Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tennis’ Race for No. 1 & Federer’s Quest for His First Davis Cup

After a rough 2013, Roger Federer has looked revitalized in 2014. Can he finish the year ranked No. 1 for a record-tying 6th time, and can he capture his first ever Davis Cup for Switzerland?

 By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

The Grand Slam season may be over, but with two events remaining in the men’s professional tennis season, the world’s top players still have plenty to play for. The Barclays ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) World Tour Finals will take place from November 9th-16th in London, while the Davis Cup final will be contested from November 21st-23rd in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, France.

The ATP World Tour Finals is the most exclusive tournament the ATP has to offer. All other ATP tournaments have 28-128 participants, but this tournament is limited to the world’s top eight players in a format similar to that of soccer’s World Cup.

A more detailed explanation of the tournament’s format can be found here. Only the four Grand Slams offer more ranking points to the champion than the World Tour Finals.

Here are the eight participants.

No. 1 Novak Djokovic

Serbian superstar Novak Djokovic claimed the No. 1 ranking after winning his seventh career Grand Slam title at Wimbledon this summer, and he hasn’t looked back. He enters this year’s tournament as the two-time defending champion, and he also emerged victorious in 2008.  Djokovic is the favorite to hoist the trophy again this year, and if he wins two matches, he will finish 2014 ranked No. 1.

Many consider Djokovic to be the greatest returner in tennis history. His backhand, speed, flexibility and defensive skills are also arguably the best on tour. He showcased all of these attributes in this point, which closed out the 2012 World Tour Finals.

No. 2 Roger Federer

The 33-year old Swiss legend has experienced a remarkable resurgence after a disappointing 2013 campaign. At the end of last season, Federer’s 4,205 points were miles behind Nadal’s 13,030 and Djokovic’s 12,260. But this year, the Swiss superstar visited the fountain of youth and regained his top form to reach the Wimbledon final and claim Masters titles in both Cincinnati and Shanghai.

Federer’s 8,700 points more than double his 2013 total, and he still has a chance to finish the year No. 1 for a record-tying sixth time. This would also make him the oldest year-end No. 1 player by a wide margin. However, he will need to play flawless tennis for the remainder of the year and hope for a Djokovic collapse in order to accomplish that feat.

Federer has become the most popular tennis player of all time due to his unmatched achievements, graceful playing style and squeaky-clean image. His strokes come straight from page 1 of a tennis textbook, and he is still playing some of his best tennis. He also hits ridiculous shots between his legs on a regular basis.

No. 3 Rafael Nadal (Not Participating)

14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal held the No. 1 ranking from the fall of 2013 until July of this year. However, his run was cut short largely due to nagging back and wrist injuries. After a brief return this fall, a case of appendicitis forced him to end his season and undergo surgery. He will finish 2014 ranked 3rd.

No. 4 Stan Wawrinka

Stan Wawrinka broke out in January, winning his first career Grand Slam title at the 2014 Australian Open and rising to a career high No. 3 in the world. He pummeled shots from all over the court to become the first player ever to defeat Nadal and Djokovic in a Grand Slam. He can crush a one-handed backhand harder than just about anyone in history, as evidenced by this shot in the Australian Open semifinals. He also won his first Masters title in Monte Carlo, but has had inconsistent results since.

No. 5 Kei Nishikori

The Japanese 24-year-old turned pro in 2007, but he has earned more prize money this year than he had in the prior seven seasons combined. He has attained a career high rank of No. 5 by reaching the finals of the US Open and the Madrid Masters, along with a number of other strong results.

Since he is the most successful Asian male tennis player of all time, Nishikori has massive endorsement deals and is already one of the richest tennis players ever. With brilliant speed, phenomenal groundstrokes, and strong returns, Nishikori’s game resembles that of Novak Djokovic. Also gifted with terrific hands at the net, Nishikori appears poised to contend for Grand Slams in the coming years.

He defeated three of the top five seeds at the US Open, including Djokovic in the semifinals. He also outhit Nadal on a Spanish clay court for most of the Madrid final before being derailed by an injury. If he can stay healthy and add some power and precision to his serve, he will rise even higher in the rankings.

No. 6 Andy Murray

In 2013, Andy Murray became the first man from the United Kingdom to win Wimbledon in 77 years. Having accomplished the largest goal of his life, his subsequent letdown was understandable. Murray failed to beat a top-10 player or win a title in the ensuing year. He slipped out of the top 10 following this year’s US Open, and the press began to assert that he had fallen from the upper echelon of the game.

