The ATP World Tour Finals review allows us to end the year with more certainty that we ever had those past months. There were no huge surprises in London, but some nice confirmations of what we've been noticing lately.
Despite how Robin Söderling improved this year, despite the come back to a very good level for David Ferrer, despite the excellence of the season's first six months for Tomas Berdych, four players are really dominating the field: the semifinalists of the ATP World Tour Finals.
Rafael Nadal: Rafa is still impressive in the way he can raise his level during a tournament. Indoor, on a quick surface, he succeeded in using his fighting spirit in order to get through the first matches (particularly against Andy Roddick). His "A" game wasn't there but his spirit allowed him to succeed despite struggling on his serve (at least compared to the US Open, when it was cracking). This tendonitis on his left shoulder is surely to blame for that. The Spaniard proved once again how he's a brilliant No. 1 in the world and that he also knows how to play aggressively. I've admired how his forehand is finally as efficient as it was in his great years. He's finding those amazing angles again. But he remains fragile when confronted with opponents able to take the ball early and attack him as soon as the first shot. He often delivers some short balls that get pounded back.
During the final, Roger Federer displayed the most efficient game plan against him. Adding that Nadal looked pretty tired from his amazing battle against Andy Murray and that led to defeat.
Roger Federer: Fed was the hero of the week, as he was the one of the indoor season since October. He only had one defeat in four events. He sent us a clear message in August by hiring Paul Annacone and confirmed it by reaching the final in Toronto, by playing some great aggressive tennis and by dictating the game and taking risks.
Since October, with Rafa being out of the picture, the Swiss player knew it was his opportunity to build his confidence. Now that process is complete and this last victory will only add to that.
So what can we say about the Federer of this end of the season? First, it has to be noticed that his serve is back in shape. I feel he's even more confident, takes the ball earlier and comes more and more to the net. He also takes more risks on his opponent's second serves. He has stopped only chipping his returns on the backhand, he serves and volleys and even does some chip and charge. He seems to take every chance now.
All of that is the consequence of a new strategy and of the work with Annacone. So let's stop pretending that he doesn't need anyone. As far as he's an amazing champion, he can't go on without help. And he has always asked for the best: Peter Lundgren, Tony Roche, José Higueras and now Paul Annacone.
Between all those collaborations, the loyal Severin Lüthi was doing the job. Federer is a rare champion but he also used the best specialists. It doesn't harm his prestige at all. Now, his return at the top level is promising some great battles with Rafa in 2011. No one will complain about it.
Andy Murray: Promise and frustration defined Murray's performance this week. It was exactly like his whole year. In front of his crowd, overmotivated and fighting, he qualified for the semis and delivered an epic match against Nadal. He lost a very close one, despite a 4-1 lead in the last tiebreak. He played a brave game, was there all the time and proved he was able to reach this amazing level.
Two things are coming to my mind. Firstly, I think he didn't pick the right game plan. Except at the end of the third set when, with a break against him, he went deep in himself to find the power to come back, he was too passive. Sure he hit hard but he accepted playing the long rallies way too much and tried to get Nadal with his backhand. He wasn't taking the ball early enough nor was hitting it flat enough. Rafa isn't disturbed by this kind of game. The Scotsman was holding on because of the quality of his serve in a match where he had 22 aces. Yet, I regret he didn't try more at the net, doing some serve and volley, trying to play flat in order to attack Nadal. At the Australian Open he built his win this way, showing he was able to play that type of game and being really efficient with it. So the week has been really encouraging for him, he showed great mental abilities and was three points short to win despite a so-so game plan. He proved what we already knew: he has everything to win a Grand Slam.
Novak Djokovic: Nole has to be way better prepared in 2011. He ended his season better than he started it. He remains one of the true contenders for the Grand Slams, but for now he still lacks this little something which going to make him win the big matches. Often close, but never a winner. Still, he was really fit last week, really into his counterpunched game and showing again some great defense. His serve was also doing well, even if it's not back to where it was. He fought like he knows how. He should use this in between seasons to really search what he lacks when facing Nadal and Federer if he wants to win more often. His game forward needs to be improved. He tried to come to the net but his volleying game is still not technically enough for a player of this level. And Novak still doesn't have enough power to do without the volley to end the points.
Now it's time to turn our focus to the Davis Cup final. It's an event bound to be thrilling for us, the French people, and for the host Serbians.