Superstars Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will compete in the same four-player group (the newly named Stan Smith group) of the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals. It’s highly significant, because they have dominated the year-end extravaganza, winning 10 of the past 12 titles.
This might indicate that the best player on tour typically wins the WTF, although Rafael Nadal fans know that this has not always been true. There have been several exceptions to the best player winning that title.
Some historical trends reveal a few oddities if we examine the last two decades, spanning from the height of the Pete Sampras era to Djokovic's current reign.
Two trophies will be handed out after the WTF. The year-end trophy could have been engraved last summer when Djokovic all but sealed things with the Wimbledon title. The WTF tournament trophy will be determined next week. However, history shows that things might not be so straightforward. The engraver might want to hang out on standby.
Year-End and WTF Champions
Although Federer (six titles) and Djokovic have combined for 10 WTF titles since 2003, only five of those championships were won by the year-end No. 1 or best player of the year by the rankings:
- 2014 Novak Djokovic
- 2012 Novak Djokovic
- 2007 Roger Federer
- 2006 Roger Federer
- 2004 Roger Federer
It’s not that easy for the year-end No. 1 to win both those titles, and we can see that it’s been less than half since the dawn of the Federer era. Looking at the titles for the past 20 years, since 1995, exactly one half of the titles were won by the best player.
What about those other Federer or Djokovic titles? Half of those titles came as a mild upset, at least by the rankings. Here are the years when these two superstars won the WTF, with the year-end No. 1 noted in parentheses:
- 2013 Novak Djokovic (Rafael Nadal)
- 2011 Roger Federer (Novak Djokovic)
- 2010 Roger Federer (Rafael Nadal)
- 2009 Nikolay Davydenko (Roger Federer)
- 2008 Novak Djokovic (Rafael Nadal)
- 2005 David Nalbandian (Roger Federer)
- 2003 Roger Federer (Andy Roddick)
What this means is that Federer won three WTF titles in which he was not the year-end No. 1. By definition, we can say that he “upset” or “stole” those titles, though few people outside of Nebraska would argue that Andy Roddick was the better player late in 2003. On the other hand, Federer was “robbed” of the 2005 and 2009 titles when he was clearly the best player.
Djokovic’s other two “upset” titles came in 2013 and 2008, both at the expense of years when Nadal was the best player. It should be noted that Nadal pulled out of the 2008 competition because of injury, so the No. 1 seed was actually Federer. Djokovic took this title as the No. 2 seed but as the third-best player. Conversely, Federer "robbed" Djokovic for the 2011 title.
The great Sampras was the year-end No. 1 six consecutive years (1993-98) but “only” managed titles in 1994 and 1996-97. However he did “heist” titles in 1991 and 1999 at the expense of fellow Americans Jim Courier and Andre Agassi in those respective years.
Tough on Clay-Courters
It’s rare for a clay-court king to rule all of tennis, but it's even harder for him to win the WTF. Nadal to date has not won this title despite three years (2008, '10, '13) as the world No. 1. Of course the late-season conditions on fast indoor surfaces do not favor a player whose very best surface is clay.
(This tournament has also been played on indoor carpet, outdoor grass and outdoor hard courts since the earlier years of the Open era and has been passed around to numerous locations until stabilizing at London since 2009, and at least through 2018.)
Nadal reiterated his view recently in the Daily Mail:
I am not sure if it is 100 per cent fair that we qualify for the World Tour Finals playing on grass, hard, clay and indoors, and since 2005, when I qualified [for the first time], it is already 11 years that every single time [it has been] on indoor hard.
I believe that it's not fair that a player like me really never played on a surface that was a little bit more favourable. I always played on the worst surface possible for me.
Going back 35 years to the Bjorn Borg peak, only Gustavo Kuerten (2000) and Alex Corretja (1998) have represented the true clay-courters by winning the WTF title. Kuerten was also the year-end No. 1 in 2000, but Corretja, a two-time French Open finalist, was a surprise winner as the No. 5 seed.
So unless the WTF decided to let the No. 1 seed choose his surface like this were a Davis Cup option, Nadal and other clay-courters cannot expect that springtime conditions will blossom in late November.
(Sidenote: If the No. 1 seed could choose his surface, it would present even more problems for years when the No. 1 seed is in doubt by November. It’s simply not possible for the O2 or a series of venues to throw together this party at the last minute.)
Hope for Lower Seeds
Nikolay Davydenko was a thin, bald competitor who often wore a ball cap. He looked lean and hungry, as if too many Russian winters had worn him down, and his baggy clothing seemed desperate to cover his slight frame. But he was a fabulous baseline ball-striker who could work his opponents on both corners, rarely letting them dictate from the middle. He made it to four major semifinals from 2005-07, achieved the No. 3 ranking and won three Masters titles.
As the No. 6 seed, Davydenko won the 2009 WTF, a year after finishing as runner-up. He’s the only player since 2005 not named Federer or Djokovic to win this championship.
The only other huge upset this century was No. 8 seed David Nalbandian’s classic five-set victory over Federer in 2005. Nalbandian lost the first two sets in tiebreakers and then got on a roll to take the next two sets before outlasting Federer in the fifth-set tiebreaker.
The only seed lower than No. 2 to win this title in the 21st century was Federer in 2011 (No. 4) and Federer in 2003 (No. 3), who only had a first Wimbledon title to his credit.
So why invite the other players to come in as virtual punching bags as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds drop-kick everybody else out of the ring?
Lower seeds have had good runs to the semifinals and occasionally the final—stars like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2011), Juan Martin del Potro (2009), Davydenko (2008), David Ferrer (2007), James Blake (2006) and No. 7 Sebastien Grosjean (2001). There were a few times when legendary Americans Sampras and Agassi came in as lower seeds after injury and then turned it on to compete for finals and titles.
So, as always in the tennis world, the overwhelming odds favor the top player or two, and this is particularly so in 2015, with Djokovic turning in one of the all-time great seasons. Flanked by Federer’s WTF success and versatile game on indoor hard courts, where he thrives, it seems very unlikely that someone else would step up and win this tournament.
Are there favourable odds for a No. 5 seed who is a clay-courter, who has never won this tournament and just came off his first non-major-winning season since he was a teenager back in 2004? No, on paper it seems highly unlikely that Nadal or the lower seeds could challenge the top two. Ditto for Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori, who round out the lower four seeds.
But there’s always a chance for something unusual at the WTF. With the eight best players in the world, a bad match or two from the top players or an inspired match from an underdog could change everything.