Alix Ramsay: Tennis not so tough at the top

Serbia's Novak Djokovic will play in the ATP Tour Finals tonight for the third year on the trot, evidence of a dearth of competition at the top of the game. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/Getty
Serbia's Novak Djokovic will play in the ATP Tour Finals tonight for the third year on the trot, evidence of a dearth of competition at the top of the game. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/Getty
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AND so nothing ever really changes. The great changing of the guard in men’s tennis has failed to materialise and despite a slightly fairer distribution of the four grand slam titles this year – there were four different winners for the first time since 2012 – the season will end with Novak Djokovic at the top of the rankings ladder. Again.

If Djokovic wins tonight in London’s O2 Arena, he will win the ATP World Tour Finals. Again. He will walk away as the unbeaten champion. Again. He will be $2,075,00 richer and 1,500 ranking points better off. Again. No matter how much the ATP try and convince us that there is a wave of new names ready to challenge the old order, the likes of Djokovic stubbornly refuse to believe it.

As the Tour Finals began, there were three newcomers to the big stage. Marin Cilic arrived clutching his US Open title and then failed to win a match; Milos Raonic lasted two matches and then retired with a sore leg while Kei Nishikori, the US Open runner-up, beat Andy Murray and David Ferrer, a last-minute replacement for Raonic, and was then battered by Djokovic yesterday in the semi-finals 6-1, 3-6, 6-0.

That the Japanese won a set was due almost entirely to a rare lapse in concentration by the world No.1. In the opening set, Djokovic dropped just two points on serve. He was a little more generous in the third set, dropping five service points but it was the bit in the middle that had him chuntering and growling to himself around the baseline.

A double fault cost him his opening service game in the second set – cue much muttering and shoulder shrugging – and that, in turn, led to doubts and distractions. His first-serve accuracy dropped to 45 per cent and the small but speedy Nishikori took full advantage of his tormentor’s momentary frailty. But when Nishikori could not capitalise on two break points at the start of the third set, his moment had passed. He did not win another game. In fact, he only won another ten points.

It is the third time in four years that the Serb has claimed the coveted end-of-year top spot and as he stands in the final today, he is hoping to extend his winning record on the indoor courts to 32 matches, a streak that goes back to 2012. He is also gunning for his fourth Tour Finals trophy in all. It is a level of consistency he shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and one that Nishikori and other up-and-comers can only dream of. “I really think about what they do,” said a reverential Nishikori. “I couldn’t imagine how they handle the pressure and everything through the whole year. Especially the people staying No.1, I bet they have a lot of pressure. They have to always fight, not even on the court, but off the court, too.”

There was a point this year when Djokovic looked almost human. His loss to Nadal at Roland Garros was his fifth defeat in six grand slam finals and as he headed to Wimbledon he needed to prove to himself that he had not lost his nerve in the big matches. He talked like a beaten man before the final; he looked like a tortured soul as he went about his preparations. But when he beat Federer and got his hands on the trophy, the status quo was re-established: Djokovic had learned how to win again, Federer was reaching major finals again after a poor 2013 and Nadal was still the king of clay.

The so-called golden age of men’s tennis cannot last forever – Federer is an elderly 33, after all – but while there is breath in their bodies, the old guard will still take some beating. And if the Raonics, Nishikoris and Cilics of the world want to be regarded as equal, they will have to beat the old boys month in, month out. Regardless, the evidence of this week shows no one is yet ready to take on that challenge.