The World Tour Finals in London are upon us again, and so is our annual preview of this prestigious event. Qualification for the 2014 installment was particularly competitive, with the final qualifier Milos Raonic receiving almost 1,000 more ranking points than his 2013 equivalent, Richard Gasquet. Indeed, Grigor Dimitrov in 11th finished with more points than Gasquet did last year, and going into the Paris Masters last week, there were no fewer than four places remaining in London, with six remaining contenders.
Paris therefore served as a shootout, which highlighted just how much qualification means to the world’s leading tennis players, as one by one they produced incredible performances to seal their place. Firstly Andy Murray, who had put his body through a grueling schedule of six consecutive tournaments across the world to qualify for London, found the energy to produce arguably his highlight of the season – a demolition of Dimitrov to secure his place. Next was Tomas Berdych, a set down in the deciding set to Kevin Anderson, a much-improved player who, in my view, has a decent shot at making London himself next year. Yet Berdych somehow saw himself over the line, using every ounce of his fortitude and mental strength. Milos Raonic went into Paris 10th in the standings, and knew his London dreams were over if he didn’t manage to beat Roger Federer, a feat he had never before achieved – hardly surprising, as Federer has won 17 Grand Slams and no fewer than 6 London titles. Yet Raonic prevailed against the odds to record arguably the best victory of his career so far. Then, two more contenders faced off against each other. David Ferrer has qualified for London every year since 2010, and has a deserved reputation as one of the sport’s greatest fighters. However, his tenacity was matched every step of the way by Kei Nishikori, and in an epic scrap lasting over two and a half hours, Nishikori came through to seal both his own place in London, and also Raonic’s at Ferrer’s expense.
When competing in London means so much to such impressive and well-rewarded athletes, it can’t fail to be something truly special. Just to enhance the spectacle even further, three of the competitors are making their London debut; Raonic, Nishikori and the US Open champion, Marin Cilic. This is unprecedented in the last few years. In 2013, Stan Wawrinka was the sole debutant. He appeared visibly moved to play in London for the first time, which inspired him to play some breathtaking tennis and make the semi-finals. To have this replicated three times this year should produce a compelling event. Besides, beyond the obvious stars like Federer and Djokovic, we want some fresh faces and underdogs to support, and now we have them. I have huge respect for David Ferrer, but he wasn’t a player of sufficient calibre to be considered a serious challenger to win this event. In his four appearances, he’d only progressed beyond the group stages once. We know everything there is to know about Ferrer; all the strengths that make him a very good player, but also that he’s never going to beat the very best with any regularity, and certainly not now he’s 32, and showing signs of early decline. But how about Cilic, Nishikori and Raonic? We don’t know, and that’s the exciting part. But I’d be amazed if at least one of them didn’t make at least the semi-finals. Cilic and Nishikori, after all, contested the US Open final, and looked like they belonged on the elite stage. Raonic, at 23, heralds the belated rise of a new generation in men’s tennis.
Talking of the new generation, it’s a shame that we won’t see Dimitrov. He’s more technically gifted than anyone we’ve seen since Federer, and I think he has the game eventually to win more major titles than Raonic. He certainly looked the real deal at Wimbledon this year. But perhaps it’s still a little too soon for him, as Federer and Murray have both brushed him aside easily in recent weeks. I don’t think they’ll be able to do so for much longer. Interestingly, Dimitrov by virtue of his ranking, was offered the chance to be one of the two reserves in London this week, to potentially fill in if injuries occur. Dimitrov said no, and instead curtailed his season, meaning that, incredibly, we could yet see Feliciano Lopez (ranked at no. 14) competing at London this year. It will be interesting to monitor next season whether the extra time Dimitrov spent away from tennis, and then working on his game privately with those around him, bears fruit. Or whether Raonic, fired-up by competing on the highest stage, learns more from playing against the very best. Only time will tell.
Rafael Nadal’s appendix isn’t allowing him the chance to take part in London, meaning that his injury-hit season ends in frustration and defeat to the Croatian prospect Borna Coric in Basel. Nadal’s wait to win London is therefore extended by at least another year. However, Djokovic and Federer, who have won London between them in 9 of the last 11 years, are both present. Incidentally, the two other London champions in that time, David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko, have both now retired. Djokovic and Federer are the world no. 1 and 2 respectively, so their domination of London may well continue for at least another year. However, 2014 has seen the ironclad grip of a handful of players on all the major titles slip slightly. Wawrinka and Cilic have won Grand Slams, so why not London too? To do so, Wawrinka had to get past Djokovic, while Cilic saw off Federer, so they know they are able to beat the very best, even on the highest stage. Murray is a world-class player approaching a return to his best with a point to prove, after a lean (by his standards) 2014. He also has the added advantage of appearing on home soil, which has served him well at the Olympics and Wimbledon. Berdych and Raonic are hugely dangerous on fast courts like London. Nishikori has improved beyond all recognition in 2014, and proved with his run to the US Open final that he can beat anybody, including Djokovic. So it’s going to be a week of outstanding tennis that will be very difficult to predict. Bring it on!
To end this preview, I’m providing the head-to-head stats for all the group matches that will be played this week. I’ve also asked Gareth (@the_hardman), Emma (@25_emma) and Charlie (@thecharliem) who are joining me to watch the tennis in London tomorrow, to provide their predictions. Therefore, we’re all saying how we think both groups will finish, and then how our hypothetical semi-finals and final will go. Enjoy!
Berdych vs. Wawrinka: 8-5 Wawrinka total, 6-2 Wawrinka hard courts, 1-0 Wawrinka in 2014
Cilic vs. Djokovic: 10-0 Djokovic total, 8-0 Djokovic hard courts, 3-0 Djokovic in 2014
Berdych vs. Djokovic: 15-2 Djokovic total, 13-0 Djokovic on hard courts, 1-0 Djokovic in 2014
Cilic vs. Wawrinka: 7-2 Wawrinka total, 3-2 Wawrinka on hard courts, 2-0 Wawrinka in 2014
Berdych vs. Cilic: 5-4 Berdych total, 3-2 Berdych on hard courts, 2-1 Cilic in 2014
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: 14-3 Djokovic total, 8-2 Djokovic on hard courts, 1-0 Wawrinka in 2014
Murray vs. Nishikori: 3-0 Murray total, 3-0 Murray hard courts, 0-0 in 2014
Federer vs. Raonic: 6-1 Federer total, 3-1 Federer hard courts, 2-1 Federer in 2014
Federer vs. Murray: 11-11 total, 10-10 hard courts, 2-0 Federer in 2014
Nishikori vs. Raonic: 4-1 Nishikori total, 3-0 Nishikori hard courts, 3-1 Nishikori in 2014
Murray vs. Raonic: 4-2 Raonic total, 3-2 Raonic hard courts, 1-0 Raonic in 2014
Federer vs. Nishikori: 2-2 total, 1-1 hard courts, 1-1 in 2014
Josh Semi-finals: Djokovic d. Murray in 3
Cilic d. Federer in 3
Josh final: Djokovic d. Cilic in 2
Gareth semi-finals: Djokovic d. Murray in 3
Berdych d. Federer in 3
Gareth final: Djokovic d. Berdych in 2
Emma semi-finals: Djokovic d. Murray in 3
Federer d. Wawrinka in 2
Emma final: Djokovic d. Federer in 3
Charlie semi-finals: Djokovic d. Nishikori in 3
Wawrinka d. Federer in 3
Charlie final: Djokovic d. Wawrinka in 3