ATP Tour Finals: Seven takeaways

The ballyhooed Dream Final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals disappointed everyone except Andy Murray fans. Somehow summoning enough energy, Murray decisively defeated his long-time nemesis, Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 6-4 in a lacklustre match. Here are the takeaways from the season-ending tournament.

Andy Murray... a terrific year of career best and firsts.   -  REUTERS

Novak Djokovic... his backhand, footwork and tactics were mediocre against Andy Murray. The challenge of regaining his championship form and the No. 1 ranking should provide all the motivation he needs to correct those shortcomings.   -  REUTERS

It had never happened before: the year’s last tournament match featuring the top two players with the No. 1 ranking going to the winner. The historic final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, the new Big Two of men’s tennis, created great expectations and posed a few questions.

Could anyone, even Djokovic, stop the Murray freight train that had won 23 straight matches? Or was Murray too exhausted to win one more match after he struggled to walk into the interview room following a marathon semifinal win over Milos Raonic only 24 hours earlier? Was the more rested, but less tested, Djokovic dangerously short of match play after playing just 11 matches since the U.S. Open?

As it turned out, the ballyhooed Dream Final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals disappointed everyone except Murray fans. Somehow summoning enough energy, Murray decisively defeated his long-time nemesis 6-3, 6-4 in a lacklustre match. The rueful but gracious Serb summed it up accurately: “I played very poorly. I made a lot of unforced errors from the backhand side. Credit to Andy for being mentally tough and playing the right shots and making me play an extra shot in every rally. He definitely deserved to win.”

Here are seven takeaways from the seasoning-ending tournament.

1. The ATP Finals culminated a terrific year of career bests and firsts for Murray. It was highlighted by his second Wimbledon crown and a record second Olympic singles gold medal. He also took his first titles at the ATP Finals (he never even reached the final before) and Rome among his career-high nine titles, and racked up a career-best 24-match winning streak. The final feather in his Scottish bonnet was the coveted No. 1 ranking.

 

Seven long years ago, he rose briefly to No. 2, but thereafter usually played fourth fiddle to superstars Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. One week before the 2016 ATP Finals, he finally broke their dominance and grabbed the No. 1 spot at the Paris Masters. He wondered if he could keep it for long. After dethroning five-time ATP Finals champion Djokovic to retain his top ranking, Murray confided, “It was something I never, ever expected.”

Darren Cahill and many cognoscenti, however, thought it was only a matter of time before the 29-year-old Brit reached the pinnacle. “It’s been a long, hard journey for Andy Murray to get to where he is,” said Cahill, the former coach of Andre Agassi and Federer. “It’s been a remarkable journey of grit, determination, and hard work.”

Murray displayed all of these traits at the O2 Arena in London before boisterously partisan spectators. In his toughest round-robin match, he overcame No. 5 Kei Nishikori 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 in 3 hours and 21 minutes. His semifinal against No. 4 Milos Raonic lasted longer and tested his mettle even more. Murray escaped a match point in a thrilling tiebreaker before prevailing 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9) in a 3-hour, 38-minute duel that is a strong candidate for “match of the year.”

2. Tactics, technique, and temperament proved decisive factors for Murray. Coach Ivan Lendl, who reunited with Murray in June, was renowned for his lethal forehand during his 1980s prime. To increase Murray’s forehand power, he helped Murray “hit through the ball” more and transfer his body weight better. As a result, Murray dictated more of the baseline rallies than usual with his more aggressive forehand. He seldom over-hit or under-hit either his forehand or his equally solid backhand. Improved offence plus his almost impenetrable defence frustrated Djokovic throughout.

Although Murray hit only three aces, Djokovic failed to return his serve 15 other times. A combination of power, placement, depth and high-bouncing kick serves and slices (wide in the deuce court) confounded the best returner of serve in the game. That combination helped account for Murray winning a superb 84% (27 of 32) of his first serve points. It also limited Djokovic to just one service break, which came when the Serb trailed 6-3, 4-1 and was down two service breaks.

