By Ros Satar at the ATP World Tour Finals, London
- Down to the wire for Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori & Stan Wawrinka in the final group stage matches
- Murray needs just a set to ensure his qualification
LONDON, ENGLAND – It all comes down to Friday’s matches for three of the stars in Group John McEnroe as the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals awaits.
Andy Murray  v Stan Wawrinka  – H2H: Murray leads 9-7
Such is the peculiarity of the Round Robin stages of season-ending finales, players can find themselves in the position of not actually needing to win to progress to the knock out stages.
And of course, we have seen how they can come spectacularly unstuck – as we gallop to the conclusion of the group stages with a thrilling finale in store. Unlike the final matches of Group Ivan Lendl where only one match was effectively ‘winner takes all’ – things are a bit more tricky.
A bad-day-at-the-office type start for Stan Wawrinka against an inspired Kei Nishikori has made his challenge a little harder.
A win in two sets for the Swiss and any combination of results for the other match puts him in the frame for the semi-finals. But should Andy Murray grab a set, and Nishikori wins in any combination, then the Brit is in, and Wawrinka is on the next river-boat back to Switzerland.
Although Murray leads their head to head, it was one-way traffic in the few times they met in Wawrinka’s favour, tying in nicely with his improved approach after teaming up with Magnus Norman. Murray finally stopped the rot this year at Roland Garros, beating him in the semi-final to make his first French Open final.
After his opener against Kei Nishikori, Wawrinka was quick to brush off concerns that his knee injury was more of a factor in the loss – and save for an awkward slip which saw him getting up rather gingerly, his movement looked good against Marin Cilic, keeping his hopes alive.
Murray, participating in the longest ATP Finals match on record against Nishikori admitted that he expects to be feeling the effects of that marathon but of course can make use of a day to recover.
Wawrinka’s aggressive stance at the baseline will see him try and dictate play from the back of the court, but of course Murray’s trademark court coverage and defence will make it hard to find the definitive winner. By now everyone’s legs will be feeling the effects of a long season and the Round Robin can lull people into that false sense of security.
Murray said, after his first match: “I think it’s one of the things, you know, that can be tricky in a group stage, because you have that sort of feeling a little bit like you can afford lose a match, which is never really the case.”
For the Brit, nothing less than a win will guarantee him taking the top spot in the group – so why is that so important? The semi-finals put the winners of each group against the second placed players in the other group and let’s be honest – the expectation is that the title, and the year-end No. 1 spot will (ought to?) come down to the World Nos. 1 and 2 duking it out on Sunday.
He said, after defeating Nishikori: “[It’s] obviously important to win matches to give yourself the best chance to go through. 200 points for each match here is quite a lot, as well. Obviously that increases as you get into the semis, potentially in the final.
“It could come down to a match between me and Novak. Who knows what’s going to happen the next few days. Just from my side, concentrate on trying to win my own matches, get through as many as I can, make it as tough as possible for Novak to jump me.”
Wawrinka is no stranger to these scenarios either and is is of the same mind set – nothing but a win will do.
“It’s not the first time I’m in that situation, losing the first match. Played a bad match the first day. I wasn’t at all good on the court. Again, I’m here to try to enjoy. I’m here to try to do the maximum I can. I’m trying to enjoy, I’m trying to do the right thing, I’m trying to fight as much as I can to stay alive on the tournament.
“All I know is if I want to have a chance to qualify, I need to win. That’s all I know. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m going to try to play my best tennis, to beat the world No. 1. It’s going to be a tough match. We played many times each other. He’s playing his best tennis so far. It’s going to be interesting. I’m happy to play here in front of his home crowd. I’m sure it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
Prediction: Murray in three sets.
Kei Nishikori  v Marin Cilic  – H2H: Nishikori leads 7-5
We have to confess we feel a little sorry for Cilic. It is not as though he has played particularly badly or been hopelessly outclassed as in his debut match in 2014, with a 61 61 drubbing at the hands of Novak Djokovic.
He was outfoxed by Murray on a fairly tidy mission on his opener, but acquitted himself quite well, but Wawrinka’s sticking power matched his own stile of aggressive play at the back of the court, and found himself on the wrong end of two tight tie-break sets.
His serve let him down and if Nishikori serves as sharply as he did in his opener, Cilic could find himself struggling every bit as much as Wawrinka did at the start of the tournament.
He said about the forthcoming match up: “We played few weeks ago in Basel. I think the conditions there were a little bit quicker, as it was a little bit of altitude. But I have to prepare for both of these matches so far like these past two matches. Still for me it’s great to play him.”
While his tournament is over here, a win for the Croatian (and for the Swiss) will freeze Nishikori out of making a second semi-final at the World Tour Finals.
An exhausted Nishikori seemed fairly wary of the big-serving Croatian, having lost out to him in Basel in a bit of a lop-sided affair.
“I just had one lost recently in Basel. Not going to be easy. He has great serve. That match he play really aggressive, so have to really focus to beat Marin.”
He will need a far quicker start that in Basel – his resolve failed after he was unable to capitalise in the second set against Murray, despite his flurry of resistance in the decider.
Still, his court coverage still makes the Croatian at times look a little awkward and ungainly and should be able to try and capitalise on that to secure his position in the final four.
Prediction: Nishikori in two sets.
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