The ATP’s season-ending championship (before the International Tennis Federation puts the capper on the tennis year with the Davis Cup Final) is called the World Tour Finals.
The acronym for the event, as you can plainly see, is WTF.
This year in London, “WTF” was the universal reaction to the showcase singles tournament held in tennis’s most receptive global city. The event started with absurdities. It continued to serve up absurdities. It ended with a scenario that was both extraordinarily rare and uncommonly, severely, disappointing. Some unsettling backstage drama entered into the fray as well. To underscore the misery of the whole week, the Davis Cup event a lot of global tennis fans were eagerly anticipating could very well turn out to be a bust, but only time — and Roger Federer’s back — will tell on that score.
It was, all in all, a one-of-a-kind week in London… but not for a single good reason as far as ATP singles competition was concerned. The doubles event stole the show this past week, cranking out one spellbinding match after another. The No. 1 seed, the Bryan brothers, won the tournament by winning a supertiebreaker over the seventh-seeded team of Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo in Sunday’s final. That was the only final played on Sunday, however, as the singles championship match between No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Federer — anticipated well before the tournament began — gave way to a walkover.
Federer announced roughly 40 minutes before the scheduled start of the match that he was unfit to play following a grueling two-hour, 48-minute semifinal against Stan Wawrinka late Saturday night. The withdrawal marked a particular kind of history — again, for all the wrong reasons. That phrase — “historic for all the wrong reasons” — was the simple theme which haunted the World Tour Finals from the first ball to the last in London.
Before dealing with the most central drama of the tournament — which was obviously not the final, since it never happened — let’s start with a word about the champion of this event, the man who conquered the World Tour Finals for the fourth time.
Novak Djokovic went unbeaten in London, pocketing 1,500 ATP rankings points and just over $2 million. He secured the prestigious honor of being the year-ending World No. 1 on the ATP Tour, the third time the Serbian superstar has managed the feat. Plenty of tennis fans are divided on the matter of how significant the World Tour Finals are, but few dispute the prominence and primacy of being the year-end No. 1. Djokovic denied Federer a shot at tying Pete Sampras for first on the all-time list with six year-end No. 1 rankings. Far more than denying Federer, though, Djokovic piled up the achievements which strongly enhance a career legacy.
Fans and pundits alike have remained puzzled by Djokovic’s inability to win more than one U.S. Open, and by his inability to win two majors in the same calendar year (he’s done so only once, in 2011). Yet, while Djokovic manages to exasperate his fans from time to time, he ends this year as the best player on the planet once again. Rafael Nadal was clearly the best player in men’s tennis in 2013, and Andy Murray made his career in both 2012 and 2013 with his breakthroughs at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Yet, since the 2010 Davis Cup Final, the world of men’s tennis has mostly belonged to Djokovic. That’s a hard-earned, hard-won distinction in an era when Federer and Nadal — though older and more prone to injury — have still shown how great they can be.
The following statement is counterintuitive, but it requires a lot of contemplation: What Djokovic — not Federer or Nadal — has achieved is what makes this era of ATP tennis as special as it’s been. This wasn’t just about two men always meeting from opposite sides of a tournament bracket. There was and is a third man who has achieved at a particularly high level to shake things up, carving out space between two of the greatest players ever. If Djokovic can build off this tournament and win two majors next year (when he turns only 28, with years left to play beyond that), he could make a real run at 12 majors for his career, if not more. Should he win the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, a 12-major haul would dramatically elevate his place in the history of tennis.
Now, to the week’s central drama in London… in many ways because it was the only drama which lasted a particularly long time or involved a singles match with three tight sets.
Saturday’s late Federer-Wawrinka semifinal was the match and the drama of the tournament. The events which preceded it enabled the all-Swiss slugfest to become a memorable occurrence:
How does an upset occur in any sport? The favorite has to play poorly or — at the very least — below a customarily high standard, to the extent that the underdog finds an opening. If given said opening, the underdog manages to play great in the moments that matter, and above average over the course of the full contest.
At the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals, the favorites did not play poorly. The underdogs did not play great. They didn’t play above-average tennis. They didn’t even rise to a standard of merely “average” on most occasions. You can put two and two together, quite literally: One singles match after another in the round-robin portion of this eight-player event lasted only two sets, with hardly any sets owning drama after nine games. Why? Because the sets had already ended.
It was a rough, rough week for paying customers in London. The O2 Arena witnessed one hour-long singles match (give or take a few minutes) after another. The full week of men’s tennis wasn’t very full or filling (or fulfilling, take your pick…) at all.
The tennis on display was so non-competitive — albeit graced by some noticeable flourishes from Djokovic and Federer — that in six days of round-robin matches, only one tiebreak set occurred: Federer beat Milos Raonic in the second-set tiebreaker on the first day of the tournament. Fitting in with the blowout theme which cast a long shadow over this singles tournament, Federer won that tiebreaker by a lopsided 7-0 score.
