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It seemed like a real buzzkill when Roger Federer lost the Basel final to Juan Martin del Potro a few weeks ago and then promptly pulled out of the Paris Masters 1000 event. In the span of 24 hours, dreams of an unlikely -- but not impossible -- battle between Federer and Novak Djokovic for the year-end world No. 1 ranking were destroyed.
However, as the days leading up to the ongoing ATP World Tour Finals rolled by, it gradually became manifest that something no less intriguing or significant would be decided at the Finals this week in London. And that's the ATP Player of the Year.
Unfortunately, this remains one of those amorphous honors that you can't arrive at by entirely objective means, through processing results and statistics. You can't really quantify it, either. The ATP already has a universally accepted ranking to determine the No. 1 player each year.
But the Player of the Year concept is a little different. At its best, it's an honor bestowed upon the player who had the greatest impact on the sport in any given year, the player who crafted the best or most interesting storyline, the player who, well, got people talking.
Often that's the guy who ends up ranked No. 1 on Dec. 31. But not always. For example, you could have picked Rafael Nadal as Player of the Year when he lost that 2006 Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. That's because Rafa really ignited the rivalry with that match, thereby taking tennis to a place where Federer's dominant genius alone couldn't carry it.
Although Player of the Year is an unofficial honor, various entities (including the ATP) consider it a vital honor. It's nice to have a "human factor" in play. And though the honor will never resonate as powerfully as the computer rating, the statistically based ranking doesn't reflect any truth larger than the one it creates.
Look at the present situation: Djokovic is the clear No. 1-ranked player; among other things, this tells you that, statistically, his combination of success and consistency is unrivaled. After all, he was the only player to make more than two Grand Slam finals (he made three). Yet Djokovic won only one of those four matches (the Australian Open). Compared to 2011, when Djokovic won every major but the French Open, this is a little bit disappointing.
The other three majors were all won by different men, and the most interesting thing about that detail is that not a single one of them is thought of as a guy who just happened to luck out or who benefited from the unexpected failure of better players. Has there ever been a comparable abundance of talent on the ATP Tour?
Nadal had to recuse himself from the Player of the Year conversation because his year ended prematurely at. Federer stunned the tennis community with his continuing excellent play, culminating at Wimbledon. His win over Djokovic in that semifinal snatched the No. 1 ranking from the beaten man almost exactly a year after Djokovic achieved it.
But Federer's top ranking was deceptive, because it included so much boost from his results in the fall of 2011 -- surely irrelevant stats in 2012. Djokovic's lead in the ranking points "race" (which started Jan. 1, 2012) demonstrated that he's been the most consistent player this year. Yet he failed in his two main objectives, to win the French Open and the Olympic Games gold medal.
And that brings us to the ATP No. 3, Andy Murray. His wins at the London Olympics (where he triumphed over Djokovic and Federer in back-to-back matches) and at the U.S. Open (over Djokovic in the final) are a one-two punch that neither of his rivals can match.
Ironically, Murray has been ranked higher in his career -- No. 2 in the summer of 2009 -- than his present No. 3. But he's never been better, or more effective, at big tournaments and against quality opponents. He still trails Djokovic and Federer by so many ranking points that even if he wins the World Tour Finals, he has no shot at taking the No. 1 ranking. But in my book, Murray is clearly in the lead for Player of the Year.
And that's exactly where this World Tour Finals comes into the conversation. If Djokovic, who already has one win over Murray in London, wins the year-end championships, his own case as Player of the Year is enhanced. What better way to underscore your consistency than by sweeping the playoffs?
And Federer can make a similar, if not quite as compelling a case, if he takes the WTF for a mind-boggling seventh time. There's no consensus way to determine an inarguable Player of the Year, and no transparent, statistically based way of choosing one. But it's a legitimate honor to bestow, and right now Murray is the front-runner for it.