Friday, November 28, 2014

2014 ATP World Tour review

The 2014 ATP season has finished so it is time to have some review of the season. Novak Djokovic ended the season as the World No. 1. He wasn't way above others and managed to win only one Grand Slam tournament but nobody else could play on such a high level all year long.

Roger Federer finished the season as the World No. 2. That surpassed the expectations after the poor 2013 season. He played more often at the net and it worked for him. He won five titles this year, including two in the Masters Series. He also finally got his name to the Davis Cup trophy when Switzerland won it for the first time. But, despite having had the second-best season of all players, he couldn't win a slam. He isn't anymore way above the rest of the field, and players like Cilic or Gulbis have the abilities to beat him when they are in form. What I found promising was that he got better at the end of the season, but that can also be explained by faster surfaces on the second half of the season.

This season saw the end of the domination by the usual Big Four. Stan Wawrinka started that by winning the Australian Open. Title at the Monte Carlo Masters proved he isn't a one-tournament wonder. But his season had lots of everything. The lowpoint was a first-round loss at the French Open as well as the loss streak after the US Open. Quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the US Open were respectable performances but his game lacked the magic there was at the Australian Open and Monte Carlo. But he found his form again at the end of the season, making the semifinals at the World Tour Finals and winning impressively a singles and a doubles rubber in the Davis Cup final.

Marin Cilic was another first-time Grand Slam champion this year. He won the US Open with very impressive tennis. He dominated the semifinal against Federer and won it in straights. The final against Kei Nishikori was a one-sided affair. Three consecutive long matches surely didn't help Nishikori but Cilic was in an excellent form. Still, Cilic couldn't establish his status as a top player the same way as Wawrinka did. He won four titles in total but besides the US Open, Wimbledon quarterfinal was the only time he made it that far in a slam or masters.

Kei Nishikori reached this year the level that he is a serious threat to anyone on the tour. I think his two most memorable matches this year were the Madrid Masters final and the US Open semifinal. Kei had found a great clay form and won the Barcelona 500. After that he made the Madrid Masters final and was leading it against Rafael Nadal with a set and a break. But then an injury cost him the second set and the title as he was forced to retire at the beginning of third. In the US Open semifinal, he beat the World No. 1 Djokovic in four sets. Unfortunately he still couldn't win a masters or a slam but he finished the season at a career-high rank of 5. If he stayed healthy next year, he should be able to do that next year.

Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov were players who made the long-awaited breakthrough to the top 10 this year. They both did reached their first Grand Slam semifinals at Wimbledon but losses to Djokovic and Federer showed they still need to improve.

Talking about Nadal only now shows what a poor season he had by his standards. He missed most of the second half of the season due to injury and health issues but even until then, he was playing the worst season since his breakthrough on the tour. There were more players than before who were able to trouble and even beat him.

Andy Murray was even bigger a disappointment. He never looked like a top player during this season. As a sign of his poor performances, he wouldn't have made the World Tour Finals without playing and winning some smaller tournaments after the US Open. And once he made the Tour Finals, he won only one match there.

And some words about one of my favorites, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. After the summer 2013's knee injury, Tsonga couldn't reach his former form. 2014 was full of mediocre results and he won only one title. But that title gives some hope. It was at the Toronto Masters, beating Djokovic on the round of 16 and Federer in the final. That showed he still has the abilities to succeed. I hope he can play more often like that in 2015. And of course that he will have fully recovered from the elbow injury that ended his Davis Cup final by the beginning of the season.

What I liked this year was unpredictability and new players succeeding. That was very refreshing after years of Big Four domination. But what I didn't like was only two players having truly great seasons as a whole. Those were Djokovic and Federer to a lesser extent. The other good players had fluctuations in form or injuries. My wish for 2015 is that some of the younger guys can succeed with that kind of consistency. If Nishikori could have a season without bigger injuries, I believe he would be a consistent top player, what he was already at the end of 2014.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

2014 Davis Cup Final preview

The ATP World Tour Finals last week were a big disappointment with predictable results, slow surface not providing attractive tennis, and the final being a walkover. But there is still one big event of 2014 left, the Davis Cup Final which will hopefully be more interesting. France will be hosting Switzerland on indoor clay. Until last Saturday, I would've said everything looks fine for Switzerland. Federer was playing excellent tennis and Wawrinka had found his lost form. But Federer has injured his back and there are reports about Federer and Wawrinka having had some conflict after the Tour Finals semifinal. For sure those controversies don't do good for the team spirit but I am even more worried about Federer's back. Without Federer, it would be hard for Switzerand to get the needed three points.

