My day at the ATP World Tour Finals

On Wednesday last week I was fortunate enough to visit the O2 arena to watch the ATP World Tour finals. It was made even more interesting given the prediction I had made earlier of who would reach the final.  Of course history has shown that I was correct that Rafa and Novak both reached the final and topping their groups in the process. That’s no surprise since the mens tour is incredibly predictable. Few upsets happen at majors like this. The only real question was who would win the final match. I had Rafa slightly edging Djoko in a 55% – 45% simply on form but I wouldn’t bet either way. As I wrote in my US Open final review Novak is pushing Nadal all the way every time they play.

We have all learnt a lot about Nadal this year with his epic comeback from injury. It is one of the most amazing sporting achievements I have seen. He has taught me even more how to use spin to win matches, particularly on serve. What stood out however is his work off the court in nowhere land. Something all the top players are doing in their own way. Something that I want to learn more about.

Stan Wawrinka has really made a name for himself this year. He really stood out for me when he took Novak the world number one to five sets in the Australian Open quarterfinals at the start of the year. The level he maintained throughout the match. Serving over 130 mph against the best returner in the world yet not recording a double fault until the fifth set. That is a truly remarkable achievement. It is a match I still remember. Throughout Stan worried Novak. In the end belief and experience let the Swiss down. Unfortunately the same happened in the Davis cup final against Berdych and the US Open Semi against Novak. So Stan came into this match knowing he can last against the worlds best and match them on their terms. I expected the fight to go right down to the wire. 

All this background made the first match we saw with Rafael Nadal taking on Stanislas Wawrinka entrancing.

I had heard a lot about how good it is to watch the pros but so far I had mainly seen the women play. That was really good but this is a whole new level. It really is amazing. I still cannot believe just how hard they hit the ball. They just run to the ball and smack it as hard as they can. Time, and time, and time again. They stand so far behind the line that on most courts they would be on the wrong side of the fence and off the court. Stan, particularly, just belted anything high. He hits much flatter than Nadal and his strength is his huge pace off either wing. So he just hit every thing he could as hard as possible. Particularly his serve which often reached 135mph. A couple of serves were so fast I couldn’t separate when the ball was hit from when it landed. I just saw a blur and heard one loud crack.

What was exciting was how well Stan played. I wasn’t surprised at all. He was my pick for the semis until I looked at the record books when I wrote the article. He just didn’t have a good record against any one. So I couldn’t be sure he would live up to his new level against the top eight.

True to form Stan broke Rafa a couple of times. He came in a lot with serve and volley tactics and basically took the match to Rafa just as he took it to Novak Djokovic  at the US and Australian Opens this year. That was the stand out match for me. I play with a one handed backhand and I really enjoy playing my backhand. When it is working it often makes the match for me because I become dangerous off both wings. I can attack from both sides and my opponent has no where to aim at. Either side they hit to comes back with more on it. 

What is exciting for me is that this balanced attack is what is making the difference at the top level. It is how Djokovic was beating Nadal before his injury and how Stan has faired so well against Novak this year. He doesn’t have a weak side. Against Nadal he also has a rare advantage. His extreme pace. It is well known that Rafa only fears the real big hitter. Robin Soderling is best known for knocking Rafa out of the French open with his huge hitting game, Lukasz rosol did the same at wimbledon and Tomas Berdych has had success too. So it was for Stan. He basically gave Nadal no time to do anything. Nadal takes a relatively long time to produce his shot and relies on getting the ball really high. Stan just used that height to move Rafa around until he found an opening. He wasn’t rushing, he just believed in himself and his shot selection was wonderful. 
Not only did he break Rafa twice but he took him to a tie break in each set. He just wasn’t able to get over the line and win a set. I feel so lucky to have seen that match because I can’t be sure Stan will make the finals next year. Sport is like that. He has been amazing but this may also be his peak. There are many hungry pros chasing him. I also don’t know if he has the mind for it. He lost for the same reason he lost to Novak. The same reason Berdych loses the big matches against these guys.  His technique between the ears doesn’t match his technique with his body. He hits well but doesn’t know how to win the big points and can lose concentration and belief. Rafa and Novak don’t. That is why they win. They save things for the most important points and have extra options when they get there. The others do everything they can to get to the big point and often have little left when they get there.

Watching Stan bully Rafa proved to me that a single handed backhand is still relevant at the highest level. It can be something Rafa and Novak fear because they definitely fear Stans. So the idea that Fed can’t develop a backhand to beat Rafa with is, for me, debunked. So Fed could do it too with his single handed backhand but I don’t think he will. Stan and Fed thinking differently about their games. Stan enjoys and almost prefers his backhand. Fed just likes his. Nothing more.

Rafa was amazing of course. Clinical. I really got to see why he wins so much. He plans throughout for the key moments of the match. Winning the breaks requires the same approach as winning the games you need to save a plan for the big point. The difference really being that Nadal thinks so hard on each point that he feels no extra pressure on the big points. Stan however plays a much more natural and fluid style so he is prone to the nerves of the big point. His mind deserts him and he doesn’t have the backup options of Nadal.

The summary is that Stan just played his natural game and Rafa weathered the storm as best he could. Rafa watched through the match, looking for weakness, waiting and applying his blow when his opponent stopped thinking and bared his neck.

Stan played as I hoped he would. Basically he is now bossing both world number ones. They genuinely fear him. Whether he can reach the next level and take the match is what we will find out next year.

Now that I have covered the standout match I can share the other brilliant matches we saw.

Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek were simply out hit by Fernando Verdasco and David Marrero. Paes and Stepanek tried to play with touch and feel when brute force was dominating. You could see that Verdasco is still a force on the singles tour. He and Marrero just stayed back and blasted the ball giving their opponents no time. Paes and Stepanek didn’t adjust. They lost 2 serves in a row to lose the first set and go behind in second. In the end that set up the match for the Spaniards. It was a shame since The indian and Czech pairing won the US Open this year so I was hoping for an epic tussle. In the end they lost to the eventual champions. Though we didn’t know that at the time.

Marcel Granollers and Mark Lopez, the defending champions were bossed around by second seeds Bruno Soares and Alexander Peya in the second doubles match. The Spaniards won the first set and the 2nd seeded Soares and Peya found their way in second. Again they just kept hammering the ball at their opponents whom to be fair did a better job of redirecting the energy but the end still felt inevitable. The consistent power game helped Soares and Peya win out in the champions tie break and take the match.

Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer were the final match of the day. It was very evident that Berdych is Stan Wawrinka without the Backhand.  With Berdych you can actually hear the difference between his backhand and forehand. Ferrer unfortunately looked out of sorts. Most likely he was very tired from the final in Bercy and the previous seven weeks of continuous competition. He qualified for the tour finals by playing more competitions than any one else. I think that really showed in this tournament.

I previously wrote and article on how a shorter player can beat the best in the world including David Ferrer as the best example. So I was hoping to see for myself how he does it so I can apply it to my own game. Unfortunately I got a lesson on the need for a plan B and C when the all important legs fail you.

Ferrer was continually behind in games never really challenging Tomas. The Berdych forehand is ferocious, to see and hear it was amazing. The backhand is just a shot like any other. Ferrer kept giving him high balls to whack with his forehand and failed to expose the backhand. So he basically fed Tomas. Accentuating the Czechs strengths and emphasising Davids lack of options when his legs fail him. David got a few good first serves in but overall Tomas played lights out indoor tennis and Ferrer just ran but had no edge.

So that was my fantastic day at the O2. Just a great day of tennis. Can’t wait to go again.

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