Stop, Drop and Roll: Thoughts from the WTF First Round

If you blinked, you may have missed the first round matches in the ATP’s World Tour Finals in London. While the run-up to London had an exciting race to find out who would qualify, the first two days have reflected the general tale of the ATP these days: predictable wins for the top players. While not competitive, per se, the matches certainly were illustrative of the ATP’s 2014 storylines.

1. Andy Murray is close, but not quite back

It’s impossible to second-guess a medical decision, but the past year has shown that Andy Murray’s back surgery has cost him a lot more than the time away from the tour. It should not have been a surprise, but Murray’s post-surgery play has shown how important his conditioning and strength were to his 2012-2013 surge. Always talented and able to trouble top players, Murray went from spoiler to champion after changing himself into the tour’s resident iron man. Not only did the strength contribute to greater weight of shot, but it also gave Murray the confidence that he had the stamina to hang with anyone else on the court, in an age where stamina is the name of the game. The time off has robbed Murray of that security, and Kei Nishikori managed to push Murray around enough to get the win, despite a poor serving day himself. The good news for Murray – he won’t have to hustle as much against Milos Raonic, but the bad news is that he has a losing record against the Canadian.

2. Roger Federer Keeps Finding Ways to Win

After losing to Milos Raonic in Paris, it was not a surprise that Roger Federer walked into their London rematch focused and grabbed the first set quickly. What was surprising is that Federer seemed to go on walkabout for much of the second set, missing easy volleys and losing focus on his usually reliable serve. Yet, Federer managed to serve his way out of break point situations, including a set point in the second set, and then took the tiebreak 7-0. There’s no doubt that Federer still has a challenging path out of round robin play, but this match reflected his 2014 – finding ways to win, even when matches get tight. The 2013 Roger Federer might not have had the nerve to keep playing aggressively on tight points, but this year’s model is rolling along.

3. Swooning First-Time Winners

Bookending this year’s men’s Grand Slam season were first time winners Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, both of whom have had to adjust to becoming Grand Slam champions in an era where each had practically resigned himself to failing better rather than taking home the big prize. After his win in Australia, Wawrinka lost in the first round at Roland Garros before starting to bounce back with quarterfinal runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, and then again faltering in the indoor season. With his convincing win over Tomas Berdych at the World Tour Finals, Wawrinka appears poised to steady his performance, if not in time to advance in London, perhaps in time to take on France in Davis Cup.

Following his barnstorming run to the US Open title in September, Marin Cilic seems to be experiencing the swoon that Wawrinka did after the Australian Open. Unlike Wawrinka’s win in Australia, which had its foundations in a year’s worth of close matches, starting with his 2013 epic against Novak Djokovic in Australia, Cilic’s win in New York was like capturing lightning in a bottle. Consequently, finding the form that brought him the title will be a tall order for Cilic, though he has certainly shown the world, and, more importantly, himself, that he has the goods. Unfortunately, whether it’s due to injury or his post-New York swoon, Cilic never came close to that form against the tough play of Novak Djokovic. Say this for Djokovic, unlike Rafael Nadal, who seems to relish being the challenger, Djokovic has moved from upstart to champion seamlessly, defending his realm as if he had always been king.

4. Kei-Station Keeps on Playing

While it wasn’t always pretty, Kei Nishikori continued his momentum from New York by defeating Andy Murray in their round robin match. It was clear that Nishikori was genuinely disappointed in New York, but his run in New York has given him both the confidence to challenge top players, and the desire to win the big prizes. During the fall season, he won two titles and arrived in London ready to play.