STUART FRASER

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TALKING BALLS 034 Ė SUNDAY 21ST NOVEMBER 2010
By Stuart Fraser

All set for the season finale

Itís the part of the season which brings contrasting emotions for tennis fans.  Sadness that the tennis season is about to draw to a close, but happiness that two of tennisí showpiece events are about to take place - the ATP World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup Final.

Before Serbia take on France in two weeks time in an intriguing Davis Cup Final, all eyes will be on the action from the O2 Arena in London which hosts the ATPís showpiece event, and it really is set to be a fascinating week in the British capital.

A few days of hectic PR demands for the top 8 players in the world are complete.  Now itís time for the mouth-watering on-court action to get underway.

When the line-up for this yearís event was finalised in Paris last week, Chris Kermode, managing director, must have been delighted.  I donít think you can argue with the merits of any of this yearís participants and each of them has their own unique appeal to the fans.

In saying that, itís a shame Nikolay Davydenko wonít be there to defend the title he won last year.  Itís not been the best of years for the Russian having only won one title in Doha in January, but he will be more disappointed with the fact he only reached one other semi-final in 2010.

Last yearís runner-up Juan Martin Del Potro will also be absent having only played six matches this year due to a wrist injury.  His lack of tournament play has seen him drop down to No.259 in the world rankings.  A false ranking if ever there was one and once he gets back in regular action next year, he will soon shoot back up that list.

But letís concentrate on the elite field of names that will compete in London this year.  The draw has created two evenly-matched groups of which tennis fans are still debating which is the toughest.

Group A includes top seed Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych and Andy Roddick.

Who would have thought after his disastrous performance at the O2 Arena last year, where he lost all three group matches, that Nadal would go on to have arguably the best year of his career.

It was a tremendous summer for the Spaniard in which he completed the Career Golden Slam, winning the US Open for the first time after winning his second Wimbledon title and fifth French Open crown.

His exploits this year see him hold a lead of almost 4,000 points over world No.2 Roger Federer in the rankings, and itís a lead which could be further increased with a maximum of 1500 points on offer in London.

Despite putting on a better performance than Nadal last year, winning two round-robin matches, Djokovic was another surprise player who failed to get past the group stage.

Itís been a solid year for Djokovic who currently sits at No.3 in the world rankings, but has spent several weeks of this year in the No.2 position.  His main achievement was undoubtedly reaching the final of the US Open in September. 

His best achievement of 2010 could still be yet to come though if Serbia beat France in the Davis Cup Final.  With that to come just a week after the ATP Finals finish, then itís hard to think that it wonít play some part in his thoughts in London this week.

Berdych is the only debutant at the ATP Tour Finals in this yearís field and it may be a bit too much to expect him to come through the group stages at his first attempt.

The Czech rose to prominence in the summer when he followed up a semi-final run at Roland Garros with an appearance in the final at Wimbledon, knocking out defending champion Federer in the quarter-finals.

Since then though, itís been a struggle which included a first round exit at the US Open and he has not replicated that form we seen from him in the early part of the summer.

On his day, he can hit the ball with such ferocity that it is hard for players to stay in the rallies with him, but it is hard to see him finding his form again all of a sudden at the end of the season.

Roddick may have had no more than a decent year by his standards, but yet again he is here at the ATPís end of season event for the eighth year running.  He may not be doing anything spectacular, but he has been consistently in or around the top ten for over eight years now and that deserves acclaim.

His best achievement of the year was winning the Miami Masters in April, but he has failed to impress at the Grand Slams Ė his best performance was at the Australian Open when he lost out to Marin Cilic in a five set quarter-final.

His form may not be overly impressive, but you canít rule Roddick out of the equation.  He has beaten Nadal, Djokovic and Berdych at least once this year.  If he can stay strong on serve throughout the week, then he has a chance of making the semis at least.

Federer, Robin Soderling, Andy Murray and David Ferrer make up Group B.

Itís been a poor year for Federer.  One Grand Slam, one Masters title, one ATP 500 victory and one ATP 250 win, as well as final appearances in four other tour events, including three Masters tournaments (please take note of the sarcasm in the opening line of this paragraph).

Most players would be delighted to have a year like Federerís 2010.  But considering what we are used to from the greatest player of all time, then it does not perhaps live up to expectations.

