November 25, 2011

What a Way to End!

It's not very often that the top seeds in the men's draw of a tournament do not make it through to the end, especially when all the top seeds are entered. In fact, at least three -- and often all four -- of the players in the semifinals of the last three Grand Slams ranked at the top of their quarters of the bracket. We've become accustomed to seeing the best beat the best under the toughest circumstances, so we should expect that to continue, even at the year-end championships.

But something strange happened this week in London. World #3 Andy Murray withdrew after losing his first match Monday, French Open champion Rafael Nadal pulled out a tough win against Mardy Fish and then lost two in a row to end his hopes of that maiden year-end title, and then Novak Djokovic, almost unbeatable for the first nine months of the year, dropped his first match ever to countryman Janko Tipsarevic -- the wildcard entry after Murray's withdrawal -- earlier today, being stopped short of the semis for the first time all year*.

So that leaves a somewhat motley crew in the semis of this years ATP Championships. Roger Federer, five times a winner, is the clear favorite. Though he lost sets to both Fish and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the round robins, he's been loss-less since the U.S. Open semis, with titles in Basel and Paris to his name. It's quite a turnaround for a man who fell to his lowest ranking since 2003 and went oh-for-four at the Majors this year. For what's ostensibly his least prolific year in quite some time, he might just pull momentum squarely onto his side.

But there are some formidable opponents in his way. David Ferrer will meet Roger in the semis after winning his first five sets in London. He ended up losing earlier today to Tomas Berdych, but the Spaniard, ranked #5 in the world, was relentless against Murray and Djokovic earlier in the week. He's never beaten Federer, only taken one set off him on hardcourts, but Ferrer made the finals at the Tennis Masters Cup in 2007 and has been relentless this week. It might be a harder fought semi than we expect.

In the second semifinal Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will try to make his fourth final since the U.S. Open. The Frenchman has had a more-than-solid autumn, and with wins over Nadal and Fish this week, he's improved his previously mediocre record versus top ten players. He didn't make it out of the round robins in his last appearance at the Championships in 2008, and with the run he's had over the last few months, it sure looks like he can go one better this time.

But he'll have to face Tomas Berdych in Saturday's semi, a man who came back from the brink a few times in London. After enduring a tough defeat by Novak Djokovic on Monday, he found himself in an early hole two days later against wildcard Tipsarevic, a man against whom he had a 1-4 record. Not only did he pull off that win, he repeated the rally today against Ferrer, whom he hadn't defeated since Hamburg in 2005. The Czech has also saved his best play for late in the year, having won a title in Beijing where he incidentally beat Tsonga in the semis, so there's no reason to believe he won't put up a fight again.

It's been quite a reversal of what we've come to expect this year -- the only two men to have won Majors in 2011 won't be fighting for the final title of the year. But for the players left, this is exactly the way they wanted to finish the season, and if they can last just a few matches longer, they'll finally reap that ultimate reward.

* Djokovic withdrew from the quarterfinals in Paris, but did not actually lose a match that tournament.

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