Masters Retrospective (Part Two)

This is the second part of my look back at this year’s Masters 1000 events. It’s all there in the title. The first part, to which I whimsically appended the term Part One, can be found here.

Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Rome

Winner: Rafael Nadal

Fears that Madrid’s blue clay would prove catastrophically disruptive turned out to be well-founded when the last four standing in Rome the following week were Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and David Ferrer, the four most accomplished clay courters of recent years, and who would go on to populate the Roland Garros semifinals a few weeks later. Tomas Berdych played his new heart out against a near-perfect Nadal, and lost four and five. Andreas Seppi and Stanislas Wawrinka slogged through a three-quarter pace twilight classic on Court Pietrangeli, with the Italian saving six match points and sending the locals perilously close to a rapturous riot.

Civil unrest was certainly in the air by the final weekend, when foul weather and an extravagant collapse from Li Na combined to postpone the men’s final. The final itself was the anticipated rematch between Nadal and Djokovic. Without bereavement to muddy the issue, Nadal’s straight sets triumph proved that he is after all the best clay courter in the world. I cannot recall why it had been in doubt.

 

Rogers Cup, Toronto

Winner: Novak Djokovic

The Olympics always wreaks havoc on the tennis calendar, and this year poor Toronto bore the worst of it, coming at the tail end of a dense passage of tournament that included Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the London Games. Gold medallist Andy Murray turned up, had his cake, ate it, then took off. Djokovic’s sternest test came against the resurgent Tommy Haas. Milos Raonic had a court temporarily rededicated to him, then fell to John Isner in a quarterfinal that amazingly featured a lot of unreturned serves. It also rained a lot, which didn’t help to attract the fans that were already staying away in droves.

Richard Gasquet was the surprise of the week, defeating Berdych, Mardy Fish and Isner en route the final, just his third at this level in seven years, or in 26 years, depending on how you slice it. ‘To ribbons’ was how Djokovic sliced it in the final, winning comfortably three and two.

 

Western & Southern Open, Cincinnati

Winner: Roger Federer

The match of the tournament was Haas’ match-point-saving first round tussle with David Nalbandian, whose inability to take a trick since Queens was starting to look eerily like karma. Brian Baker finally won a match on US hardcourts, from just his fifth attempt. Fish played the best match of his health-afflicted year against Federer – a wonderful fast-court display. Raonic was excellent in taking out Berdych, but was upset by Wawrinka. Juan Martin Del Potro’s left wrist packed up, but he toiled through to the semifinals, which he contested one-handed. This turned out to be too few hands with which to realistically challenge Djokovic.

As top seeds, Djokovic and Federer had collision course written all over them, which unfortunately contravened their existing sponsorship agreements. Neither dropped serve on the way to the final. Then Federer broke Djokovic three times in twenty minutes – all with one hand – and he was well on the way to taking his fifth Cincinnati crown in straight sets, again equalling the Masters title tally.

 

Shanghai Rolex Masters, Shanghai

Winner: Novak Djokovic

Positioned cruelly in the post-US Open hangover period, Shanghai is often beset by scheduling issues. Even when top players turn up, they don’t really turn up to play. But this year’s edition was very good. Matthew Ebden’s year of living large ended when he failed to defend last year’s quarterfinal, while Bernard Tomic’s year of giving up continued unchecked, this time against Florian Mayer. The stand-out performers were Haas and Radek Stepanek, who set the event alight with quarterfinal runs, though their veteran status spared them from being prosecuted for arson. When you’re over thirty-two you’re permitted to set one venue alight per year, but no more. It’s in the ATP Rulebook, somewhere near the back.

Federer’s hopes of finishing the year at No.1 realistically ended at the rough hands of Murray in the semifinals – a near-perfect display from the Scot. Berdych meanwhile found Djokovic totally impenetrable, and admitted as much after the match. The final between Murray and Djokovic was one of the finest and most dramatic matches played this year, as these inherently defensive players proved that given ideal conditions and sufficient incentive, they can belt the ball as lustily as anyone. Djokovic saved match points in the second set, before pulling away from a flagging Murray in the third. It was the Serbian’s thirteenth Masters title (and eighth in the last two seasons) and all but guaranteed him the year end top ranking.

 

BNP Paribas Masters, Paris

Winner: David Ferrer

If Toronto was reduced by an Olympic year, then poor Paris was all but dismembered by a deliberately abbreviated one. In the long term this is a trickier issue to address. With no buffer between it and the World Tour Finals [Barclays] the following week, there was always going to be a question of commitment from the top guys. To no one’s surprise, defending champion Federer pulled out, citing a knee injury (presumably sustained in Madrid). Djokovic went out to the tournament’s early surprise, Sam Querrey. Astonishingly, it was only Djokovic’s second loss before the semifinals for the entire year. Janko Tipsarevic meanwhile seized his chance to further augment the most comprehensive retirement resume in the sport, blaming sudden fatigue as he pulled out while his opponent served for it. Many onlookers experienced sudden scepticism. The Parisian crowd delivered sudden boos. It is apparently a structural requirement of the event that at least one Frenchman makes an audacious deep run. This year they were Michael Llodra and Gilles Simon.

The tournament’s late surprise was the utterly unheralded Jerzy Janowicz, who first qualified, then saw off no fewer than five top twenty players en route to the final (Philipp Kohlschreiber, Marin Cilic, Murray, Tipsarevic and Simon), which propelled his own ranking some 43 places higher. (He’ll now be seeded for the Australian Open next month.) In the final he discovered Ferrer, who had never won a Masters title and wasn’t about to let this chance go by unseized. The Spaniard’s triumph was acute, unlikely and perfect. You’ve hardly seen a happier man.

In the end Ferrer and Janowicz contrived to transform a potential dreary end to the season into a truly memorable one. But Bercy remains a problem that needs to be addressed. There’s a sensible proposal to move it to February, which would in turn lend that month some much needed coherence. But this would meant that six of the nine Masters would be contested before Roland Garros. The best way to fix that would be to move one of the others, and play it on grass.

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