LONDON – The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Here’s how we rate the week at the ATP World Tour Finals.
Novak Djokovic: A-plus. In defeating Rafael Nadal to win his third ATP World Tour Finals title and extend his winning streak to 22 matches, Djokovic rewrote the script on a year that was all about Rafa. Nadal spent eight months racking up big titles, including three at the expense of Djokovic, who lost to the Spaniard in the French Open semifinals, Montreal Masters semifinals and U.S. Open final. As the headlines extolled Nadal’s incredible return from injury and observers debated his place among the greatest in history, Djokovic faded into the shadows and faced questions about some uncharacteristic lapses and struggles in marquee matches.
Djokovic acknowledges that the two Slam losses to Nadal and one to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final hit him hard. But he viewed the fall stretch as an opportunity to make more of his season, and he delivered with four consecutive titles and multiple victories over Nadal, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro. Most important, Djokovic showed the mental strength and focus absent from his game at various times this year. A determined Djokovic rediscovered his edge just in time to tee up what should be a wide-open start to the 2014 season in Australia.
Rafael Nadal: A-minus. The World Tour Finals remain an elusive title for Nadal, who was looking to join Andre Agassi as the only players to win all four Grand Slam tournaments, an Olympic singles gold medal, a Davis Cup title and the year-end championships. He still hasn’t won an indoor hard-court title since Madrid in 2005. His serve, forehand and footwork all misfired at a surprising rate in what looked like a tired performance against Djokovic in the final.
He may not have played his best in his final four tournaments of the year, but Nadal still finished 2013 with 10 titles (including the French Open and U.S. Open), the No. 1 ranking and a 75-7 record after returning in February from a seven-month absence. It was a jaw-dropping season, not unlike Djokovic’s 2011 (70-6, 10 titles, three majors) and Federer’s 2006 (92-5, 12 titles, three majors).
Roger Federer: B-plus. Two victories over top-10 players doubled his season total, to four, and enabled Federer to make the semifinals of an event he has won a record six times. He rallied repeatedly to beat del Potro and earn a spot in the final four, but from there Federer failed to take a set off Nadal for the third time in four matches this year. Federer is clearly in the process of coming to grips with his subpar season, and the cracks in his confidence were evident throughout the week. He was grinding out matches and then speaking candidly after them, admitting that his inconsistency has left him shaken this year. He finished the season with only one title.
Stanislas Wawrinka: A-minus. In his World Tour Finals debut, Wawrinka beat Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer to advance to the semifinals. There is a palpable affinity for Wawrinka among the Swiss media, who appreciate the grace and humility with which he’s handled being “Not Roger Federer” throughout his career. The question is whether the 28-year-old’s fine year was a harbinger of even greater things in 2014 or a one-season push that can’t be sustained. Even if it’s the latter, credit Wawrinka for the progress he made in 2013 and for the primary role he played in some of the best and most memorable matches of the season.
Juan Martin del Potro: B-plus. The Argentine admitted to being distracted after being robbed in Paris hours before his arrival in London, but del Potro still managed to beat Richard Gasquet and contest three-setters against Djokovic and Federer. He’ll finish the year back in the top five, an impressive feat considering he missed one Slam (French Open) and performed poorly at two others (Australian Open and U.S. Open). Now if someone could get him a new rosary blessed by Pope Francis …
Tomas Berdych: B. A first-day loss to Wawrinka made qualifying for the semifinals an uphill climb, but Berdych played solidly to defeat Ferrer and then pushed Nadal to three sets before losing a must-win match in his group-play finale. On the whole, it should be a confidence-boosting week for Berdych as he heads to Serbia to face Djokovic and Co. in the Davis Cup final this weekend.
Richard Gasquet: C-minus. The Frenchman, back at the World Tour Finals for the first time since 2007, went 0-3 in the tough Group B, which included Djokovic, Federer and del Potro. There’s no shame in that. But the news that his longtime coach, Riccardo Piatti, dumped him mid-tournament and flew home was a shocker. Gasquet refused to talk about it, saying breakup questions should be directed to Piatti. It’s a curious move, given Gasquet’s strong season that featured a career-high-tying three titles and an appearance in the U.S. Open semifinals.
David Ferrer: C-minus. Here’s a tip, kids: Never play seven weeks in a row at the end of the season if you expect to be competitive at the World Tour Finals. Ferrer learned that the hard way, as he played a relentless fall schedule and turned up in London out of gas. The No. 3 went 0-3 in group play, with losses to Nadal, Berdych and Wawrinka.
David Marrero and Fernando Verdasco: A-plus. It turns out all Verdasco needed to win a big title was a bigger court to hit into. Kudos to the sixth-seeded Marrero and Verdasco, who capped a fantastic run by upsetting top-ranked Bob and Mike Bryan 7-5, 6-7 (3), 10-7. Marrero cried through the trophy ceremony as he dedicated the win to his grandfather, who died two years to the day of the final.
Bob and Mike Bryan: A-minus. A loss in the final, after scrambling to emerge from group play, can’t possibly mar the Bryans’ ridiculously prolific season. At 35, the twins won three Slams, matched their career high with 11 titles overall and came within two victories of completing the calendar-year Grand Slam. I think we can forgive them if the strain of their season took a toll after the U.S. Open.
London: A. While I began the week sympathizing with Nadal for wanting to rotate surfaces in the interest of fairness and with Djokovic for wanting to move the World Tour Finals to new cities in order to promote the game, I ended it wondering if I could even imagine the event staged anywhere else. If this is meant to be the biggest tournament outside of the Slams, then it has to feel like it. The Brits know how to make that happen. Maybe it’s worth risking the loss of London’s dramatic ambiance to bring the sport to a place where it lacks exposure. But from a commercial standpoint and fan-experience perspective, I don’t know if London can be beat.