Why the ATP Finals is good and bad

The anticipated seasonal depression that sweeps through tennis fans every year is waiting in suspension as the 2017 ATP Finals sap the last remaining energy from the world’s top tennis professionals.

While folks around the world prepare hearths and gather their festive spirit, the world’s stars battle in solitude, in a place where life does not become softer, but instead hardens into a competitive patina. This little-known facet of competitive greatness has been roiling for a week now, and is approaching its brightest burn.

Only the tournament itself this year looked like a bit of a bait-and-switch from the very start. Before play even began, three of tennis’ biggest names, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka failed to qualify due to injury, a testament to the lengthy bodily abuse inherent in a professional tennis schedule. These two player’s truancy caused a riff in the lineup. There was less celebrity, less of the world’s top five clashing in a crucible, which resulted in a draw of some of the sport’s elite periphery. Those who exist usually in the countryside of tennis greatness, this year, were invited to participate in the concentrated bustle of the sport’s legislators. But throughout the tournament the inevitable shift this year towards allowing “outsiders” in has shown in attitudes towards the event itself. I myself, when first looking at the groups, felt a slackening in enthusiasm. This sort of dearth of fanfare was exacerbated by the early exit of Rafael Nadal, the world’s number one player. Nadal’s body failed him; he seemed to be a husk on the court, an exhausted, tossed-about veteran whose schedule and play style work against the timing of the ATP Finals.

And that itself it seems has always been on of the tournament’s unassailable pitfalls. The placement of the ATP Finals at the end of the year creates an environment of professional detritus, one where players may compete, but cannot compete at their highest level. Some can’t compete at any level; injury is a perennial plague at the ATP Finals, and if it is not injury it is the cumulative fatigue of the tennis season itself that places players at a physical disadvantage. While the tournament is intrinsically a compilation of the world’s best in what one would think would be a distilled highlight reel of the year, the tournament ends up operating on a balletic tiptoe, anticipating the grimace that may come with injury or sub-par performance. The relative value of the tournament is diminished by its very self.

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The first week consists of round-robin play, where the top eight players, divided into two groups of four, battle each other to emerge as the top two from each group. The best of each group proceeds to the semi-finals, and the tournament becomes a conventional draw of four. Halfway through this week, minus the early exit of Nadal, the results have been as expected. Roger Federer is 2-0, and the rest of the results are mixed. Illustrative of just how tight the competition is, six of the eight matches played so far have gone to three sets, and the margin for error with increase exponentially as the week concludes and the players move into the final stages of the tournament.

It is a still slightly early to make a definite prediction as to who will come out atop the competition, but Roger Federer looks poised to grab the ATP crown, especially after Nadal’s shocking exit. The tennis world waits in curious contempt. They have been underwhelmed by the originally slated field, but that is not to say the field cannot upend expectations. As we progress into the latter half of this week’s competition, we will see if inexperience yields to the performative liberation of some of tennis’ young talents, or if it merely engenders tentative misfires and unentertaining tennis. The (dimly populated) tennis world holds it breath.

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