out of losses. Many times this week I caught myself watching a first- or second-round match in pool play thinking, “OK, but if X Player loses, does it really matter? They’ll get a second bite at the apple.” This is a foreign concept in a do-or-die sport like tennis, and when you take that element out of the match, you lose the drama.
So should the year-end championships — for both the men and women — move to a knockout format? From a competitive standpoint, I’d say yes. I’m just not convinced that dead rubbers and losses that don’t necessarily mean much are the way to sell this sport. I want the top eight men and women to be fighting tooth and nail in every match, as opposed to them knowing that regardless of the outcome they will have another match and another opportunity for points and cash. The system facilitates a very cynical outlook that undervalues results and performances.
3. The World Tour Finals will remain in London: On the one hand, it’s understandable that the ATP would reach a two-year extension that keeps the WTFs in London through 2015. Why in the world would you move the tournament from a major metropolitan city that continues to sell out the 17,000-seat O2 Arena and is willing to treat the top eight players like royalty? I get that. But pardon my altruistic nature that would love to see the ATP use this event to broaden the sport’s appeal to underserved markets such as Latin America or even Africa. The World Tour Finals in South Africa? That would be pretty cool. The ATP may decide to go that route after its London stint is up, but with Federer’s shelf life dwindling — I’m being a realist here — the opportunity to move the Tour Finals to another country in 2014 was an opportunity missed.
4. Djokovic and Murray move on: I’m a bit disappointed that Group A — the Group of Death — ended up being the Group of Mildly Rabid But Harmless Puppies. Djokovic and Murray both advanced to the semifinals after straight-set victories in the final round of pool play, a result that has tournament officials breathing a sigh of relief. Between the two of them, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga managed to get only a set off Djokovic and Murray.
5. Tipsarevic’ struggles: As noted earlier, the No. 8 qualifier has put in two desultory performances. Along with the lopsided loss to Del Potro, Tipsarevic also fell to Federer 6-3, 6-1. (He is scheduled to face David Ferrer on Saturday in his third round-robin match.) To be fair, the Serb came into the tournament under the weather, noticeably congested, and he said the illness has cut into his practice time, which in return has affected his play.
“Well, it’s not rocket science,” he said after his loss to Del Potro. “You can see from the side that I’m not playing good. I feel sorry that I don’t play my best tennis here in London, which probably the best event of the year. But I fight hard to be in a position to come to this event.”
Tipsarevic added: “I’m playing horrible. I’m playing the worst tennis that I’ve played in a long time. But I’m on the court, behaving good, not throwing my racket, giving my best.”
No doubt Tipsarevic played a heavier schedule than he would have liked to qualify for the World Tour Finals, a laudable accomplishment. But once you’re here, if you know you can’t compete, it’s time to step aside and let an alternate take your spot. Anything less is a disservice to fans.