With the draw ceremony for the Barclays ATP World Tour finals taking place this week on the London eye, the world's best players are set to battle one another in two elite groups, comprising the final showdown of the tennis season.
The O2 Arena, which will host the biggest indoor tennis event in history, has sold out on a majority of their available tickets—250,000 to be exact.
Four-time champ Roger Federer heads the elite field, which will include all four Major winners this season.
An interesting fact going into this year's event remains that only Federer and defending champ Novak Djokovic have won the title in previous appearances.
In his fifth year of qualification, Rafael Nadal appears eager to rectify a season which has been hindered with both personal and physical anguish.
The Spaniard has exuded tentative play as of late, and will have to step up his court positioning in order to succeed.
Consistent Russian Nikolay Davydenko will be making his fifth straight finals appearance, highlighted by finals loss to Djokovic last year.
Davydenko, who was plagued with a number of foot injuries to begin the season, comes into London on the heels of winning four tour titles post Wimbledon.
Tour finale newcomers, Juan Martin del Potro, Fernando Verdasco, and Robin Soderling will be adamant on proving their worth after pouring in respectable year-long campaigns.
Del Potro, who won his maiden Grand Slam title in New York this summer, holds perhaps the hardest forehand on the circuit. The Tandil native has proved that he is not only one of the best ball strikers on the planet, but he also holds a full deck of focus when it comes to mental toughness.
Spaniard Verdasco has risen to the upper echelon of the game's elite this season, due in large part to his consistent results. His 52-22 match record highlighted by an epic run in Australia to start the season, has this Spanish powerhouse in full flight towards London glory.
Verdasco will be a dark horse in the event, resting on the strength of his affective lefty game.
Hard-hitting Soderling finds himself in the year's last tournament on the good grace of Andy Roddick.
The American, who was the sixth player to qualify for the event, was forced to withdraw from London due to an ongoing knee injury. Roddick has qualified for the year end finale on seven straight occasions.
Roddick's loss might just turn into Soderling's gain. The Tibro native will be playing with house money all week and was put in the Group B, which does not include his nemesis Federer.
Soderling has been suffering with a bothersome right elbow as of late and will hope for a clean bill of health as he embarks on the final event of the season.
With the stage set for what promises to be a week of both scintillating and sold out tennis, let's take a look at both groups and their respective combatants.
1. Roger Federer: The four-time winner comes into London with cloud of doubt over his record-breaking year. Two consecutive losses to Djokovic and Benneteau, holds Federer's drive for five in doubt. The Swiss will have to deal with Murray, who he trails 6-3 in career head-to-head meetings, Del Potro, who he lost to in New York, and finally a swing happy Verdasco with nothing to lose.
Federer should be able to make it through the round robin portion, though his matches with Murray and Del Potro could be ambush induced, to say the least.
A final note of importance for Federer: If he bombs out in the round robin draw, Nadal could very well snatch his No. 1 ranking away.
4. Andy Murray: The Scot, or Brit for the week, enters the burden filled O2 Arena with every English supporter expecting a title run. Murray's second appearance at the event will be highlighted by a recent title in Valencia, topping off an overall stellar year.
Let's not forget that a recent left wrist injury and five set confusion during the Grand Slam events has tripped up Murray during his season.
When it comes to figuring out three-set matches though, Murray is in a league of his own. Murray's confident head-to-head mark against Federer, Delpo, and Verdasco will aid well in his bid to the finals.
Murray's match against Federer will be key; likely implying a guaranteed spot for either competitor in the semifinals.
5. Juan Martin Del Potro: There's no time like the present to make a significant impact on tour. Del Potro is clearly in the Grand Slam mix after his triumph in New York, and a deep run in London would simply solidify his place as an Australian Open favorite.
Delpo has struggled against Murray and Federer, but has proved that he can create countless opportunities against either adversary.
It remains to be seen if Del Potro is still in hangover mode since winning the US Open; capturing only two match victories throughout the fall season would suggest just that.
All in all, I like Del Potro in this group, but his chances of survival against R-Fed and Murray will be difficult.
The Argentine has proved his mettle all season, and another chance to change the face of tennis lies in London.
7. Fernando Verdasco: Good old Nando. He's graced the world with his Aussie faux-hawk, a visor in the summer, and his current hybrid of Antonio Banderas meets a mobster from theSopranos —what's not to like?
