Box-office tennis by the Thames

Al Jazeera’s Chris Tortise says the ATP World Tour Finals are looking at home in London.

Towelling presence: But no amount of flexing could help world no2 Nadal as he lost to Soderling [AFP]

Wednesday marks the end of the second phase in the Round Robin at the ATP World Tour Finals in London.

This is the first time the end-of-season championships are being held in the English capital, and the spectacular venue of the O2 Arena provides the glitz and glamour that previous settings have missed.

There is a Grand Slam feel to the tournament, with 17,500 tickets available for every match – making it the second largest tennis stadium capacity after the Arthur Ashe at the US Open.

And the world’s top eight superstars – Andy Roddick excluded through injury – are pulling out the stops to win this title.

There was less excitement when James Bond roared past the O2 Arena – then the Millennium Dome – during a deadly speedboat chase on the Thames in The World Is Not Enough.

Wimbledon it is not.

Wild crowds

With boxing-style introductions to the wild crowds, and with the incentive of hundreds of thousands of US dollars in prize money, is it any wonder that some fantastic tennis has already been played?

Crucial ties: The players pose in front of a London bus [AFP]

All but one match has gone to three sets – the exception being Rafael Nadal’s surprise loss to Robin Soderling, Roddick’s replacement – with thrills and spills throughout, and some exceptional play by the world’s best players.

The protagonists are certainly living up to their billing.

Novak Djokovic, who is the third seed this year, came into the tournament as the form player, having won the Paris Masters just a week before.

Although losing the first set to Nikolay Davydenko on Monday night, he will be looking to beat Soderling on Wednesday to all but secure a semi-finals place.

The Serb is the defending champion after winning the title in Shanghai last year, but the lower-ranked Swede was very impressive against Nadal and could also book his place in the last four with a win.

Nadal nadir

Realistically, the loser of Wednesday’s late match between the Spaniard and Davydenko will be out – and the world number two should be worried.

Nadal looked very out of sorts in his first match; sluggish and weak even compared to the lumbering Soderling. Against the more mobile Russian, he could be still more vulnerable.

“Nadal looked very out of sorts in his first match; sluggish and weak even compared to the lumbering Soderling. Against the more mobile Russian, he could be still more vulnerable”

Chris Tortise

On current form, Djokovic and Soderling should progress.

Roger Federer, a four-time winner of this title and the season-ending number one, came through a tough encounter against home favourite Andy Murray on Tuesday.

Demonstrating his incredible talent, he blazed his way through the final set, which made Murray look positively average.

The Scot – who didn’t look exactly at home posing as an English gent in front of a London bus for the tournament promotional photos a few days ago – played some spectacular shots in the first set, reminiscent of his opening match against the since-reinvigorated Juan Martin del Potro.

Yet with the Swiss master at his best, Murray will need to beat Fernando Verdasco on Thursday to ensure progress.

Even Federer is not yet in the semi-finals, and has to take on Argentine giant del Potro to fight for his place. Either could still go through.

Back on track

The US Open Champion got his challenge back on track on Tuesday by battling his way past Verdasco.

His nerves certainly faltered against his lower-ranked opponent, and he struggled to win the match. With a place in the last four at stake against Federer, it’s difficult to see him crossing the line first.

Serb and volley: Djokovic should get through to the semis [AFP]

After winning his first Grand Slam in October – against the Swiss – it was expected that he would push on and challenge the top two.

This hasn’t happened.

His form has dropped off dramatically, winning only two matches since that spectacular Flushing Meadows win.

And with home support boosting Murray, both the Scot and Federer will be expected to fill the other semi-final spots.

The tennis has certainly not disappointed, and with half of the round robin matches complete, the standard will remain incredibly high.

London is proving a worthy host and, with all sessions virtually sold out, the ATP World Tour Finals will find it very difficult to move away from its current magnificent setting.

Source: Al Jazeera

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