Andy Murray gets an immediate taste of what it’s like to be the 2016 world no. 1 in a lopsided ATP World Tour Finals draw. What with streaky players, gaping absences, injuries and question marks, it was tough to predict…
JOHN MCENROE GROUP
Players: Andy Murray (Rank 1, Seed #1), Stan Wawrinka (Rank #3, Seed #3), Kei Nishikori (Rank #5, Seed #5), Marin Cilic (Rank #7, Seed #7)
H2H RECORDS: Andy Murray 9 – 7 Stan Wawrinka // Andy Murray 7 – 2 Kei Nishikori // Andy Murray 11 – 3 Marin Cilic // Stan Wawrinka 4 – 2 Kei Nishikori // Stan Wawrinka 10 – 2 Marin Cilic // Kei Nishikori 7 – 5 Marin Cilic //
Ranked world no. 1 for the first time, Andy Murray now gets a taste of what comes that player’s way. The Brit has undoubtedly landed the most dangerous group at the O2 Arena – as he aims to survive the Round Robin stage for the first time since 2013.
Murray gave some insight last month as to his recent struggles at the year-ending event.
“The conditions I don’t like so much,” he said. “It’s a very slow court, heavy conditions. Some of the years I’ve just not played well, some of the years I’ve played pretty well and just not quite got through.”
The top seed – who enters his eighth Tour Finals off his eighth title of the season – certainly has a great shot at his first top ten victory since the beginning of August, as he leads his rivalry with each of the other three men in his group. And with the year-end world no. 1 ranking on the line, there will be no lack of motivation for the crowd favourite. An opening round against Marin Cilic will either be the easy start that he needs to get going in London – or a shock that leaves him in discomfort until the semifinalists have been decided.
World no. 3 Stan Wawrinka joined with Rafael Nadal to shut Murray out last season, and now it seems the US Open winner must unleash an upset again. Having returned to action strongly in St Petersburg following his New York triumph, Wawrinka’s quality streak was not to last. His fourth loss since his win over Djokovic was perhaps one of his worst on the season: coming in the first round of the Paris Masters to world no. 91 Jan-Lennard Struff.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old has never needed rhythm to excel. In all three of his London appearances, he has never failed to reach the semifinals. And one gets the feeling that he’s not about to break that habit.
Marin Cilic, however, could be the force that sends this group into chaos. At first glance, it would seem the world no. 7 is the outrageous underdog in this section of the draw. Nevertheless, he has the flat groundstrokes and massive serve to cause a stir inside the O2 Arena. During his 2014 debut, the freshly-crowned US Open champion – who straight-setted Kei Nishikori for that particular victory – was thrashed in two of his three encounters. Yet it was Stan Wawrinka whom Cilic managed to push to three sets, saving his dignity as he ended with a 0-3 win/loss record. And he has hardly been a pushover this year, as his London qualification suggests. The most recent player to upset Novak Djokovic, Cilic also defeated Murray to claim his maiden Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. The 28-year-old also held three match points over Roger Federer at Wimbledon. Had he taken any one of them, he would have beaten three of the aforementioned all-time tennis stars in straight sets.
Meanwhile, world no. 5 Kei Nishikori could be the greatest unknown of this section. A semifinalist here in 2014 – having beaten Murray 6-4 6-4 in his opening clash – the Japanese star went down valiantly to Roger Federer in his final match of last season. Fast becoming as unpredictable as Wawrinka, Nishikori has still amassed some impressive results this year that have gone largely under the radar. Five times a finalist – most recently at the Swiss Indoors Basel – the Olympic bronze medallist has accomplished some of his best results post-Wimbledon. A final in Toronto and a semifinal in New York consolidate the notion that Nishikori – often sidelined by injury at some point during the year – brings his best tennis to the end of a season.
TOP OF GROUP: Stan Wawrinka RUNNER-UP: Kei Nishikori
IVAN LENDL GROUP
Players: Novak Djokovic (Rank #2, Seed #2), Milos Raonic (Rank #4, Seed #4), Gael Monfils (Rank #6, Seed #6), Dominic Thiem (Rank #9, Seed #8)
H2H RECORDS: Novak Djokovic 7-0 Milos Raonic // Novak Djokovic 13-0 Gael Monfils // Novak Djokovic 3-0 Dominic Thiem // Milos Raonic 2-3 Gael Monfils // Milos Raonic 1-0 Dominic Thiem // Gael Monfils 0-1 Dominic Thiem //
If Novak Djokovic does not come out on top of this group, then the 12-time Grand Slam champion is seriously enduring a rough spell.
The Serbian wonder has not looked himself since Wimbledon, and it is hardly surprising. Some time after his pursuit of the Calendar Grand Slam was halted by Sam Querrey on London’s lawns, the no. 2 seed confessed that French Open triumph had taken a lot out of him. Whatever he lost, he’s never quite got it back – and it may require a fresh season with new goals to get him back on track.
Nevertheless, four-time defending champion Djokovic has to be fist-pumping over how this particular draw has favoured him. Dominic Thiem may have been the brightest young spark of the season, but the Austrian has practically been sleep-walking for weeks now – and eventually needed to rely solely on others to book his ATP World Tour Finals spot. Thiem – who has a head for the big moments – may find one final burst of energy to make an impact at the O2 Arena. After all, the 23-year-old more than able to duel with Raonic and Monfils. But Djokovic wiped the floor with the one-handed-backhander in the French Open semifinals, and Thiem can ill afford to lose concentration during any one of his encounters.
If electric Frenchman Gael Monfils has been unpredictable throughout his entire career, then he is even more so in London – after injury sidelined him from competition at the Paris Masters. The 30-year-old has still crossed the Channel to make his World Tour Finals debut, and says his recent US Open semifinal showing “helped me to have more belief in myself, and put in a lot of work to be even stronger.” For a man with tremendous athletic talent, but no major titles to show for it, there is little telling what Monfils will do on his first trip to the Finals. He has admitted that he had found this season mentally tough – but has also made clear that this opportunity means a great deal. At this stage in his career, ending his most successful season to date, the Frenchman is surely going to fight until the final point.
That brings us to Milos Raonic: the man who could really make this group interesting, or could not turn up at all. The Canadian burst out of the 2016 season starting blocks in unprecedented fashion, as he blazed past Roger Federer to claim Brisbane International triumph, and fell only to Andy Murray – injured – in the Melbourne semifinals. Raonic would fall to Murray once again in the biggest match he has ever contested: A straight sets Wimbledon final loss. It followed a back-from-the-brink semifinal upset of Roger Federer, and topped a final showing at Indian Wells several months before.
Nevertheless, from looking unstoppable and vowing to improve still more, the 25-year-old has slipped back under the radar with mainly average results since SW19. More worrying, however, is the right quad tear which forced him out of last week’s Paris semifinals. Sustained during his prior clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Canadian’s participation in the World Tour Finals now hangs in the balance. But if he can come to London fit and healthy, the world no. 4 and his booming serve are capable of defying head-to-head records.
TOP OF GROUP: Novak Djokovic RUNNER-UP: Gael Monfils
Thanks for reading! And if Milos Raonic drops out of the competition, you can change ‘Gael Monfils’ to ‘Tomas Berdych’ in that semifinal prediction…
Right, debate time. Who would you put through to the semifinals? Share your opinions in the comments section!