As for France, Tsonga seems like an obvious choice for singles. The other singles player could be the French No. 2 Gael Monfils but they could also pick Richard Gasquet who played well in the Davis Cup semifinal on clay. France will probably need a singles player also in doubles. Tsonga/Gasquet won the doubles rubber in the semifinal so they might be the best option. But if they want to rest either of these, they might pick Benneteau to doubles.

Switzerland has also a dilemma around doubles. Whether to play with Federer/Wawrinka or rest Federer and play with Chiudinelli/Wawrinka, like in the semifinal? Or even rest both Federer and Wawrinka and play with Chiudinelli/Lammer like on the first round? Switzerland have better chances in singles, so resting makes sense but is risky if they aren't 2-0 after Friday.

The first day looks like it will be Monfils or Gasquet vs. Federer and Tsonga vs. Wawrinka. Assuming Federer's back is OK, he should win. The other match can be trickier to predict. Wawrinka should be the favourite but Tsonga seems like the better player under pressure. Given Wawrinka's promising form at the Tour Finals, I give this to Stan, but Jo can be just as good as Stan.

Doubles is hard to predict. Federer/Wawrinka can be a good team but France should have a good team, too. If Federer or Wawrinka rests, then I give this to France.

The final day seems like it is Tsonga vs. Federer and Monfils or Gasquet vs. Wawrinka. On paper, that should be two points for Switzerland but with Wawrinka's fluctuations in form, you never know. Tsonga is a player who has beaten Federer on clay but Federer is the favourite. If France want to win the title, they had better lead before Sunday.

My prediction is that Federer will finish it for Switzerland in the fourth rubber. But if he isn't healthy, then France will win.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The flaws of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup

Now I'm writing about a series I am not so familiar with. NASCAR, I mean. But I'll write anyway, sometimes it's easier for an outsider to see flaws (or an outsider just can't see why they really aren't flaws).

The Chase for the Sprint Cup will get its conclusion next Sunday at Homestead-Miami. Or should I rather call it the Sprint for the Chase Cup as after 26 races, the title is decided in the last ten races. Anyway, I spotted this interesting statistic:

Qualified for the Championship round:
Logano - 5 wins - 15 times in top 5
Harvick - 4 wins - 13 times in top 5
Hamlin - 1 wins - 7 times in top 5
Newman - 0 wins - 4 times in top 5

Eliminated after the Eliminator round:
Keselowski - 6 wins - 16 times in top 5
Gordon - 4 wins - 14 times in top 5
Edwards - 2 wins - 7 times in top 5
Kenseth - 0 wins - 13 times in top 5

So, it seems like the eliminated drivers form a stronger lineup than the Championship round lineup. I think that highlights the biggest flaw of the current Chase system. It's just crazy that after 26 races, the advancing drivers are decided in three-race elimination rounds, and in the end, the title is decided in one race. I'm not saying the Chase is a bad system; I rather think it could be a great system. Extending the title battle to the last race and eliminating four drivers after every third race makes the end of the season exciting and keeps the title battle more open. It may not be the fairest system but it's balancing between having a fair and an entertaining system. That's why team sports have the playoffs and so has the PGA Tour, too, and those systems work.

I think the Chase system should reward the entire season's success more. Somebody with Gordon's season shouldn't be out of the title contention while Newman is in the final four with no wins. So, instead of resetting all drivers' points to the same amount between the elimination rounds, don't reset them or reset them so that the best drivers of the season have a significant advantage but even the last qualifier has a chance to win the title.

Also, I don't like how the title is decided in the final race. While winning the title by finishing 7th with even 11th place being enough while the main rival wins would be anticlimatic, winning the title just by finishing ahead of the other contenders doesn't feel right if they've had a better season until then. Have it like in the previous elimination rounds, you're through if you win, otherwise points decide.

