Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka join the world’s top two players in the semi-finals but exist with little more than vivid hope of their opponents enduring rare off days.
The group stages have been painfully one-sided, with the sort of epic battles we have come to expect from a "Golden Generation" absent, as Djokovic and Federer steamrolled all in their respective paths.
Federer recorded the most emphatic of his three wins to wrap up top spot in Group B, inflicting a joint worst tour-level loss on Andy Murray, thrashing him 6-0, 6-1.
The LTA were left to paint a pretty glum picture of their man's loss, explaining in their “key stats of the match”:
- In the opening set Murray only won eight points.
- This is the first time in four years Murray has not won a game in a set (or bageled as we tennis folk like to say).
- It is the first time Murray has been bageled by Federer.
- The match lasted 56 minutes and five seconds.
That win was all the more remarkable given they were previously tied in their head-to-head at 11 all, with Murray suggesting in his blog on the BBC website: “It was the best he’s ever played against me.”
Ominously for his semi-final opponent, Wawrinka, the 33-year-old—who made just 38 percent of first serves but won all of the points in which he did, according to the ATP's Match Facts—felt he could have played even better, as quoted from his post-match press conference on the ATP World Tour Finals website:
I didn't even necessarily serve so well. But you (have) got to play the right way here, use the court to your advantage as much as you can.
But I had the upper hand from the baseline, which hasn't always happened against him. But I definitely was able to play on my terms. For me, things went very well. I was able to put Andy under pressure very often, and I think the match couldn't have gone any better for me really.
Wawrinka will now look to improve a 2-14 head-to-head record with his compatriot, having lost their last meeting in four sets at Wimbledon earlier this year.
Previous meetings, which have been split two wins apiece, suggest that Nishikori has a better chance of upsetting Djokovic, with the 24-year-old recording a career-highlight victory with a four-set victory at the U.S. Open.
However, the World Tour Finals debutant, who was well beaten by Federer in the round-robin stages, will do well not to be overawed by the challenge the reigning champion currently presents.
The season-ending world No. 1 spot was wrapped up in the most convincing of fashions by the Serb, dropping just nine games during the round-robin stages, extending his winning run indoors to 30 matches.
Also, if we look closer at Nishikori’s victory at Flushing Meadows, US Open SlamTracker stats indicate that the Serb actually outperformed in most margins but was uncharacteristically wasteful, taking just four of 13 break points compared to the Japan star's five of seven.
With winners and unforced errors virtually identical, it came down to the big moments, but it’s hard to foresee such opportunities coming Nishikori’s way if Djokovic maintains his form, having faced just four break points in the entire tournament so far, according to ATP Tour Match Facts.
In his Brain Game column on the ATP Tour website, Craig O’Shannessy assesses the improvements in Djokovic’s game:
Approaching the net more makes perfect sense as an upgrade to Djokovic’s game, as the average winning percentage with baseline points on tour is around 46 per cent, while finishing at the net is significantly higher, around 66 per cent. A massive part of Roger Federer’s renaissance this year has been his recommitment to finish at the net under the tutelage of Stefan Edberg.
While the general tennis consensus says it’s too hard to get to the net these days because of improved racquet and string technology, Federer, and now Djokovic, are turning that popular opinion on its head.
A back court Djokovic is always a scary opponent, but an all-court Djokovic may just prove to the sport’s newest nightmare.
While also hailing the forehand weapon Nishikori possesses in his analysis, Craig O’Shannessy addresses his remaining weakness, saying: “Once Nishikori improves his serve to make it as world-class as his forehand, he will have all the tools in the bag to ascend to the very pinnacle of the sport.”
That was a key problem in their most recent meeting in Paris, when Djokovic won a remarkable 87 percent of points when returning second serves in a 6-2, 6-3 victory in just 62 minutes, according to ATP Tour's Match Facts.
Given the aforementioned evidence, it hardly seems premature to speculate as to who will come out on top if Federer and Djokovic clash in Sunday's final.
The Swiss star leads their head-to-heads, 19-17, after winning their last encounter 6-4, 6-4 in Shanghai, a victory that puts him ahead 3-2 in 2014.
Federer also boasts a better "Career Index" indoors, according to the ATP Performance Zone, with a winning ratio of .802 compared to .766 heading into this year's event, although Djokovic is rapidly improving thanks to his winning streak.
As O’Shannessy alludes to, Djokovic has somewhat mimicked Federer's more aggressive approach, and while success has certainly come his way so far, the big question is whether he can replicate that against the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
With Oddschecker quoting both Nishikori and Wawrinka at double-figure odds to lift the trophy, it would be a major upset for anyone other than Federer to dethrone Djokovic.