Davydenko wins ATP World Tour Finals; did Federer tank?

November 30, 2009 in Tennis by pacejmiller

Davydenko wins!

I wish I was there to witness it.  Nikolay Davykendo, one of the best players on tour without a Grand Slam, took out the last big event of the tennis calendar, ATP World Tour Finals, by defeating US Open winner Juan Martin del Potro in the final, 6-3, 6-4.

When the tournament began, few gave the No. 7 (out of 8 men in the draw) a chance, and he stumbled out of the gates, losing to Novak Djokovic in his opening round robin match.  However, he managed to regroup and defeat Aussie Open winner Rafael Nadal and French Open finalist Robin Soderling to advance to the semi-finals.  There, he finally beat French Open, Wimbledon winner and World No. 1 Roger Federer for the first time ever (in 13 career meetings).

So congrats to Davydenko, one of those underrated guys who plays consistently well but never seems to be able to pull out the big games against the top players.  That said, he had actually won all 5 of his championship matches in 2009, the last (before this one) coming at the Shanghai Masters, which he needed to qualify for the end of year tournament.

Did Federer tank his match against Del Potro?

I’d just to take a step back for a moment back to the round robin section of the tournament to talk about Roger Federer (who finished the year ranked no. 1).

The ATP World Tour Finals has a strange (not not overly complex) system where the top 8 players are split into Group A and Group B, with the top 2 from each group advancing to the semi-finals.  As each player has 3 matches in the round robin, it is not uncommon for players to end up with identical win-loss records.  Where there are 3 players with identical records (as was the case this year in both Groups A and B), the tie-breaker provides that the 2 players with the highest percentage of sets won will advance.  If that does not resolve things, then it’s the top 2 with the highest percentage of games won.

In his final round robin match, Federer lost to Del Potro 6-2, 6-7 (7-5), 6-3.  This meant Federer, Del Potro and Murray all finished with a record of 2-1 in the round robin round.  All three men also had identical set records of 5-4.  This meant that the tie-break came down to the percentage of games won.  Federer ensured he would go through by winning 44 from 80 games (55%), thanks in part to a couple of 6-1 sets in his wins against Verdasco and Murray.  Del Potro, the other man to make it through, won 45 out of 88 games (51.1%), knocking out Andy Murray, who had won 44 out of 87 games (50.6%).  If Federer had taken just 1 more game against Del Potro, Andy Murray would have been the one to make it through instead.  Just 1 game!

Though the conspiracy chatter has been relatively subdued (and mostly in jest), there are those who believe Federer tanked the last 3 games of his match against Del Potro in order to knock Andy Murray out of the tournament.

In the final set, with the score tied 3-3, Federer fell apart, losing 3 straight to end the match.  However, it was the way Federer lost those games that began raising eyebrows.  As a furious friend told me after the match in an email entitled “Federer is a disgrace”:

“I watched the entire match, and he played entirely different in the last 3 games.  He double faulted, charged the net kamikaze style (ala Andy Roddick) and got passed, dumped return of serves into the net…I don’t understand why he did it but he is not a sportsman.  So upset by this!

I admit, it does sound a little far-fetched that Federer would do this, and even more far-fetched that he could purposely lose in a way that would knock Andy Murray out.  Nevertheless, the way in which Federer played to end the match is highly uncharacteristic, especially the way he botched his service game when down 3-4 in the final set to hand the match to Del Potro on a platter.

It is probable that before the match Federer and his team would have done some calculations to see what he and the other players in his group needed to advance (and remember that Murray’s game finished first).  Federer admitted that he knew he had to win the second set or else he would be knocked out (which explains his celebratory fist pumps after winning it 7-6). As he said himself:

“I knew I couldn’t lose in two sets because I knew that was going to knock me out.  That’s why I was very excited.”

However, if Federer did indeed make such calculations, then he must have also known that even a 0-6 third set would not have stopped him from advancing to the semi-finals.

Federer’s post-match words are somewhat telling:

“I asked Juan Martin myself at the net, ‘Did you make it or not?’  He said, ‘I don’t think so.’ … Of course, you got to feel sorry for the guy who didn’t make it.  At the same time, Del Potro beat the No. 1 player in the world in the group, and I guess also deserves to go through.  There’s only two places, and that’s the way it is.”

Notice how Federer had only questioned whether Del Potro had made it – which means he had no doubt that he had already made it through himself (ie confirms calculations were made).  And notice how he suggested that Del Potro deserves to go through (instead of Murray) because Juan Martin had beaten the ‘No. 1 player in the world’ (ie himself).  Maybe it’s just my imagination (and it’s not the image of Roger I want to have), but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, is it?

If Federer did indeed attempt to tank his match against Del Potro, even just a little, then I suppose you could say karma struck back.  With 12 straight victories against Davydenko, you could be forgiven for thinking the match was in the bag.  Who would have thought Davydenko would finally get him on try number lucky 13?