Murray admitted he “felt tired and a bit sluggish and heavy-legged” before the final. Realising he had no energy to waste by yelling at his support team in the player’s box, he wisely stayed calm for the most part.

3. “Well, the last five, six months have not been ideal,” Djokovic acknowledged after failing to finish No. 1 for only the second time in the last six years. “But sometimes it’s just normal, I guess, to experience, to live these kinds of things, not to have the half seasons as well as you want them to be, as well as they’ve been in the last three, four years. That’s all.”

In yet another press conference, Djokovic recalled how the immense pressure of finally winning his first French Open took “its toll” emotionally. The title that he took on his 12th attempt gave him a career Grand Slam and raised hopes that he could achieve a calendar Grand Slam this year. Though Djokovic faltered badly at Wimbledon and the Olympics, he pointed out that he still reached the final of the U.S. Open and ATP Finals, saying, “It’s still pretty good.” Very good, in fact, unless you are No. 1, or very close to it.

It’s too soon to panic. The Djoker, who got testy during a few matches and press conferences late in the season, has six weeks to rest, relax and recharge his batteries before the 2017 season starts. His backhand, footwork and tactics were mediocre against Murray. The challenge of regaining his championship form and the No. 1 ranking should provide all the motivation he needs to correct those shortcomings.

4. Raonic came within a point of notching his biggest career victory when he led Murray 9-8 in their third set tiebreaker. Instead of being deflated by the heartbreaking setback, the 25-year-old Canadian was fired up.

 

“It’s the best match I’ve ever competed in,” Raonic enthused. “The way I was constantly trying to stay positive, keep my energy up, trying to fight through, that’s definitely the most significant thing I’ve done today. I really tried to leave it all out there.”

The best evidence of his fighting spirit was his breaking Murray’s serve when down 5-4 and 6-5 to force the third set tiebreaker.

Broad-shouldered and 6’5”, Raonic boasts the most potent serve among top 10 players, but he and Tomas Berdych are the least athletic. Even so, he has improved his quickness, agility and volleying, and that increased his versatility. Raonic doesn’t have an exciting game or a charismatic personality, but his sheer power and increasing maturity should propel the 2016 Wimbledon finalist to another major final next year, and perhaps even a major title.

Raonic should be thrilled with his career-high, No. 3 year-end ranking. He should also be sobered that his 5,450 ranking points are less than half of No. 2 Djokovic’s 11,780.

5. “Not only is Thiem’s forehand the fastest, but it’s rotationally huge,” pointed out Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias during the first set of Djokovic’s 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 round-robin victory. This year Dominic Thiem’s forehand averaged a tour-high 81 mph, three mph faster than Djokovic’s and Stan Wawrinka’s. His topspin doesn’t produce quite as many revolutions per minute as that of Nadal and Jack Sock, but it still bounds ferociously.

Thiem’s serve resembles his forehand in that it also boasts plenty of power and topspin. Even so, Djokovic broke his serve five of seven times in the last two sets. What happened? Thiem’s flashy but inconsistent one-handed backhand has problems handling strong serves and groundstrokes, particularly on medium or fast surfaces. As Arias noted, “One-handed backhands are a problem because you start points on the defence with the return of serve.”

 

Nevertheless, the 23-year-old Austrian upset Nadal on clay and Federer on grass and clay. He also won 500- and 250-level tournaments in Buenos Aires, Acapulco, Nice and Stuttgart in the first half of the season before slumping to a 14-13 match record after that.

In his quest for ranking points and experience, No. 8 Thiem played far too many tournaments, 27, this year. He apparently did not learn his lesson because he plans to enter just as many next year. But he did learn that his vulnerable backhand and flawed volley too often let him down, especially on big points. As a realistic Thiem said after losing to Djokovic, “There are so many things to improve.”

