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From tweeters and tweeners

11/14/2013

The World Tour Finals is the most important men’s-only event of the season, a showcase for the best the ATP has had to offer over the past 11 months. But it isn’t just forehands and backhands that are on display; as the week progresses, we get a sense of many of the latest trends on tour, and how the players compete and relate to each other today. Here are five that I spotted in London last week.

1. Twitter makes the man

The most surprising and enlightening development of 2013? It may have been the presence of Tomas Berdych on Twitter. In his many tweets -- including 80 of them in his first day alone -- the icy-looking Czech revealed himself to be a surrealist goofball at heart, as a pretty funny and humble guy. After his last loss in London, the self-styled “Birdman” sent out a photo of an exit sign in the city’s transportation system -- he was outta there. The he followed it with a photo of a heart, with the caption, “I love this game.”

While he’s not as wacky as Berdych, Stan Wawrinka also has used Twitter to show more warmth, humor and personality than he can reveal when he’s on court. After Rafael Nadal beat Berdych last week, thus guaranteeing Wawrinka a spot in the semifinals, Stan tweeted a photo of a victorious Rafa under the words “Vamoooos! Next dinner is on me!! Good job!!” It was a banner year for Stan, on court and online.

2. A post-tweener age is possible

How many times have you wondered why a male player, on an important point, would choose to hit a ball between his legs, facing away from the net, when he could have something so much easier? I wondered again when Juan Martin del Potro went out of his way to try a tweener -- and lost the point, of course -- while he was serving for the first set against Roger Federer. Del Potro did it again at the end of the third set, and actually managed to hit a lob over Federer’s head. OK, he made the shot, but he still lost the point.

Unfortunately, Delpo’s successful tweener got a lot of attention, more attention than what David Ferrer had done the previous day when a lob had gone over his head. Ferrer had handled it the old-fashioned way, by running around the ball, hitting a normal forehand and sending a lob back over his opponent’s head. Guess what: Ferrer won the point. That, rather than Delpo’s losing tweener, is the play that should have gotten people’s attention. I hope some other players saw it, anyway.

3. Thoughts are spared for those in defeat

When Nadal beat Federer in the semifinals, he took off his headband, jogged to the net and gave his friend a look of commiseration. When Novak Djokovic beat Nadal in the final the next day, he briefly raised his arms before ... jogging to the net and giving Nadal a look of commiseration. That was it.

We still see our share of joyful outbursts in victory -- Nadal couldn’t hide his relief when he clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking. But the top players have faced each so many times and known each other for so long now, it shouldn’t be surprising that, even in their moments of triumph, they spare a thought for their losing opponents.

4. The players play it out

Once upon a time, round-robins brought out the pros’ inner-tankers -- if you can lose a match and still advance, why not lose a match? At the 1981 version of the World Tour Finals, held at Madison Square Garden, Ivan Lendl showed a conspicuous lack of effort against Jimmy Connors in a round-robin match. It just so happened that the loser of the match would avoid having to face Bjorn Borg in the semifinals -- Connors called Lendl a "chicken" afterward.

Times have changed. With nothing to play for in his final match, David Ferrer, who already had been eliminated, put on the fieriest performance of the tournament against Wawrinka. Ferrer went so far as to smash a racket in his losing effort. The next day, as I mentioned above, Nadal came through in three sets over Berdych, even after he had clinched the top spot in his group. And Djokovic, with a semifinal to play the next day, stuck around to win a long three-setter over Richard Gasquet in his last round-robin match. The paying audience was grateful each time.

You may be tired of hearing about the golden age of men's tennis, but the World Tour Finals showed us again that, tweeners aside, this group of ATP pros does a lot of things right.