Top four still dominate men’s tour

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There were no huge surprises at the ATP World Tour Finals last week but we did get confirmation of what we have been noticing lately on the men’s tour.

Despite the improvement of Robin Soderling this year and despite the return to form of David Ferrer and despite Tomas Berdych’s strong first six months of the season, four players are really dominating the field: the semi-finalists in London.

Rafael Nadal is still impressive in the way he can raise his level during a tournament. Indoor, on a quick surface, he succeeded in using his fighting spirit in order to get through the group stage matches (particularly against Andy Roddick) despite struggling on his serve compared to the US Open. The tendonitis in his left shoulder is surely to blame for that.

The Spaniard proved once again how he’s a brilliant world number one and that he also knows how to play aggressive tennis. His forehand is as efficient as it was when he was in his best form a couple of years ago and he’s finding those amazing angles again.

But he remains fragile when confronted by opponents able to take the ball early and to attack him. He often delivers the short ball and lacks weapons in this situation.

During the final, Roger Federer displayed the most efficient game plan against him although Nadal looked pretty tired from his amazing battle against Andy Murray.

Federer was the hero of the week; just as he was the player of the indoor season with only one defeat in four events.

He sent us a clear message in August by hiring Paul Annacone and he confirmed it by reaching the final in Toronto and by playing some great aggressive tennis and by dictating the game and taking risks.

With Rafa being out of the picture in October, Federer knew it was his chance to build his confidence. Now it’s done and this latest victory will only add to that.

So what can we say about the Federer from the end of the season?

First it has to be noticed that his serve is back in shape. His A game has returned too, but I feel he’s even more confident, taking the ball earlier and coming more and more to the net.

He also takes more risks on his opponent’s second serves. He has stopping chipping his returns on the backhand, he serves and volley and even does some chip and charge: he seems to take every opportunity now.

All of that is the consequence of a new strategy and of the work with Annacone. So let’s stop pretending that he doesn’t need anyone. As much as he’s an amazing champion, he can’t go on without help. And he has always asked for the best: Peter Lundgren, Tony Roche, Jose Higueras and now Paul Annacone.

Between all those collaborations, the loyal Severin Luthi was doing the job. The Swiss is a rare champion but he has also used the best specialists. It doesn’t harm his prestige at all.

His return to the very top level is promising some great battles with Rafa in 2011. No one will complain about it.

Murray’s performance this week has been exactly like his whole year: it gave hope but ended in frustration.

In front of his home crowd, motivated and fighting, he qualified for the semis and delivered an epic match against Nadal. He lost a very close one, despite a 4-1 lead in the last tie-break. He played a brave game, was there all the time and proved he was able to reach this amazing level.

But I don’t think he picked the right game plan. Except at the end of the third set when, with a break against him, he went deep in himself to find the power to come back, he was too passive. Sure he hit hard but he accepted playing long rallies, looking to hit to the Nadal backhand. He wasn’t taking the ball early enough nor was he hitting it flat enough.

Rafa isn’t disturbed by this kind of game. The Scot was holding on because of the quality of his serve in a match where he had 22 aces.

I was disappointed he didn’t try to do more at the net, do some serve and volley and trying to play flat in order to attack Nadal. At the Australian Open he built his run to the final this way, showing he was able to play that type of game and being really efficient with it.

But the week was really encouraging for him, he showed great mental abilities and was three points short of winning despite a so-so game plan. He proved what we already knew: he has everything to win a Grand Slam.

Novak Djokovic ended his season better than he started it. He remains one of the true contenders for the Grand Slams, but for now he still lacks that little something which is going to make him win the big matches. Often close, but rarely a winner.

Still, he was really fit this week, really into his counter-punching game and once again displaying some great defence. His serve was also doing well, even if it’s not back to where it was. He fought like he knows how.

He should use the off-season to really search for what he lacks when facing Nadal and Federer if he wants to win more often. His forward game needs to be improved. He tried to come to the net but his volleying game is still not technical enough for a player of that level. And Novak does not have enough power to do without the volley to end the points.
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This post was submitted by Mudit Agrawal.

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