World Tour Finals: Shambolic or A Wake-Up Call?

By Abigail Johnson

Despite the general wish to forget it all, it seems that the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals will most definitely go down in tennis history:

As the most shambolic mess of a year ending championships in memorable times.

Well, that’s what endless Twitter comments and tournament reviews would have you believe. While there are obviously stand-out failures from this year’s finals, pretty much all that’s been seen in the last week are countless cries of negativity. It’s high time to look at it all in a different light.

To call them positives would be taking a step too far, but here are some profitable and reasoned lessons to take away from the ATP World Tour Finals, 2014. After all, where is the benefit in simply wallowing in a pool of disappointment?

It was a wake-up call.

Yes, you read that correctly: This year’s finals were a wake-up call.

A wake-up call to us, the fans. And to the observing world. And to the tennis journalists. And, maybe especially, to the “experts.” Those Out With The Old, In With The New, tennis “experts.”

Can you see where this is heading?

Let’s recap the Round Robin stage of last week. Yes, I know it’s painful, but we’ll make it brief. Rafael Nadal, originally qualifying in the top three, was sidelined for appendix surgery. This blow opened the door for the appearance of fresh faces, as Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, and Marin Cilic joined old-timers Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych in the field.

What followed were whitewashes. Annihilations. Humiliations. Embarrassments. Grown men reduced to prey before their victors.

And, the component that’s often left out: Outstanding Tennis.

The vast majority of this outstanding tennis during the group stage came from two players. They happen to be the highest-ranked competitors in the world. Neither Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer dropped a set, as they swept aside the competition with minimal fuss.

Quite frankly, those two utterly dominated. While their victims may at times have rued errors in their own play, at the end of the day, in any encounter that involved one of these two top seeds, the loss came down to the relentlessly solid, determination-fueled prowess of Roger and Novak.

So here it is. In more recent times, there has been in the men’s game an elite group known as the Big Four – it’s common knowledge to even the casual tennis fan. Before those days, they were simply the Big Three – Roger, Rafa and Novak, in a three-way fight to win all the biggest prizes the game had to offer. This trio have dominated the tour in an incredible way that was never matched before – and, most likely, never will be again.

But recently, mostly in the past couple of years, the people, the press, seem to have lost their awe of this immense golden era. Roger’s injured and getting beaten? Retire! Rafa’s out with a knee injury? Oh, he’ll never come back now! And if he does, he’ll never be the same! Other guys are winning Grand Slams? Suddenly it’s THE END OF AN ERA! Out come the statistics, the cheers, the statements of doom, the heralding of …

The heralding of what?

It is beyond me why fans and “experts” alike are so desperate to kiss this dominant trio goodbye. Because during the last week, we’ve seen what we would be heralding if these active legends were to suddenly hang up their racquets.

You want competition? You want close matches? Sure, you’d get all that! But you’d also get quality of play that’s five times lower than the Big Three’s.

You would get lower-level competitive. You would also get inconsistent competitive. Let’s take Stan Wawrinka as an example:

In January, he picked up his first Grand Slam. In October, he lost four of his last five matches. World Tour Finals Match One, he impressively destroyed Berdych, 6-1, 6-1. World Tour Finals Match Two, he was torn apart by Nole, 6-3, 6-0. And we don’t even need to mention his semifinal versus Federer in which he let his fellow Swiss back into the match several times.

That’s just one man of many. What I am not saying at all is that these players are bad, but consider it: Is it really that surprising to see Tomas Berdych beaten by someone ranked fifty-something in the world now and again? Is it unnatural not to see the name David Ferrer in the quarter finals? If Marin Cilic somehow wins the U.S. Open, do you expect him to at once go beating everyone on tour?

If it came down to a choice of watching a cringe-worthy, error-strewn, five set contest, or a crisp, hammering annihilation, surely any true tennis fan would take the latter. Because as a tennis fan, what we all love is tennis at it’s finest. Therefore, what a relief it is to have the Big Three – at least – to own that stage, and to show us what tennis really is.

And it’s the legends that create the atmosphere. Have we really stopped to think about that? As the quick defeats did their rounds, the crowd did their best to encourage the pummeled victim. However, their cheers were labored, when they were audible at all.

Yet when Roger Federer, especially, was serving up a beating, the support was deafening! Let’s revisit the scene of Federer versus Murray. The crowd was well aware of the accomplishments of the players they were watching. Despite the way Federer obliterated Murray – 6-0, 6-1 – the atmosphere was absolutely electric from start to finish. Cheers and shouts all around. It was enough to give you goosebumps.

Or maybe it was average. Maybe it just felt phenomenal, because of the flat boredom of most of the contests between the lesser-loved. I highly doubt it, but you get the point. And it doesn’t take a genius to work out which players got the most raucous welcome as they walked out on court.

To not have a final was a tragedy. But faithful tennis followers – stage and shock aside – what would honestly have disappointed you more: to see Federer flunk every single one of his Round Robin matches … or to see Marin Cilic, nice as he is, withdraw from the final?

Voilà! There you have it. Somehow the fact needed to be hammered home, and the wake-up call in the form of the ATP World Tour Finals, 2014, has attempted to do that job: Tennis needs their elite, irreplaceable trio. Even with Coric, Kyrios, Zverev and more waiting to push through. Those guys aren’t ready just yet, and the likelihood is they won’t match the feats of their predecessors.

