Murray comes up big for home crowd
LONDON -- Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, two of the big four, were the favorites entering their matches against Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, respectively, on the opening day of the World Tour Finals in London.
They didn't slip up. Murray rallied to beat Berdych in the afternoon before Djokovic downed Tsonga in the nightcap.
Here are four takeaways from Day 1 of the year-end championships:
Forehand versus forehand
When Murray struck a double fault on his first match point against Berdych in a tight third set, the phrase "Here we go again" crossed my mind. After all, Murray blew match points in each of his three losses since being crowned the U.S. Open champion in September.
On a second match point, his nerves were all too apparent, as Murray barely cleared the net with a cautious, shaky forehand. Thankfully for Murray -- and his fan club that numbered most of the roughly 18,000 at the O2 Arena in south London -- Berdych sent a backhand into the net. The tension was released, and Murray began his quest for a 2012 treble with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win.
"For me, anyway, it's important the last week of the year, when everyone's a little bit tired, to have that atmosphere, big crowd to give you that little extra push that you need to play good tennis," said Murray, the Olympic gold medalist at Wimbledon in August. "So yeah, it was good to be back playing in the U.K."
Such is the nature of round robin that Berdych should now devote most of his energy to the Czech Republic's Davis Cup final against Spain next week. His loss, coupled with a dismal record against Djokovic, means advancing to the semifinals will be more difficult than finding a ticket for next Monday's final. He was 4-3 against Murray before Monday's loss.
As for Murray, what do we make of his forehand? Although still not as potent as the forehands of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, Murray has made strides under Ivan Lendl, attempting to dictate and be more aggressive. Although hitting a forehand down the line remains rare, Murray crunched one up a break in the third set when his confidence was soaring.
Half of his 16 forehand unforced errors, though, came in the first set, when we were reminded of how unnatural that shot can look for him. One in particular -- he was off-balance as he sought to inject more pace and the ball landed in the net -- lingered in the memory.
Although Murray failed to capitalize on any of his first 10 break points, Berdych came up trumps on the majority, often seizing the initiative with penetrating serves. Berdych's forehand was solid early. When the first set concluded, a question came to mind: "What if the conditions were better when they met in the U.S. Open semifinals?" Would the result have been different?
In this tale of forehands, the turning point came when Berdych decided to go after an inviting Murray second serve at 1-1, 30-40 in the second set. Contact was crisp -- but the down-the-line forehand went less than an inch wide.
"It was just, like, small out," Berdych said.
Murray, in an instant, upped the tempo, held and immediately broke for 3-1. He never let go, aided by impressive serving in the final set.
The Djokovic monster
After a semifinal setback at the 2008 Australian Open, Federer famously uttered: "I've created a monster." He won so often that people expected him to just keep on ticking.
Djokovic created a mini-monster in 2011 by winning three Grand Slam titles and twice humbling Nadal on clay. Not as elegant on court as Federer, it was nonetheless somewhat sad to see Djokovic diving twice and hitting the deck in the first set of his 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory against Tsonga. The incidents smacked of recklessness and lack of control. (Others would categorize it as hustle and great entertainment.)
No, Djokovic wasn't at his 2011 finest versus Tsonga, not even close, but he's had a difficult past few weeks because of an illness to his father and his own less serious health issues. He'll take a straight-sets win, especially with a potential marathon against Murray upcoming.
Tsonga, who lost to Djokovic for the seventh straight time, employed strange tactics -- for him -- in the first game, content to sit back and play the role of counterpuncher. It didn't last long, and he soon reverted to his more aggressive style.
Djokovic wobbled in the first set, facing three break points in three different games. Tsonga didn't face any. On two of the break points, the Frenchman had opportunities to win the point but erred.
Whether it was at the French Open this spring or in Beijing this fall, Tsonga couldn't deliver on the most important points against Djokovic. When Djokovic won the tiebreaker, you knew it wouldn't go to three sets.
London a popular choice
A decision is expected this week on the future venue of the World Tour Finals, and odds are that London will be granted an extension. South America has been mentioned as a possible successor.
Doubles specialists Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi -- who saved a match point to beat Horia Tecau and Robert Lindstedt 4-6, 7-6 (1), 12-10 to begin the tournament -- were the latest players to back the English capital.
"I love playing here," said the 40-year-old Nestor, whose travels in the doubles year-end championships have also taken him to several U.S. cities, the Netherlands and China. "I think it's very convenient. Considering the indoor season is in Europe, it just makes sense. It's an amazing place to play. I don't think you could find any complaints from any of the players."
Added Mirnyi, another veteran: "From a marketing point of view, I think this would be the ultimate place, the easiest for different time zones. If it works out to be that we continue to stay here, I'd be very excited because I think it's very great for the game."
Doubles players love London, too, because they get to play in front of packed houses, a rare luxury.
He said it
Quote of the day goes to Janko Tipsarevic, who meets Federer, the two-time defending champion, on Tuesday.
"I don't believe in these stories that I have nothing to lose," said Tipsarevic, who made the field thanks to Nadal's absence. "I have a match to lose, and I intend to fight and do my best to win tomorrow, however I can."
Tipsarevic retired from a match in Paris last week because of an illness and says he's not 100 percent.
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