Back to London once again it is.
In what has been quite a year for sport in the city, it is somewhat fitting that a memorable season in men’s tennis shall conclude here over the coming eight days at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.
Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Janko Tipsarevic may arrive at the O2 Arena with a few aches and pains after a long and demanding year, but none are lacking in motivation to give it one last push to finish on a high at the end-of-season championships, which this year immediately follows the Paris Masters 1000 event.
The removal of the seven day gap between Paris and London was not ideal. Paris particularly suffered as only one of the eight players who had qualified for London made it past the quarter-finals, while the fact the eight-man field was not confirmed until Thursday created new challenges for tournament organisers in London.
The schedule is always a notable topic of conversation around this stage of the season, and although it has predictably come up during the course of numerous press conferences, it is the theme of drug testing which appears to be most prominent after Murray’s comments in Paris in which he called for more blood testing in tennis.
Murray then spent part of this week defending himself on Twitter against cycling fans who had taken issue with his comments on the lower level of skill required in cycling compared to tennis. But while he may have upset some of the cycling fraternity, he will be happy to have received the backing of Federer who agreed with his thoughts on the lack of testing in tennis.
Federer said: “I feel I am being less tested this time now than six, seven, eight years ago. I don’t know the exact reasons why we are being tested less. At this moment, I agree with Andy. We don’t do a lot of blood testing during the year. I am OK having more of that.
“I think we should up it a little bit or a lot because I think it is key and vital that the sport stays clean. It has got to. We have got a good history in that and we have got to make sure it stays that way.”
The attention will turn to the court today when the action gets underway with Murray vs Berdych in Group A. The nature of the format means that the Brit cannot afford a slow start in a group also containing Djokovic and Tsonga.
It is rare for Murray to let a winning position pass him by, but that is exactly what has happened in his three tournaments since winning the US Open in September. In Tokyo vs Milos Raonic, Shanghai vs Djokovic and Paris vs Jerzy Janowicz, Murray has had match points in all three before going on to lose.
It is something Murray will have no doubt discussed with coach Ivan Lendl who is in town this week.
Murray said: “I am aware how hard it is to finish matches off. It is not an easy thing to do. I don’t feel in the match against Novak that I did too much wrong. I was disappointed with last week [Paris], I don’t feel that I focused as hard I needed to when I was serving for the match.
“That’s something this week that I will make sure I play every point at a time, take my time and fight for every single point because they all count for the same at the end of the match. I will need to try and do a better job of that.”
The draw guarantees episode 17 of the Djokovic vs Murray rivalry will be held in London. Much has been made of this as the new leading rivalry in the sport ahead of Federer vs Nadal. The crowd will be delighted if the encounter between the two 25-year-olds this week is anything like their epic meetings this year in Melbourne, New York and Shanghai.
Djokovic, who is guaranteed to finish the year as world No.1, arrives in London on the back of a shock defeat in his first match in Paris last week to Sam Querrey. The Serb admitted he is dealing with some “issues” at present, although he wished not to divulge any more details. Reports from Belgrade last week said that his father was being treated in hospital for an acute respiratory illness.
Although Djokovic and Murray will be heavily fancied to progress, Berdych and Tsonga should not immediately be ruled out of the running. A good week in London for Berdych would be the perfect confidence booster ahead of next week’s Davis Cup Final in Prague between Czech Republic and Spain, while Tsonga will be aiming to go one better after his three-set defeat to Federer in the final here last year.
Federer arrives in London as some begin to wonder again if this really is the beginning of the end for the great champion. It may be unwise to think such a thing given that the 31-year-old proved so many people wrong just four months ago by winning his seventh Wimbledon title and reclaiming the world No.1 spot.
There are no easy draws at an event like this but it is acknowledged that Federer will be happy with how his group has turned out, although it will provide a rerun of the recent Basel final in which Federer suffered a surprise defeat on home soil to Del Potro in three sets.
While it was a sore one for the Swiss, it was a massive win for Del Potro, who has battled back after a number of injury setbacks, and it will give the Argentine the belief that he can do it again in London.
Ferrer arrives from Paris after winning his first Masters 1000 title at the age of 30, an achievement many in the sport feel is nothing short of well deserved, while Tipsarevic’s solid and consistent play all season has earned him a place after the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal.
Jonathan Marray ensures that there will be added home interest in this year’s doubles event as he and Danish partner Frederik Nielsen take their place in the draw, earned after teaming up as wild cards to win at Wimbledon, and the Brit will fear nobody after teaming up with Paul Hanley to beat Bob & Mike Bryan in Paris last week.
Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins are also on site as the first alternates. Considering that it is 13 years since an alternate pairing played a match at the end-of-season championships, the chances of the British pair getting some match time may be remote, but the experience of being around the venue and the opportunities to practice with Murray can only be good.