The call came at a cost. So we need to make sure that we accept the facts, before it’s seen fit to whitewash next year’s Tour Finals, too …

Are we too selfish?

Confused? Well …

It’s one thing to bemoan the erratic play of those who fell at the first hurdle of the tournament. This is supposed to be the best of the best, after all. (The thing is, the Best of the Best are so good you that have to have the Best of the Best plus the Other Best. See above, if you skimmed over it.)

It’s another thing to bemoan, and even make accusations over the withdrawal of someone due to injury. When they one hundred percent could not help it.

Roger Federer has played 1221 career matches. He has never retired from a match in his life. As of now, he has only withdrawn from a match three times in those 1221 matches. Some people withdraw or retire more than that in a season!

Don’t you think he would have played the final if he could have?

Of course, I am well-aware that the innocent in this case are many. Roger has had a lot of support. And it’s natural, sadly, that people would use this unfortunate, and historic, occurrence to top their moans about the whole tournament. It’s fine to be disappointed – and believe me, I felt that disappointment, well and truly.

But to pile it on Roger, as some have done, isn’t only unjust. It’s inexcusable.

And it puts forward the question that has never really been looked at: Are we, as the fans, selfish?

Don’t take offense – consider it with an open mind.

As Roger has been victimized, we will use him as an example. Despite his selfless desire to please the fans, tennis is Roger’s job. It is what he works at for hours every day. It’s what he pours himself into. It’s how he earns his living. The World Tour Finals was his tournament, not ours. The final of the World Tour Finals was his workplace, not ours. So he has every right, if he feels he is unable, to pull out because he is physically unfit for it.

He’s not well enough to work.

We’ve all missed work, school, at some point because we’ve been ill. How would you feel if some randomer suddenly came up to you and said:

“Oh, hey, we know you’re in too much pain to able to work today, but you’re going to have to anyway, mate, because we’ve been looking forward to watching you work, and it will let us down if you don’t . So we’ll just sit here and chill and watch you fight through the pain, so that we’re not disappointed.”

It’s not rocket science – you’d either be furious or paralyzed with shock. What right had these people, who had no involvement in your work, to tell you what you had to do? What you should have done? It’s crazy!

Each individual player has a life, like we have a life. The difference is that ours isn’t rolled on screen. We have no right to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do.

The fans are important. They encourage the players, and they provide the atmosphere. Soon the WTA will have them vote for the world rankings (yes, that was sarcasm). Among other players, I am a huge fan of Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal. There are often times when one of these two achieve yet another awesome feat, and I want to express that I’m proud of them.

Yet I find that I never can. Something stops me.

Because I start thinking: what right have I to say that I myself am proud of them? What have I done for them, that I can be proud? Yes, I’ve cheered for them. But I haven’t assisted their hours of training every day. I haven’t hit with them in their practice sessions. I haven’t seen to their injuries.

I haven’t done anything to help them in their work. So what right do I have to be proud of them?

What right do I have to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do?

Hopefully that’s all fallen into place. Before anyone hits the roof, I am not saying that you are not allowed to say that you’re proud of the amazing Roger Federer. It was just an example from my own experiences. But the fact of the matter is that we, as people uninvolved in the work environment of the professionals, can ask for too much.

We can get selfish. And we just need to be careful.

Now, for the final point…

Be grateful.

Yes. We need to stop looking at what we didn’t get, and be thankful for what we did!

Be grateful that we got to see Roger and Novak in their prime, crushing the field with games verging on perfection. They won’t be around forever. Embrace it while you can!

Be grateful that we still got an all-star semifinal line-up, of Novak versus Kei and Roger versus Stan!

Be grateful that both of these matches went to (insert gasp here) THREE SETS, with breathtaking tennis present in each!

Be grateful that London still did an awesome job! That the O2 Arena still had that cool announcing voice, and the little smoke machine, and the heartbeat to haunt the players every time they went down a break or match point!

Be grateful that neither Fognini nor Gulbis qualified, and therefore all the umpires and ball kids were safe and happy!

Be grateful that Milos Raonic made it to SET POINT against Roger! (Ah, had you forgotten that one?)

And if you still can’t find anything to be grateful for, then be grateful for the things that have been learned throughout the storm. And be grateful that it’s all over for 2014, with a fresh shot at paradise waiting for next year.

Anything could happen, right?

(Note: Any controversy regarding this piece should be fought out somewhere in the land of the ATP. That’s where all the drama is right now.)

3 Responses

  1. Matt Vidakovic
    Matt Vidakovic November 20, 2014 at 5:13 am |

    Spot on!

  2. catherine Bell
    catherine Bell November 20, 2014 at 1:12 pm |

    Good comments on excessive fan-identification.
    Leads to a lot of silliness.

  3. skip1515
    skip1515 November 20, 2014 at 5:49 pm |

    Well said, though I do think fans (particularly ticket holders) can legitimately have *some* expectations of how the players should handle themselves. Notwithstanding that, I could not agree more.

    I’d add that the O2 schedule of 1 singles and 1 doubles per session (i.e., per ticket cost) runs the risk of very low return on (what is definitely not a cheap) investment in ticket price. Adding a senior tour match to each session, as has been suggested, would not be a bad idea (though it would cannibalize the Albert Hall event).

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