Only one other set in 12 round-robin matches even went to 12 games, with Andy Murray beating Raonic, 7-5, last Tuesday. Raonic then withdrew from the event — obviously because his body was hurting — but the symbolism could not have been more apparent: The one player who played two particularly long sets wasn’t able to even stick around for the duration. Yeah, that’s the kind of week it was in London.
One more snapshot of the round-robin trainwreck is worth passing along:
The two three-set matches from round-robin play (yes, only two in 12 matches) involved an alternate — David Ferrer, who replaced the injured Raonic in what would have been the Canadian’s final group-stage match — and a player who had essentially no chance to reach the semifinals, Marin Cilic.
When Cilic’s final round-robin match began — against Wawrinka — Cilic had to win by a 6-1, 6-1 scoreline or better in order to make the semis. As soon as Wawrinka won three games in the match, he advanced due to the games won-games lost tiebreaker in place for the two four-player groups at this event. (The top two in each group advanced to the semifinals, with the group winners playing the crossover group runners-up.)
The one true moment of drama in this tournament’s round-robin stages — at least if a moment is seen more expansively, beyond five seconds — was the third set of the Thursday match between Ferrer and Kei Nishikori. (Federer saved a set point against Raonic on Sunday, Nov. 9. Minutes later, he won that 7-0 tiebreaker.)
Not knowing how Andy Murray would fare in his final round-robin match against Federer, Nishikori needed to win to give himself more of a margin in terms of reaching the semis. His third-set win forced Murray to have to beat Federer in straight sets to advance. As soon as Murray lost set one to Federer in under 30 minutes, Nishikori — by virtue of his win over Ferrer — had already booked another night in London and had pocketed a fat stack of extra prize money ($155,000 goes to the winner of each round-robin match), not to mention ATP rankings points (200 per round-robin match victory).
Let’s allow that reality to seek in: In round-robin play, 26 sets were played. Only one set — Ferrer-Nishikori, set three — carried an appreciable measure of dramatic weight in terms of affecting the shape of Saturday’s semifinal matches. That’s a sign of how miserable this week turned out to be for the ticket-buying public in London.
There was only one true exception to the entirety of the week, one match which fully met all the expectations and the hype, one match which delivered three full sets of drama, uncertainty, and suffocating tension.
It’s a match that nevertheless left both participants in damaged states, though perhaps with enough time to recuperate for what’s ahead in five days’ time.
Again, that gives you a sense of how awful this week truly was. Even the few things which were good carried a larger and more negative storyline with them.
The Davis Cup Final begins this upcoming Friday, Nov. 21, as France hosts Switzerland. Many tennis fans (for all sorts of reasons) were going to be drawn to the television spectacle of seeing Roger Federer vie for his — and Switzerland’s — first Davis Cup title. The drama of seeing an iconic athlete compete in the latter years of his career for a prize he had never been able to win was supposed to lend an electric charge to a tournament tennis diehards have long loved and cherished. Davis Cup was going to feel like an extra-special showcase this year, in much the way it did when Djokovic played (and won) for Serbia and Nadal claimed multiple crowns for Spain.
The evident complication, then, as Federer and Wawrinka — Davis Cup teammates — prepared for their Saturday night semifinal was that the winner would have to play Djokovic on Sunday with a quick turnaround. Giving maximum effort in both matches was going to be, for the Saturday winner, a physically draining process on Sunday. Pouring out complete effort with Davis Cup just five days away would not have given Switzerland a remotely ideal situation.
It’s true that during the week, Wawrinka and Federer played only one set more than the minimum in round-robin competition. Wawrinka played seven sets instead of the minimum of six; Federer played only six and did not log much court time. However, playing in the late semifinal (Djokovic contested the earlier one against Nishikori), the Swiss teammates might have given some thought to not necessarily tanking the match, but to playing a match with very short points and few prolonged rallies. The loser of the first set had the chance — at least for those who felt that Davis Cup was especially important — to gracefully lose the second set in order to shorten the match and create a better situation for Davis Cup preparation. Being teammates could have enabled Federer and Wawrinka to converse before the match and — while certainly not pre-determining the winner — ensuring that the match would not be a grinder or anything that would punish the other’s body.
That’s the exact antithesis of what happened.
Federer and Wawrinka put on a show. There had been only one 7-5 set in round-robin play, and only one 7-6 set as well. The Swiss men played one of each in a clash that lasted nearly three hours. The rallies featured vicious and generally superior hitting from Wawrinka, with a number of important and thrilling late-stage exchanges reaching 20 shots or more.
It was everything ticket-buyers in London had not received over the previous six days, save for the Nishikori-Ferrer match. It was everything Switzerland’s Davis Cup team didn’t need.
And then things got worse.
Though something might have happened earlier in the week, Federer began to outwardly display a noticeable level of discomfort just a few points from the end of the match, late in the final-set tiebreaker he eventually claimed by an 8-6 score. Let these next few tweets tell the story:
Hate to say this. I just rewatched the Stan-Fed TB. Fed's 6-6 1st serve has no knee bend. On 7-6 return, no forward bend. Something pinged.
— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) November 16, 2014
Lots of chatter about Fed's back earlier this evening. To my eyes, he's not 100% on the last two points. Maybe I'm wrong: maybe not.
— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) November 16, 2014
Henman says Federer felt back tighten up after fourth-last point last night. "He said this morning it had been incredibly uncomfortable."
— Stuart Fraser (@stu_fraser) November 16, 2014
Berdych did say 2 days ago Federer said to him in practice that his back felt stiff. I don't believe it started late in the Wawrinka match.
— Mert Ertunga (@MertovsTDesk) November 16, 2014
Sunday, Federer clearly had not healed to the point where he felt he could play, especially with Davis Cup so soon on the calendar (as oppposed to Friday, Nov. 28, when this might — might — have been less of an issue, but we’ll never fully know).
Context on the rare nature of this event — Federer withdrawing, and a championship match being a walkover — is offered here:
Previous withdrawals from tournaments by @rogerfederer – Doha in 2012 and Bercy in 2008. He has never withdrawn during a match
— Simon Briggs (@simonrbriggs) November 16, 2014
Last walkover in an ATP final was in February 2008 in Vina del Mar as Fernando Gonzalez won the title over Juan Monaco.
— Josh Meiseles (@jmeistennis) November 16, 2014
So it's first time in tennis history that there won't be a final at the ATP WTF. thanks (@HolterMedia ).
— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) November 16, 2014
That’s quite a lot of news to flow from a championship match which never took place.
Yet, there was more to flow from the Federer-Wawrinka semifinal, this part being removed from the actual tennis.
The very specific details are going to remain the source of endless speculation, but it’s fairly clear that some tensions involving the Federer camp and Wawrinka emerged to some extent after the match. Whether or not they’re based on this event is itself a mystery at the moment:
7. Stan says two things, one clearly, one I distinctly. In English: "Did you hear what she just said?" Then "- – – -," ie short sentence.
— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) November 16, 2014
Man with access to TV footage assures me that Mirka was the target for Stan outburst as she was talking after the serve was hit
— Simon Briggs (@simonrbriggs) November 16, 2014
Let the rampant speculation about the source or origination of these events run wild. You’re not going to be able to put it back in a bottle, most likely. What’s more relevant is that if Federer is somehow able to physically recover in time for Davis Cup (something that’s completely up in the air right now), how will he and Wawrinka coexist as teammates after Saturday’s dramas (yes, plural)?
This next tweet quotes John McEnroe of ESPN2, claiming to have had access to what went on behind closed doors:
"Afterwards, something went on in the locker room, there was a long talk between the players that extended well into the night."
— Jason (@Hurleytennis) November 16, 2014
Wawrinka, given a chance to address the matter, wouldn’t bite… and wisely so:
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) November 16, 2014
All these and many other tweets all tried to get at the heart of the tensions engulfing these Davis Cup teammates, but strong answers probably won’t emerge for some time. Moreover, if Federer can’t play this upcoming weekend in France, the intrigue surrounding Switzerland would greatly diminish, because the Swiss just don’t have a complete team without their two singles stars. They’d be easy pickings for France if Federer isn’t able to compete at a reasonably high level.
What will linger about Federer and Wawrinka is how honorably they competed for the fans in London, even while knowing — perhaps only subconsciously (though probably more than that) — that a full-out battle was going to leave the winner physically diminished in advance of a highly-anticipated dance in France. Two players who have not always found it psychologically easy to play each other both worked their hardest to conquer the other just before turning into teammates… and their effort led to a series of circumstances that might prevent each man from attaining an elusive career goal.
Federer and Wawrinka could have soft-pedaled their match — at least playing shorter points and shorter sets if they were going to go three, if not accepting the possibility of a two-setter to save stress and strain — but just a week before a major life moment, they pushed ahead pell-mell into the whirl of competition. They paid no heed to larger considerations.
For many — and very probably most — this comes across as a natural way of being, not even something that should be thought about. It’s certainly the more (classically) ethical path to take. Yet, some will certainly suggest that since a Davis Cup Final doesn’t come around very often in life, there was a need to shape Saturday’s Swiss semifinal in a very specific way… not in terms of winner-loser, but in terms of match style and duration.
Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka provided the one great match of the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals, the event which substantially elevated Novak Djokovic’s place in the history of men’s tennis.
They could not have known how costly their efforts would be. What’s more, they still don’t.
This doesn’t make anything they did wrong — far from it. In many ways, these events show that while we live in the 21st century, the proximity of Davis Cup to the World Tour Finals reminds us that tennis — as a global sport — still can’t get its calendar right. That calendar’s final day in 2014 is this next Sunday in France. If a reasonably healthy Roger Federer isn’t playing on that day, the event known as the “WTF” will be cursed for a long time by Swiss tennis fans.