ATP World Tour Finals: Big guns get off to flying start
And so it begins: the creme de la creme join battle in what must surely be one of the most demanding events of the tennis year.
It follows 11 months of sweat and toil, in heat and rain storm, under stars and beating sun, amidst laser light shows or the hush of hallowed lawns.
From early January, in the deserts of Doha or the humidity of Australia, until the finale in the cool, grey chill of London’s November, the top men in tennis have fought for the privilege of this moment.
And the crowds have come in their thousands to see the final chapter played out.
So on opening Sunday -within a sell-out O2 arena -the anthem for the event, London Calling, salutes the first warriors. And it could not be a better day for British fans as Andy Murray, carrying with him hopes, uncertainty, and constant debate, aims to become their hero.
Dressed in black, but with an unusual brightness in his eyes, he took to court against the most recent Masters champion of the year, Robin Soderling. The Scot is one of the best tactical counter-punchers and returners of serve in the business, with lightening fast movement and the deadliest of drop shots. The Swede uses his height, power and aggression in a game of attack: big serve, even bigger forehand, adding the occasional volley and sharp backhand to his formidable arsenal.
It should be a tight, close-fought tussle, but it is quickly clear that the Scot is on a mission and the Swede is on the back foot. Twice in the first set, Murray broke, diminishing the Soderling attack with drops and cross-court drives that knifed past the net-approach of the Swede.
The second set was closer but never looked like reversing the outcome. Murray leapt in joy as he sealed the win -more comfortably than anyone expected -6-2, 6-4.
Next up, officially the ATP fans’ favourite for the eighth consecutive year, was Roger Federer. Sure enough, the Swiss flags waved, the red banners flew, and the cheers rose louder even than for home-grown Murray.
In opposition was the pugnacious form of David Ferrer -a resurgent force in 2010 but facing the man who defeated him the last time he played in this event, and who had beaten him in every one of their 10 meetings.
It was like fire consuming a figure of ice. Federer, aglow in flame red, raced to a 4-0 lead over the blue-white clad Ferrer. The Spaniard managed to break back, but it counted little: first set 6-1.
The second set was an error-strewn affair, with few aces and many break-points on both sides as the two struggled to find rhythm, length and touch. Federer, with the superior weapons and movement, had the stronger answers at the key moments, and won 6-4.
The second pool of men was full of intrigue, particularly around the broad shoulders of Rafael Nadal who had, just weeks before, withdrawn from Paris with shoulder tendonitis. More rested than any of the men in London, everyone looked for a contrasting performance from his weary 2009 exit of three Round Robin losses.
As he launched into his confrontation against No8 man Andy Roddick, it looked at first like a similar story. Roddick broke immediately, out-baselining Nadal at his own game. The London court is not giving much help to the big serving, fast-striking style of play. Its pace is slow and the surface seems to absorb bounce and spin like a black hole. So it suited neither player completely, though both quickly learned the efficacy of the low backhand slice -just as Murray had against Soderling.
Nadal took a good set and a half to adjust to the conditions while Roddick thrived, pulling off great serves and wide, deep flat drives that gave Nadal little height. Down a set and a break, however, he started to motor, found his length and imparted some more venom on his down-the-line forehand.
He also began to punish any net attack from Roddick with devastating cross-court passes. It was again reminiscent of Murray against Soderling, except that Nadal waited until the second set tie-break to strike home.
The swagger appeared and he broke early in the third to take what became an inevitable win. Roddick, for his part, has done no favours for Novak Djokovic or Tomas Berdych, having warmed up Nadal nicely.
Nevertheless, Djokovic hit the ground running in his opener against a Berdych who scattered errors in all directions. The Czech’s poor form was only exacerbated by the court and he suffered a routine defeat, 6-3 6-3.
So they have all laid out their wares and now head into the second phase of the tournament.
The two also-rans already look to be Ferrer and Berdych. Meanwhile, Soderling and Roddick will have to find some fresh elements to lift their big serving games if they are to trouble the movement and hands of the other four.
Of those, Federer will have to eliminate his unforced errors, up his serve percentage and use his drop shot skills. And Nadal will have to continue to sharpen up, though he’s well on the way.