The ATP World Tour Finals won’t boast a "dream final" this year (that is, a winner-take-all battle for the year-end No. 1 ranking), but it has what might be the next best thing: A spectacular grudge match between two men whose rivalry already has historic proportions and implications.
Not too bad, is it?
Novak Djokovic, the defending champion at the ATP World Tour Finals, takes on Rafael Nadal, the man who stripped him of the No. 1 ranking just weeks ago. Nadal then left Djokovic in the rearview mirror when he clinched the prestigious No. 1 ranking for the year just four days ago.
But somebody forgot to tell Djokovic the race is over.
"[Nadal] finishes No. 1 in the world, deservedly,” Djokovic said after his routine win over Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals Sunday. He added, “Of course, whenever we play each other, it's a huge challenge and we both want to win. This is the probably the most competitive tournament that we have after [the] Grand Slams in our sport, and we both want to crown this season in the best possible way and end it with a title.”
It doesn’t take a mind reader to suss out that nothing would be sweeter for Djokovic than to end his year with a successful defense of his World Tour Finals title. It would represent payback of sorts, as well as victory for the year in the rubber match of their hard-court rivalry. The men are 2-2, and each has a hard-court major: Djokovic won at the Australian Open and Nadal at the US Open.
And there’s one other significant detail in this matchup: Nadal has never won the year-end championships, and that constitutes the only hole in his resume. And it's a pretty big gap, considering the extent to which the best players have traditionally fared well in the hybrid round-robin/single-elimination tournament featuring the eight best players in the world.
Nadal has his work cut out. True, he leads the ATP in hard-court performance with four titles and a 36-3 record. Djokovic has five titles and is 50-5, so he's right behind Nadal in winning percentage on hard courts. But that parity is not matched when it comes to indoor tournaments, of which this is one.
Djokovic is 10-1 on indoor hard courts this year (that includes Davis Cup) with one title, the Paris Masters. Nadal is 3-1 (but he did win an event on indoor clay). If Djokovic were to plan an ambush of Nadal, he couldn’t have come up with a better set of conditions. That’s because his more aggressive instincts give him an edge on indoor hard courts.
Perhaps the main reason Nadal has more trouble on indoor than al fresco hard courts is because the ball invariably stays lower on the bounce in indoor arenas, no matter what the so-called "court speed" is. Thus, the more aggressive risk-takers of the tour reap greater rewards. The ideal conditions (no sun or wind) also make life easier for the shot-makers and other players with an opportunistic streak. Proof in the pudding: Roger Federer has won the World Tour Finals a record six times.
Against Djokovic, Nadal will have to take more chances than he usually does, all other things being equal. At this tournament, he has played well but at times he has seemed too content to work from a defensive posture. He won't beat Djokovic that way; he'll need to take chances, and he'll really benefit if he can follow up aggressive probings with nice work at the net. He'll also need to serve well in order to keep Djokovic from setting the tone of the rallies with that exceptional service return.
Motivation-wise, this match is a tough ask for Nadal. Djokovic knows exactly how much ground -- and respect -- he can regain with a win over a guy who can be driven by only one real ambition -- to finally win a year-end title. I'm not sure that's enough incentive this time around when it comes to meeting a guy whom Nadal mastered numerous times this year when a lot more was still on the line.
One thing about a Djokovic win, though: It would certainly provide a compelling story line for the start of 2014.