- Chris Wilkinson
Survival of the fittestChris Wilkinson November 29, 2011
So the ATP Tour season is over for another year, and once again it is Roger Federer ending the year on a high, winning a record sixth ATP World Tour Finals title in London.
He may have had a season to forget by his standards, but while other players around him have run out of gas, Federer appeared to have plenty left in the tank.
Of course you will always have players picking up injuries, but I can't remember the last time that so many players seemed this fatigued at the end of the season. The likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic may have been on the court for their round robin matches, but mentally they had already checked out. Nadal's heart wasn't in it, and he has since admitted he has lost some of his passion for the game, while Djokovic admitted to 'overload'.
As for Andy Murray, there is no question he made the right call to pull out. It's obviously a big shame for the organisers and for the fans, but he gave it his best shot and he was obviously in a lot of pain with his groin injury. The year-end championships may be a highlight of the calendar, but they are only 5th or 6th in a player's priority list (depending on how much importance they place on the Davis Cup). The grand slams are still the big prize, and if competing in London was going to put Murray's Australian Open participation in doubt, then it was 100% the right decision.
It may seem like a long way away, but the players will be in Australia in less than a month, and with the Australian Open only six or so weeks away, it will be interesting to see who comes out refreshed and raring to go, and who's still struggling.
Fans paying for tickets to see the semi-finals on Saturday would have expected to see the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in the semis. While everybody loves an underdog, for the big players to fail to make it past the group stages is a concern - if it happens again next year it will threaten to undermine the tournament.
But take nothing away from Federer - the Swiss was a deserving winner, although the man he beat in the final, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga deserves the plaudits. The Frenchman is a real character - he is a fantastic shotmaker and so exciting to watch. Many of the British fans will remember him from his quarter-final win over Federer at Wimbledon, and he made a few more fans this week.
If we were talking about players likely to make their grand slam breakthrough in 2012, Tsonga would certainly be high on my list with Murray. Tsonga made the final of the Australian Open back in 2008 and he has improved a lot since then - not just physically but also mentally. He is a lot more mature now and that has made him a better player. He is stronger in the big matches - as he showed in his win against Nadal.
It seems strange to say, but with so many different weapons in his armoury, the thing that was lacking was an overall awareness of his game. He needed to find out how he plays and have a better understanding of his game so he can make better use of his ability, and I think he has started to do that this season.
I had the chance to see Tsonga in action from a fan's view last week. I'm normally used to watching the action from the commentary box, but last week I had tickets to see Tsonga v Fish. The afternoon session I saw lacked a bit of atmosphere but I think the organisers did a great job - 17,500-seater stadium pretty much full every day. I love the Paris Masters, I think the atmosphere in Bercy is fantastic - I think that's partly helped by the fact there's always three or four Frenchmen in the field. But the Finals is something special, it's the top eight players in the world - the best players on tour - and it would be a shame to move it away from London, where it has been a huge success - it would be tough to beat it.
Tsonga has obviously beaten Federer in the past, but he was well beaten on Sunday. I do think Federer has shot himself in the foot to a certain extent with his comments about Murray, undermining Murray's achievements in Asia because he and Djokovic weren't playing. I think it is a little bit hypocritical of Federer - the titles he won in Basel and Paris he did so without playing any of the world's top five. It is true that Murray's wins came in the absence of Federer and Djokovic, but as with every tournament, you can only beat the players in front of you - if the top players lose early you have still got to play guys who are playing well.
The fact that so many players were not at their best will raise eyebrows, but there are two sides to every argument, and for the calls to reduce the schedule, there are the players who need more tournaments to keep their ranking up. The beauty of being a top player is you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which tournaments they play. And don't forget that when they play the Masters series events they get a bye which means they generally don't play until Wednesday.
The season is over for the top guys (apart from the Davis Cup final), but for so many of the lower-ranked players they are still slogging away in the Challenger tour and the Futures events playing for prize money and ranking points. They can't afford to take a few weeks off, and they'll head Down Under for the Australian Open qualifying. I can sympathise with the top players and how tired they are, but we can't forget about the players outside the top 100 who are playing week-in, week-out.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1