Regardless of his hairstyle preference, one constant in Verdasco's game this year has been his ability to win matches on a weekly basis. Seldom suffering a first round loss, Verdasco's forehand and improved fitness have aided him in becoming a respective member of the top 10.
The lone concern for Verdasco in London will be his shot selection. When Verdasco is winning, it's all about the pace he can generate. When Verdasco is losing, it's all about the pace he can generate—see a problem?
With versatility not being his strength, and a substantial losing record against both Federer and Murray, Veradasco's stay in London may just be filled with the experience of "just" being there.
All in all, with del Potro being the x-factor in this group (a giant one at that), let's stay on the side of factual and viable evidence and pick the two men who have been there, done that.
Semifinalists: Federer and Murray
2. Rafael Nadal: Talk about a long season, no? Not only does Nadal have to think about battling through a treacherous field in London and have the weight of an upcoming Davis Cup tie on his "sleeved" shirts, the Mallorcan, for all intensive purposes is also playing poorly.
What started off as a knee injury and stomach muscle strain for Nadal has quickly turned into an all out attempt at regaining his unbeatable court presence.
Once feared by everyone in the locker room, Nadal is simply beatable these days.
From his loss to del Potro in New York, to his white wash defeats to Marin Cilic and Davydenko in Asia, and even as recently as his semifinal drubbing at the hands of Djokovic in Paris, Nadal's defensive foundation has turned into his worst offensive nightmare. It seems that there is no offense in sight.
However, this isn't the first time we've seen Nadal struggle. If anything it's what he thrives on in the arena of competition.
His talent and fight will always be present on court, and his willingness to compete should last until his last breath on tour.
Now, on the flip side of hope, Nadal will have to deal with three foes which he has struggled against this season: Djokovic, Davydenko, and Soderling.
Losing to all three players in commanding fashion at some point during the year, Nadal is both vulnerable and eager for revenge.
The Spaniard has historically shown the ability to defeat opponent's that have handed him prior defeat—London's challenge will surely test all of the Spaniard's innate abilities.
3. Novak Djokovic: The man of the hour has never come into the tour finale more confident. Defeating Federer and Nadal along the road to capturing respective titles in Basel and Paris, Djokovic currently resides with significant bark to his title defense.
Using the current flame of confidence that Djokovic possesses to advance should be easy; keeping up his fitness for a third consecutive event will be the most challenging component.
Djokovic has rarely won three tour titles in a row during his career. With that critical stat lacking in his favor, a repeat to the Tour finale seems unlikely.
Based on his reaction alone after defeating Gael Monfils in Paris, Djokoivc should be spent. The fact that he has a losing head-to-head against Nadal, and an even head-to-head against Davydenko—Djokovic may just dwindle during the latter stages of the event.
Something tells me that a surprise or two may be in order in this group.
6. Nikolay Davydenko: Never a fan of the grass courts in London, Davydenko will happily throw his hat in the mix on the neutral hard surface.
Playing hard and playing often has allowed Davydenko to put forth a devastatingly successful fall campaign, which saw him defeat both Nadal and Djokovic on his way to his third Masters 1000 title in Shanghai.
It appears that a fresh Russian will look to run ramped on a fatigued Djokovic and Davis Cup-occupied Nadal.
All in all, Davydenko's karma seems to be right where is should be in London, resulting in a potential off-the-rise symposium which could take him to the winner's podium by week's end.
8. Robin Soderling: Soderling could very well have the most to prove in this event, simply because he wants to prove his worth. He knows that his place in London was achieved by default, and if not for Roddick's misfortune, his vacation time in Monte Carlo would have started earlier.
La Sod has the game to defeat everyone in this section and his match with Nadal should be the popcorn match of the event. If the flat-hitting Swede can control his nerves throughout his first few matches, a semifinal place is certainly within reach.
I alluded to his group being full of surprises, and Soderling may very well be the surprise of the event.
The odds makers weren't as kind to Soderling this time around, posing a further problem in choosing his glory.
However, Soderling does provide significant punch in his game—pound for pound—over the other three competitors in this group.
Power can often hinder a players' progression through a big time event, but in Soderling's case, his blazing ground game should fit right in with his O2 surroundings.
Semifinal picks: Davydenko, Soderling
Finals: Murray vs. Davydenko
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