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ATP World Tour Finals – Day 1

November 23, 2009

Football has done it – its natural appeal developed over fifteen years with piles of television money. Cricket had to fundamentally change its format to do it. Snooker has tried unsuccessfully to do it. Darts has done it to great acclaim. Now it is tennis’s turn to try and turn a sport into sports entertainment.

And so we get the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals, tennis’s answer to Twenty20 cricket and the Snooker/ Darts Premier League, live from the O2 Arena featuring the requisite moody player graphics, dark lights and indie music during the breaks. It took a decade, but finally the decision to plough millions into the Millennium Dome has been vindicated.

The O2 Arena will host the next five World Tour Finals

The most obvious change is the initial presentation of the sport. Everything is blue. The court is blue; the towels are blue; the advertising hoardings are blue. The crowd are bathed in an eerie blue light. Sky blue, dark blue, laser blue.

“The top 8 players in the world are here!”, commentator Andrew Castle gushes down the microphone. (They’re not. Andy Roddick is injured and isn’t taking part.) The BBC coverage is typically excitable – presumably the excitement at actually having acquired the rights to a sport people might want to watch is too much for them to handle.

In fairness, tennis is a sport that could benefit from this sort of marketing. It is fast paced, exciting, has plenty of individuals to like or dislike, and the idea of an end-of-season tournament featuring the best players of the last twelve months is an appealing one. And there is clearly demand: an impressive 259,000 tickets have been sold for the tournament’s eight days.

The BBC’s coverage is, despite the cynicism, good. Sky Sports set the benchmark for tennis broadcasting with this year’s excellent US Open, but the BBC does have its own selling points. Sue Barker is a safe pair of hands front of house, and Tim Henman and Castle make an appealing partnership behind the microphones.

First up was Andy Murray against Juan Martin del Potro (Scotland versus Argentina. Blue versus blue). Murray raced into a 5-0 lead, his smart changes of pace aided by an injury to del Potro in the third game. Del Potro rallied, taking a break back on a Murray double fault, but could do little to stop the in-form Scot taking the set 6-3.

Andy Murray enters the Arena before his match with Juan Martin del Potro yesterday - Getty

Murray, with his six season titles, boasts the highest trophy count of the year among those in London this week, but the four majors have thus far eluded him. 21-year-old Del Potro, by claiming the US title in September, has achieved more than Murray in a sense, but has been disappointing since his win at Flushing Meadows.

In the second set del Potro demonstrated the powerful forehand that took him to that victory, taking it 6-3 to level the match. Murray responded well, rattling off three games in a row at the start of the final set, to take control of the match with some consistent serving. He won it comfortably in the end, 6-2, and he should go into his clash with Roger Federer with confidence.

Federer ensured that their match would almost certainly see the winner go through to the semi-finals as he came from a set down to beat Fernando Verdasco in the evening. The most decorated player of all time, current world number one, and the tournament’s top seed won 4-6 7-6 6-1. The Verdasco Del Potro match will likely see one of the powerful Spaniards eliminated from the competition.

Group B starts today with Rafael  Nadal taking on French Open runner-up Robin Soderling, and reigning World Tour Finals champion and world number 3 Novak Djokovic beginning the defence of his crown against Nikolay Davydenko.

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