A level playing field is often difficult to achieve in sports but nonetheless “gimme a break” is what Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka had to be thinking after having to play back-to-back round-robin and semifinal matches at the ATP World Tour Finals last week.

Nadal, in particular, needed two hours and 37 minutes to outduel David Ferrer 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-4 on Friday before coming back on Saturday to play world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who had a day off between his last round-robin match and the semifinals. Djokovic beat Nadal 6-3, 6-3.

Photo: Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

Wawrinka, who played the evening match on Friday, came out in roughly the same time slot the following day and lost 7-5, 6-3 to Roger Federer who, like Djokovic, was able to relax on Friday.

As was noted in last week’s blog, Andy Murray, with one eye on the upcoming Davis Cup final, knew he would almost surely have to play Wawrinka, Federer and Djokovic back-to-back-to-back in his potential final three matches – hardly conducive to being ready for the following week with just four days to get acclimatized on a different (clay) surface in Belgium.

The ATP World Tour Finals is the showcase culmination of the men’s tennis season. It awards 1,500 ranking points to an unbeaten winner. That’s halfway between the 1,000 available at Masters 1000 events and the 2,000 given to the winner of a Grand Slam.

So, the World Tour Finals is a major event and everything should be done to give each player as equal a chance as possible. But from the moment the schedule was released the week preceding this year’s event at the O2 Arena in London, it was clear that presumptive semifinalists Djokovic and Federer, who started on the first Sunday, would have a day off before the semifinals. That would not be the case for Nadal, Wawrinka, Murray or David Ferrer in the other four-man group.

Photo: Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

It’s the burnt-out end of a smoky tennis season – apologies to T.S. Eliot – and players are running on fumes, so it’s only fair there should be a rest day before the semifinals for all the players who qualify.

Starting a day earlier, on the Saturday eight days before the Sunday final, should not be a scheduling problem. What would be tricky is a Friday before the semifinals with no matches available to fill the O2 Arena.

Here’s a suggestion – just have an evening session that day so that the event maintains some continuity. In that session it would be one of the standby players – this year it was Richard Gasquet and John Isner – versus the player who did the best of the four who failed to qualify for the final four. That would have been either Andy Murray or Kei Nishikori last week. If you throw in a hefty $300,000 or so for the winner and a more modest $50,000 for the runner-up (note: the players get $200,000 for each round-robin match win and the standby players receive $95,000 for just hanging around) as well as maybe 200 ranking points, and there should be sufficient incentive for the participants.

If neither of the standby players is pressed into action during the week, maybe they could play a two-out-of-three tiebreaks to determine who gets to face the best non-semifinalist from the group phase.

Also that night, possibly the No. 1 and No. 2 juniors in the world could meet and play for a wild card into the following year’s Wimbledon, or maybe just a wild card into the Wimbledon qualifying depending on the largesse of All England Club officials. Failing that, they could receive a wild card for the Queen’s Club pre-Wimbledon tournament.

That would provide a decent evening’s entertainment, ensure that the arena is not dark that night and allow the four semifinalists time off to be as fit as possible.

If the World Tour Finals is going to be such a big deal, it should be done right and the final four competitors should be fresh for the last two days of the season-closing grand finale.    

The man for this season

Photo: Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

There weren’t too many high points in the 15 matches played during the 2015 World Tour Finals. Two stick out: Nadal’s intense, highly-entertaining win in his last match of the round-robin stage over Ferrer and Federer’s three-set victory over Kei Nishikori in a match featuring some inspired shot-making.

The final – Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 over Federer – lacked genuine drama.

“I still believe his confidence is slightly higher than mine with the amount of success he’s had this year,” Federer conceded about Djokovic the day before the final. That proved to be true and Djokovic didn’t even play that well in the final – he had eight winners and 16 unforced errors in the first set and still managed to break Federer twice.

Anyone who plays tennis knows how hard it is against an opponent who is simply a better player – and that’s obviously what Djokovic is now, even versus the masterful Swiss. It’s incredible that, after losing in the quarter-finals in Doha in January, Djokovic reached an unprecedented 15 finals in a row the rest of the year – winning 11 of them.

His year-end 82-6 match record is up there with Jimmy Connors 99-4 in 1974, John McEnroe 82-3 in 1984 and Roger Federers 81-4 in 2005 and 92-5 in 2006.  Here’s a look at the six Djokovic losses in 2006:

