November 11, 2012

Clash of the Titans

When you think of all the headlines that have crossed the tennis wires recently, it's pretty easy to forget who's been at the top of the sport all season. Andy Murray's domination at the U.S. Open, Juan Martin Del Potro's comeback tour during the fall, David Ferrer's breakthrough at the Paris Masters -- all worthy distractions, but none enough to erase the fact that two men have had the most success on the court in 2012. And while the year-end #1 ranking will not be decided by tomorrow's final, it's nevertheless fitting to see 2008 champion Novak Djokovic battle six-time winner Roger Federer for the World Tour Final in London.

Nole was a little quiet in the middle part of the year -- he didn't win a title between March and August, and after a harrowing defeat in the New York, it seemed momentum had shifted elsewhere. Still, he picked things up in the fall and clinched his second straight season at #1 before making the trip to the O2. He was the only man in the field to get through the round robins without losing a match, the first time he's accomplished that feat in six season finale appearances, and made his way to the semis as the favorite.

He seemed a little lethargic to start his semi today against Juan Martin Del Potro, though. The Argentine had just squeaked into the year-end championships last week, and was coming off his second straight win over Roger Federer in his final round robin match. He was a little shaky in Sunday's first contest, struggling on serve early and fighting off break points, but as Djokovic's serve seemed to break down a bit, the big man took advantage, broke in the ninth game of the match and served out the set at love. He even got an early break in the second set before Nole finally found his game -- the Serb quickly got back on serve and eventually forced a decider. By that point Del Potro was spent -- he won just two points on return in the third, took just half of his own serves and eventually ceded the match after two-plus hours of play. With the win, Djokovic returns to the final for the first time since he took the title four years ago, but his competition this time might be a little more fierce.

Roger Federer has won this event more than any man in history, and his performance in 2012 shows that he's still hungry for more. He's lost a few ranking points in the last few months -- he failed to defend any of the three titles he won after last year's U.S. Open -- but with his first Grand Slam trophy in over two years, he reclaimed the #1 ranking and qualified for the World Tour Final for the eleventh consecutive year. He was indomitable early in the round robins, not dropping a set to either relative newbie Janko Tipsarevic or veteran David Ferrer, and, despite his loss to Del Potro on Saturday, still managed to win his group.

For his reward he earned the right to face Andy Murray who, with his titles in London and New York, has been fighting all year to have his name included among the top three in tennis. It looked like he'd further make his case today when he opened the second semi with a break of Federer in the first game. Several minutes later, though, Roger evened the score and eventually forced a tiebreak. After converting his second set point, he dominated his recent rival -- in the next set he too lost just two points on serve, withstood some strong serving from his opponent and scored his first win over the Scot since the Wimbledon final. Tomorrow he'll be going for his third straight title in London and, maybe more importantly, for the right to prove he's not going anywhere.

Novak and Roger have split their four meetings this year, each claiming a win at a Major, and while Federer has won their last two, Djokovic has taken four of their last five hardcourts matches. Together, they've won eleven titles this year -- two Slams -- made another eight finals and put together a 39-17 record against top ten players. It's another battle between old and new, but despite recent slowdowns both have made quite a case for themselves all season. And with just one match left this year, there are no two players more deserve to still be standing for it -- so let's make it a good one.

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