6. During Nishikori’s impressive three-set loss to Murray, Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone, who formerly coached Pete Sampras and Federer, noted, “Nishikori is the best in the world at moving diagonally forward, except for Roger Federer.” That’s high praise, indeed. Unfortunately, the 26-year-old Japanese lacks Federer’s diverse shot-making and clever tactics to capitalise fully on his attacking groundstrokes.

With one of the weakest serves among top 10 players and a mediocre ranking of No. 26 in the ATP serve ratings, Nishikori must rely on his return game. He ranks a respectable No. 8 in the ATP return ratings at 159.1, but that is far behind the leaders — Nadal at 177.8, Murray at 172.9, and Djokovic at 169.9.

This 5’10”, 163-pound David in a sport increasingly filled with Goliaths ended a run of 0-for-16 against top-five opponents by defeating Wawrinka at Toronto. He took out Nadal to gain an Olympic bronze medal and upset Murray in five sets at the U.S. Open. At the ATP Finals, he had a chance to finish the season at No. 3 after beating Wawrinka in his opening match. Then he lost his last three matches to Murray, Marin Cilic and Djokovic to finish at No. 5, equalling his previous career-best, year-end ranking in 2014.

Even when he manages to oust an elite player at a major event, he typically runs out of gas before he makes the final. That helps explain why Djokovic crushed him 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals at London.

7. The ATP slogan is “Amazing Is Everywhere.” But its use of Player Challenges for human line-calling is antiquated rather than amazing. Respected researcher Vic Braden did a study for the United States Tennis Association, shooting at 10,000 frames per second, and concluded: “As the ball is only on the court for approximately 3 milliseconds, the human eye is not able to see the actual landing spot.”

With Djokovic serving at 2-3, 40-all in the first set after fighting off two break points, the scrambling Murray played a Djokovic shot that landed out and Murray eventually lost the pivotal point. Focused on playing the ball, he failed to challenge the line call. Afterward, miffed at the injustice, Murray complained to the chair umpire — to no avail. He lost the next point and the fluctuating 14-point game. Hawk-Eye, the marvellous electronic line-calling machine, confirmed Murray was right.

The shoe was on the other foot in the second set. Djokovic, though still down a service break with Murray serving at 4-3, 30-15, had broken his opponent’s serve two games ago and was starting to turn the tide somewhat. At the end of a gruelling rally, Djokovic’s crosscourt backhand landed very close to the sideline and was called out. When the replay showed a sliver of the ball had hit the line, Cahill predictably blamed the victim: “Novak should have challenged.” Another pivotal point went to the undeserving player. That made the score 40-15 and Murray won the next point to lead 5-3. Had the score been 4-3, 30-all, would Djokovic’s momentum have been sustained rather than reversed? We’ll never know.

Requiring fallible players to call their own lines while racing for shots and often viewing balls from 80 feet away and at difficult angles (note the “parallax factor”) is the ultimate irony after decades of players disputing questionable line calls with fallible lines-people. Usain Bolt doesn’t judge who won 100-metre sprints. Lebron James doesn’t determine whether he was fouled. Tennis players shouldn’t make difficult and often impossible line-calling decisions with Player Challenges either.

What would be the solution then to ensure accurate line calls?

Keep Hawk-Eye, instant replay and the indispensable lines-people. Get rid of unfair and gimmicky Player Challenges. Equipped with a courtside computer monitor displaying Hawk-Eye’s results, the chair umpire should immediately overrule errors by lines-people, clicking a button and instantly putting Hawk-Eye’s image of the correct call on the stadium video board. When a line call is correct but a player protests — in the traditional manner — the umpire also displays Hawk-Eye on the stadium video board. If tennis fans yearn for even more Hawk-Eye, tournaments should display it whenever balls land within three (or four or five) inches of the outer edge of the lines.

Used wisely as a means for accurate line calling, Hawk-Eye improves our sport. Misused alongside Player Challenges, it gives tennis a black eye.