  1. Ivo Karlovic def. Djokovic quarter-finals in Doha 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4 in early January: Surprisingly, Djokovic had zero break points during the entire match.
    It’s possible he wasn’t at his best physically because he definitely looked not well at all (above) during his first practice session at Melbourne Park the following week.
  2. Federer def. Djokovic 6-3, 7-5 final in Dubai in February: It was Djokovic’s first event after winning the Australian Open and he probably wasn’t that pumped.
  3. Wawrinka def. Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 French Open final in June: Wawrinka rested while Djokovic played 13 pressure-packed games on the final Saturday to complete a 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 5-7, 6-1 win over Murray in a semifinal postponed by an approaching storm the previous evening. Does anyone doubt that if it had been Wawrinka finishing off a match on Saturday, and Djokovic resting, that the result would not have been entirely different? As his coach Boris Becker later noted about Djokovic having to play three days in a row, “even Novak needs time to recuperate.”
  4. Murray def. Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 Rogers Cup final in Montreal in August: It was Djokovic’s first tournament after winning Wimbledon and he was probably a little weary after also playing four doubles matches alongside old pal Janko Tipsarevic during the week. Djokovic had won his four previous 2015 encounters with Murray and would go one to win their two subsequent meetings.
  5. Federer def. Djokovic 7-6(1), 6-3 Cincinnati final in August: A week after Montreal, Djokovic was still in a bit of a summer funk, which he snapped out of at the US Open, beating Federer 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the final as he started a 23-match winning streak that extended into autumn.
  6. Federer def. Djokovic 7-5, 6-2 round-robin ATP World Tour Finals in London in November: A nice win for Federer on an off-day for Djokovic, but the Serb restored normal order five days later with a 6-3, 6-4 victory in the final. He was 5-3 for the year with Federer, winning what can be viewed as their most important matches – Indian Wells final, Rome final, Wimbledon final, US Open final and World Tour Finals final.
Photo: Peter Staples/ATP World Tour

Federer finished No. 3 for the year behind Murray, but it felt like he deserved better. He was 3-5 with Djokovic while Murray was 1-6, and he was 2-0 versus Murray. He also reached the two biggest finals of the year – Wimbledon and the US Open – as well as finals at the year-end Tour Finals, Indian Wells, Rome and Cincinnati. Murray’s major finals were the Australian Open in January, Miami in March, Madrid in May, Montreal in August and Paris/Bercy in November.

Laugh with Lahyani 


Mohamed Lahyani umpired the longest match in tennis history – John Isner’s 70-68 in the fifth set victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. The Swedish showman milked the endless “final set” score callings, saying the words breathlessly for effect when he gave the score as the Isner-Mahut numbers inexorably climbed to 33-33, 45-45, 58-58, 66-66 etc.

Before the Novak Djokovic – Tomas Berdych match at the ATP World Tour Finals last Thursday, the tour’s most comedic umpire gave the usual spiel to the players about the net machine, TV time-outs and being quick when making Hawk-Eye challenges. Jokester Lahyani then added, with his words going out over the p.a. system in the O2 Arena, “if you need anything, or have any questions, you know where to find me.”

Brits: A cup of Andy


Filled to the brim, the Davis Cup salad bowl can hold 37 bottles of champagne.

Who will be drinking the bubbly at the end of this weekend’s final in Ghent between the Belgians and Britain is largely dependent on one 6-foot-3, 28-year-old originally from Dunblane, Scotland – Andrew Barron “Andy” Murray.

The British team is all about Andy, with maybe a minor mention of his likely doubles partner – older (15 months) brother Jamie. Andy is 6-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles in British victories over the USA, France and Australia, all home ties, in 2015.

Similarly, the Belgians have won home ties against Switzerland, Canada and Argentina.

The clay-court surface in the 13,000-seat Flanders Expo this weekend will favour the Belgians, and their top player David Goffin will surely do better than the 6-1, 6-0 defeat Murray inflicted on him at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris earlier this month.

Murray is ranked No. 2 and Goffin No. 16 but then there’s a significant drop-off as the probable second singles players for Britain and Belgium are respectively No. 100-ranked Kyle Edmund, a 19-year-old who won a Challenger on clay in Buenos Aires earlier this month, and No. 84-ranked Steve Darcis, a feisty 31-year-old best known for upsetting Rafael Nadal in the first round at Wimbledon in 2013.

Photo: Arturo Velasquez/Tennis Canada

For British hopes, Murray had better stay healthy, and the same goes for Edmund or James Ward, also a candidate for the No. 2 singles spot. As the team now stands, the other members – doubles specialists No. 7-ranked Jamie Murray and No. 23 Dominic Inglot – have no singles ranking at all. The Belgians should have a bit more flexibility in an emergency with Ruben Bemelmens and Kimmer Coppejans (who combined to upset Daniel Nestor and Adil Shamasdin in the quarter-finals in Belgium in July) capable of playing both doubles and singles.

The Belgians have been remarkably blessed through their first three rounds – beating Switzerland without its two best players (Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka), Canada without its two best (Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil) and Argentina without Juan Martin del Potro and Juan Monaco.

Murray probably counts as two players, so if anything were to happen to him, Belgium could complete an unlikely and semi-miraculous run to the Davis Cup without any real prime-time opposition. This is its first final in 111 years – since losing 5-0 to the British Isles in London in 1904.

(NOTE: In Canada, coverage of the Davis Cup final is on Sportsnet One at 7:30 a.m. (EDT) on Friday for opening singles, nothing on doubles Saturday and then 7:00 a.m. on Sunday for reverse singles.)

Another sporting No. 1

Todd Woodbridge, a 16-time Grand Slam doubles champion and a fine golfer, tweeted this picture last week of his 14-year-old (nearly 15) daughter Zara with PGA No. 1-ranked golfer Jordan Spieth.

In 1997, Woodbridge, now 44, reached the singles semifinals at Wimbledon. Soon after, he caddied for his Australian compatriot Ian Baker-Finch at the British Open.