So basically, give more importance for the entire season's performances. For example, don't reset the points but allow advancing to the next elimination round and winning the title by winning a race if a driver doesn't otherwise have enough points for that. That kind of a system would reward having a great season but would also reward winning.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

2014 ATP World Tour Finals preview

The 2014 ATP World Tour season will get its conclusion next week at the World Tour Finals in London's O2 Arena. The groups have been released:

Group A: Djokovic, Wawrinka, Berdych, Cilic

This seems like the weaker of the groups, despite having three of this year's Grand Slam champions. But of those champions, only the World No. 1, Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic has been impressive lately and he comes to London as the champion of last week's Paris Masters. He has is also the champion of the last two World Tour Finals.

The Australian Open champion, Stan Wawrinka has been very inconsistent this year, and after the Monte Carlo Masters title, he is yet to reach a semifinal. After making the quarterfinals at the US Open, he has won only two matches, so his form doesn't look too good for the Tour Finals. He has played some great matches against Djokovic and finally at this year's Australian Open, he beat him, but in his current form it is hard to see him beating Djokovic.

But this group might still offer Stan a chance to make his second Tour Finals semifinal in a row. The third Grand Slam champion in this group, the US Open champion Marin Cilic won a 250-point title in Moscow but otherwise his results after the US Open have been mediocre, and he missed the Paris Masters due to a right-arm injury.

The fourth player of the group is Tomas Berdych. After Djokovic, he has recently been the most consistent of this group's players: quarterfinals at the US Open, final at Beijing 500, quarterfinal at the Shanghai Masters, title at Stockholm 500, semifinal at the Paris Masters. Still, he seems like the least capable for upsetting Djokovic; Djokovic beat him in the Beijing final 6-0, 6-2. His consistent form can get him through from this group but Wawrinka and Cilic have the abilities to beat him, like they both did on their way to Grand Slam titles.

Group B: Federer, Nishikori, Murray, Raonic

This seems like the tougher group. Federer has been playing a great season but he has suffered losses to Nishikori in Miami in March and Raonic last week in Paris. Given the level of tennis these three have played recently, advancing from this group will be a big task for Murray.

Roger Federer must be the favourite to win this group. After the French Open, he has been very consistent and reaching the Wimbledon final plus winning two Masters titles have been the highlights of his season. Nishikori and Raonic have beaten him this year but more often than not, Roger should beat those players.

Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic are playing their first ATP World Tour Finals. Especially Nishikori of these two has had some great results this year; he made the Madrid final which he would have won without getting injured and later this year he made the US Open final by beating World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinal. Raonic has also had some good results, like reaching the final at last week's Paris Masters. With Federer in the group, it is hard to see both of them through even though it's not impossible. Yet, these two and Federer will make it hard for Murray to advance from the group.

Andy Murray had played a mediocre season and after the US Open, he wasn't even qualifying for the Tour Finals. Then, titles at Shenzen 250, Vienna 250, and Valencia 500 put him in a position to secure his Tour Finals place at Paris Masters. Still, his performances in big events have been mediocre with his only semifinal in a mandatory event having been at the French Open. Given his poor record against top players this year, it is hard to see him succeeding here, and I'd be surprised if he even made it past the round robin.

Semifinals and the final

It seems like the biggest favorites for the title are the World No. 1, three-time champion Djokovic and the World No. 2, six-time champion Federer. Federer outplayed Djokovic in their last meeting in the Shanghai Masters semifinals and won in two sets. But this time I give the edge to Djokovic. The surface at the O2 Arena is usually pretty slow favoring Djokovic and he also had a better warm-up at the Paris Masters, a title compared to Federer losing in the quarterfinals. Murray and Berdych seem like the most certain players not to win the title; they haven't been able to win big matches this year. Nishikori and Raonic have been in a good form recently but they would need to play their best tennis to have a chance to win the title in the presence of Djokovic and Federer. Wawrinka and Cilic haven't been in a great form recently but if they somehow found their form, they could beat any of their opponents.

If any of the underdogs were to win the title, I think beating Djokovic or Federer in the round robin might help. That way having to play Djokovic and Federer consecutively in the semifinal and the final would be less likely, and Djokovic and Federer might have to play against each other in the semifinals.

Anyway, my  pick for the title is Djokovic but Federer can beat him. But if these two didn't play up to their potential, there are some players who could have the game to beat them.