As befitting a major final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, a number of records were broken by Sunday’s championship match of the ATP World Tour Finals. Unfortunately, all of them were of the wrong or undesirable kind.
Roger Federer withdrew (with a bad back) from the widely anticipated final just 30 minutes before he was to commence torturing Novak Djokovic one last time this year. It was the first walkover in a championship match in the 45-year history of the event, and just the third time that Federer -- who has never retired during a match -- declined to play one.
If you set aside the keen disappointment felt by some 17,000-odd fans who were pumped to see this final, the desires of an international television audience and the hope most of the ball kids entertained that either Roger or Nole would grace them with a few kind words, it was almost a fitting end to this event.
Djokovic had yanked the drama plug unceremoniously on Friday by clinching the year-end world No. 1 ranking with his third successive, superb round-robin victory (thus ending Federer’s parallel quest for the honor). So the issue seemed settled. But was there really an issue?
Djokovic won six titles to Federer’s five this year, including a Grand Slam event, Wimbledon. Not only did Federer fail to win a major, it was Djokovic who denied him his best chance on that July afternoon in London. Federer won more matches (.860 on 68-11) going into these championships, but Djokovic had an infinitesimally better winning percentage with his 57-8 (.876) mark. Federer was 5-5 against the four Grand Slam champions of 2014, Djokovic was 5-2 against his three fellow slammers, 7-5 if you add his 2-3 mark against Federer. Even there, that one-match edge for Federer comes down to a win the least consequential of the five events (Dubai).
Beyond that, the walkover ended an event in which the matches right up to the semifinals had been so one-sided that you would have thought the players were paying hourly for their own parking at the 02 Arena. And the way Federer’s turncoat wingman Stan "The Occasional Man" Wawrinka had exercised Federer in their 2-hour, 48-minute barnburner of a semifinal, did anyone really believe Federer could drag his 33-year-old bones out there on less than 24 hours rest and ward off the pile-driving groundstrokes of Serbia’s grim reaper?
Federer undoubtedly would have played the match if he were able. Consider him lucky to have been incapacitated.
The abandoned final was the last unpleasant surprise of one of the more muted and unsatisfying year-end championships, but not all the takeaways are negative. Let’s review some of the more encouraging ones:
• A new wave of players including Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov (who narrowly missed qualifying) is threatening to displace the Grade B players who have regularly camped in the 02 (and elsewhere) without the ability to win it -- or any other major title. There’s a shakeup brewing in the ATP, which could use the infusion of fresh blood.
• Djokovic set a new standard for hard-court excellence, losing a mere nine games in his three round-robin matches. He lost just one set -- to Nishikori in the semis -- but rebounded by winning the third set in that one, 6-0.
• Twenty-four-year-old Nishikori played like a young man who’s among the elite to stay. His secret? He takes time away from opponents by taking the ball early, from on or inside the baseline. It’s one of the few ways to frustrate a great defender like Djokovic. Nishikori had Djokovic muttering to himself and casting panicked glances at his coaching team during the second set of their semi. Nishikori ran out of gas in the third. With another year of seasoning, he may not shoot his wad so easily next time.
• Bob and Mike Bryan won the year-end doubles championship for the first time since 2009 -- an unusually long drought for a team of their caliber. They won their 103rd title with a 6-7(5), 6-2, 10-7 squeaker over Ivan Dodig and Marelo Melo. This was also their 10th title of the year, the fourth year they’ve won that many.
• Federer’s transition to a more aggressive, attack-ready game has taken a quantum leap forward in recent months. All of those “should I stay or should I go (to the net)?” discussions that began way back when Paul Annacone was still Federer’s coach have now matured -- with the help of Stefan Edberg -- into a mesmerizing monologue. While the sore back sets off warning bells (Federer struggled with back pain for a good portion of 2013) for next year, there’s no point speculating until Federer takes a good, long, well-deserved rest. A competitive Federer is good for the game.
• The cream still rises to the top despite the inherent problems in the round-robin based format. Loads of fans probably were pulling out their hair on Friday morning trying to figure out what a Wawrinka or Nishikori or Berdych might have to do in order to make the cut for the semis. When it comes to qualification for the WTF semis, tennis actually is a lot like rocket science. But that’s a small price to play for advantages of round robin -- like being able to guarantee that all eight players will be on display for at least three consecutive days.
Moreover, in the end it all does seem to work out. The most legitimate bone of contention might be the complaint that the event is always held on indoor hard courts, and that certainly favors players with a certain skill set. But that’s a pretty broad skill set -- even that quintessential clay-courter Rafael Nadal has made two finals and two semis in six tries. Usually, the player with the best overall record wins this event. The asterisk that will be attached to this final has nothing to do with that, for once again the best player won.