Consider as well that Federer has also lost four matches this year after holding match points, most notably the US Open semi-final he played against Novak Djokovic.  The Swiss is certainly not as dominant as he once was, but the rankings donít lie and his position as world No.2 shows he is still capable of producing top-quality tennis on a regular basis.

He is the bookies favourite for this yearís ATP Tour Finals which is no surprise.  He lives for the big events and apart from the Grand Slams, they donít come much bigger than this.

Soderling is the in-form player coming into London after winning the Paris Masters and reaching the semis in Valencia the week before.  The Swede currently sits at a career high ranking of No.4 and will be full of confidence heading into this week.

As many of the top players have found out at some point over the last couple of year, he is capable of completely overpowering you on a hard court with huge hitting off both wings as well as a strong serve.  Considering this, his 9/1 odds to win the tournament outright have certainly caught the eye.

Murray faces a tough test when he faces the Swede in his first match today.  Thatís the beauty of this round robin event featuring the top 8 players though.  Rather than starting your tournament with a match where, more often that not, you can ease yourself into the conditions slowly, at the O2 you have to hit the ground running.

The Scot was very unlucky to be eliminated at the group stage last year.  Had Federer won one more game against Del Potro in their last round-robin match, then Murray would have went through having won two of his three matches.  As it was, Del Potro went through courtesy of a better games-won percentage.

Murray was a big fan of the eventís atmosphere last year and he would no doubt love to win such a big tournament on British soil.  He is more than capable of doing that, but it all depends of what sort of form he brings to the O2 at the end of what has been an inconsistent year.

2010 started so well with Murray showing some of his best ever form on his way to the Australian Open final.  Going out to Nadal in the Wimbledon semi-finals was not a huge shock and he also impressed with Masters title wins in Toronto and Shanghai.

However, there were also a number of poor early losses in several ATP tour events for the 23-year-old.  Also, the manner in which he went out of the fourth round of the French Open to Berdych and the US Open third round to Stanislas Wawrinka was disappointing.

It will be interesting to see how he performs at the O2 this year.  Will he bring the game which seen off Nadal and Federer consecutively in Toronto or the lacklustre performances seen at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows?  My feeling is that it will be the former.

Ferrer is the final competitor in Group B, and what a competitor he is.  His dogged determination and focus on court is always great to watch even though he may be the least known name to casual tennis supporters.

His singles title win at his own tournament in Valencia a couple of weeks ago was the clincher for his ATP Tour Finals qualification aspirations.  It was also a huge win for the Spaniard in terms of his confidence on the indoor hard surface, considering that most of his success has come on the clay.

To be honest, he is the least likely player to emerge from this group into the semis, but I wouldnít put one shock victory over either Federer, Soderling or Murray past him.

As well as the singles, doubles also features heavily in London with the same round-robin format being used for the worldís best pairs which this year includes Bob and Mike Bryan, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic and Lukas Dlouhy and Leander Paes.

Itís a rare chance for them to shine on a big stage with every doubles match being televised live on Sky Sports.  Although singles takes precedence in tennis, doubles matches can often be more exciting than the one-on-one game.

So it promises to be an excellent week for tennis in London.  The event combines a unique format with an exciting atmosphere inside one of the most impressive venues on the tour full of enthusiastic tennis fans.  It really is a match made in heaven.

Coolest tournament on the tour

Joining the O2 Arena as one of the most impressive tennis venues has to be the Agora building in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia which held an ATP 500 event at the start of this month.

Whilst in town for the Valencia vs Rangers Champions League football match on the Tuesday night, myself and a couple of friends popped along to the tennis for the afternoon and what we found was possibly the coolest tournament on the ATP Tour.

As well as the tennis in the Agora and in the adjacent science museum which was home to Court 1 and the practice courts, there was an impressive funpark outside which contained plenty of stalls for the fans.

The funpark also contained food outlets and a bar which was ideal for the fans who wanted to enjoy a drink outside in the comfortable 24 degree heat that day before heading indoors to watch the tennis.

The City of Arts and Sciences is a great example of modern architecture at its best and the event had taken full advantage of the surroundings, setting up tables, chairs and sun loungers beside the water pool.

With house music being played by a DJ, it made for a setting which wouldnít look out of place by the beaches in Ibiza. Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=md1AhUiZz5o

Plenty of thought had clearly gone into the fans experience by event organisers and it showed.  You would never have thought that it was only the tournamentís second year in its current location.  Get there next year if you can.