Fueled by a desire to prove the critics wrong, Murray then won three tournaments in the span of a month, showing nerves of steel to save ten match points along the way. When last week’s win over Grigor Dimitrov secured Murray’s spot in the World Tour Finals, he poked fun of the media and wrote on a TV camera, “bad year!” Winning this title for the first time would complete the turnaround for Murray.

It’s refreshing to see Murray back in form. One of the best defenders in the game, Murray has developed his offensive weapons to become an all-court force. He also excels in cat-and-mouse points, coming up with spectacular shots from unusual positions to win points like this. He has still not proven that he can beat Novak, Rafa or Roger on a big stage since last year’s Wimbledon. But his recent form suggests that he still belongs with them in the “Big 4," and he will record a statement win soon.

No. 7 Tomas Berdych

The big Czech is not the world’s flashiest player, but his offensive firepower and consistent play have kept him in the top 10 for years. He has beaten all seven other players in the field, but he often struggles deep in tournaments. His 10 career titles are less than half as many as any other player who has accumulated as much prize money. Expect him to be tough in the early stages of the tournament, but don’t anticipate a deep run. This point encapsulates Berdych’s career, as he consistently pushes the top players but tends not to find the extra gear he needs to get over the finish line on the sport’s biggest stages.

No. 8 Milos Raonic

Canadian Milos Raonic has one of the biggest weapons in the history of the game. No player has ever hit a faster serve in a tour-level tournament than the 155.3 mph rocket he blasted at the 2012 Rogers Cup. When he makes his first serve, he wins the point 82% of the time, which is the third highest percentage of all time. Here is Raonic hitting a whole bunch of aces.

However, his return game lags far behind. Since the ATP began keeping return game statistics in 1991, Raonic ranks 238th out of 243 eligible players in percentage of return games won (16%). His relatively one-dimensional game has earned him the nickname “Servebot”. The fast indoor surface in London suits Raonic well, but he still needs to add more variety to his game before he can contend for this title. Raonic has Nadal to thank for his inclusion in this tournament. He would have been the odd man out if Nadal were healthy.

No. 9 Marin Cilic

Though Croatian Marin Cilic did not finish in the top eight, he qualified for the World Tour Finals by virtue of winning the US Open. He played superb offensive tennis en route to blowout victories over Berdych, Federer and Nishikori in the last three rounds of the US Open. He plays similarly to Berdych with a solid, aggressive style that lacks flair. But he managed to become just the third player outside the “Big 4” to win a Grand Slam in the last nine years, along with Wawrinka and Juan Martin Del Potro.


Group A features Djokovic, Wawrinka, Berdych and Cilic. Djokovic is a combined 41-5 against the other players in his group, so he is a safe bet to win it. Wawrinka is 16-6 against Berdych and Cilic, so he will likely finish second.

Federer, Nishikori, Murray and Raonic comprise Group B. This group is much harder to predict. No player holds a head-to-head advantage over more than one other player in the group. Experience should help Federer and Murray advance, though Nishikori could pose a serious threat.

Semifinals: Djokovic over Federer, Murray over Wawrinka

Finals: Djokovic over Murray

Davis Cup Final

The Davis Cup final will conclude the 2014 men’s tennis season. It is the most significant international team competition in tennis, and a detailed explanation of its format can be found here. Switzerland will travel to France, where the final will be played on red clay.

Perhaps the largest hole in Roger Federer’s impeccable résumé is his failure to win major events for his country. He has never won an Olympic Gold medal in singles or a Davis Cup title. But after countryman Stan Wawrinka’s breakout year, he finally finds himself in position to win the Davis Cup.

A deep French roster with the support of hometown fans will be intent on denying Federer the title. France has six of the world’s top 30 players, which is more than any other country. Talented showmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils anchor a group that will give the Swiss all they can handle. It will be exciting to see if Federer can fight through the tough conditions to deliver the title for his country.

Though all of Federer’s tournaments since July have been played on hard courts, he has been practicing intently on red clay whenever he has gotten the chance. A first Davis Cup title would mean the world to Federer, and when he sets his mind to something, he often accomplishes his goal.

Prediction: Switzerland 3, France 2

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