Andy Murray won his first-round match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals 6-2, 6-4 on Sunday. Big deal, right? A player like Murray, ranked No. 5 in the world and a multiple Grand Slam finalist, is supposed to cruise through the first-rounders.
But in this case, Murray's opponent was anything but a typical first-round stiff. He was Robin Soderling, who just replaced Murray at No. 4 and is a two-time French Open finalist and recent (as in last week) champion of the final Masters 1000 event of the year, the BNP Paribas Open.
And therein lies the problem -- or is it the glory? -- of the format used in the World Tour Finals. The ATP finals is an event restricted to the top eight players, divided into two equal groups, in which all of them play each rival in the group. Then, the top two finishers in each group move on to the knockout semifinals and final.
On paper, this is a can't-miss formula for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that the promoters can offer only blue-chip matchups and actually guarantee whom you will be watching on any given night, right up to the weekend. It's not like that in a typical single-elimination tournament, as any devastated Andy Roddick or Novak Djokovic fan can tell you when either of them (or insert your icon of choice) happens to be upset before the day for which his rabid fan has a ticket. In the television and Internet world, though, this consideration is less critical than ever before.
Trying to maximize the dramatic potential of an event has its perils. The round-robin format seeks to trump all other events with this "best against the best" formula. And although there's no doubt that the typical schedule at the World Tour Finals offers only premium matches -- all of them comparable to a Masters or Grand Slam event semi or final -- you have to wonder, how can they be? That's one of the big unresolved questions.
The downside of the eight-man, round-robin formula is that it can drain significance out of the preliminary encounters. At the end of the day, it's still just a tennis match, and somebody will win and somebody will lose. Similarly, if you made Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet 30 times a year, you would answer the fundamental question of who's better, but you would also lose some of the mystique of that rivalry.
The round-robin format also ensures that you can lose a match and still live to fight another day. It's a pretty good idea; it certainly works in the playoffs system used in Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. But the National Football League takes a different approach, and the NFL's win-or-go-home structure seems more in line with the gestalt in tennis.
I'm torn on this subject. It's like many other things in life: When everything is deemed meaningful, all things become equally meaningless. If you prefer a more pedestrian metaphor, eating chocolate cake three times a day is a pretty good way to make you think chocolate cake isn't so special after all.
One of the elements that make typical single-elimination events attractive is the mystery of the draw. Is it possible that Nicolas Mahut will beat John Isner? Will Robert Kendrick knock Nadal out of Wimbledon? Who's this Yen-Hsun Lu who just beat Roddick at Wimbledon?
The World Tour Finals lacks this critical element of unpredictability and therefore some measure of the drama and pacing of single-elimination tournaments. Nobody stands in the way of any other two players meeting, at least in the round-robin stage, which makes things somewhat mechanical. Mystery and unpredictability are pretty bit elements to surrender, but then nobody can ever say a World Tour Finals champion dodged and weaved his way to the title.