November 13 2011
High-intensity men’s tennis returns to London from November 20 when the 02 Arena plays host to the Barclays ATP World Tour Final. The end-of-season, hard-court spectacular, which has been around since 1970, has a prize-money fund of more than £3m, and is the most prestigious event outside the four major championships. Its unique selling point, other than that it takes place indoors, is that only the world’s top eight ranked players are eligible to take part, and Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray will all be there. The format is special too, with the players divided into two groups of four in which they each play three round-robin matches against the other contestants. The top two in each group then go on to the semifinals. It’s great news if you are a ticket holder as there can be no one-sided games between the Wimbledon Champion and an unheralded qualifier. Whatever day you attend you are guaranteed to see the world’s best.
Not surprisingly, the biggest names in tennis have lifted the trophy, and the King of Cool Roger Federer has been successful five times in the past eight years, including 12 months ago when he outgunned Nadal in a three-set final. Andy Murray got through to the last four in 2008 and 2010 but, just as at the All England Club, he has yet to take home the winner’s cheque. The Scotsman’s performance will be subjected to the usual pitiless scrutiny by a domestic audience desperate to acclaim a home-grown champion.
Earlier this year I advised against backing Murray to win at either Wimbledon or the French Open, and he duly went out of both tournaments in the semifinals. But having watched him several times on the Centre Court this summer I now have more, rather than less, respect for him. Indeed, given the intolerable pressure he’s subjected to as “The Great British Hope” it’s remarkable he’s kept his nerve so well. Britain is meant to be a nation in love with tennis and for two weeks each year its passion is plain to see. But, for all those surplus Wimbledon profits, when it comes to nurturing top-class talent, its record is lamentable. The teenage Murray had to go to Spain to develop his game and, despite the £40m National Tennis Centre opened by the Lawn Tennis Association at Roehampton in 2007, the Scotsman is the only UK player ranked in the world’s top 200 men.
Maybe American critics are right and, deep down, the Brits prefer their sporting heroes to be, if not amateurs, then good losers rather than hard-assed winners. Take the example of England’s cricket team, which ruthlessly outplayed India in this summer’s test series, establishing themselves as the world’s number-one side. But even as they were doing it, I heard one blazered sage at The Oval complain that performances were “brutally efficient” and also somehow, well, not cricket. I’ve heard similar views expressed about a raging and revved-up Murray at the All England Club.
The big question for punters is whether Murray can break through at the 02 and, if forced to put money on it, I still have my doubts. The all-conquering Djokovic is the 7-4 favourite to take the honours for the second time and complete a near-perfect 2011. But, at the odds, I slightly prefer Federer, who loves the format, thrives at this time of year and looks good value at 7-2 with Sky Bet.