Nadal leads men’s elite towards Tour Finals in London
It’s hard courts all the way for the rest of the ATP tour and, although the Grand Slams are all done and dusted, it’s still all to play for.
The top dozen men in tennis are vying, through seven weeks of echoing, fast-paced action, for a place in tennis’s season-ending climax in London: the World Tour Finals.
With barely time to draw breath after the arduous US Open Series, the players have appeared on the other side of the world for the South-East Asian swing. This means three tough weeks that take in five tournaments, including two ATP 500s and the Shanghai Masters.
What the oriental season lacks in length it more than makes up for in glamour. This week, the action is in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, and next week the men choose between Beijing or Tokyo. Then they converge on Shanghai for the newest Masters on the tour, the only one outside Europe and North America, and the current ATP Masters 1000 Tournament of the Year.
For some, however, the points they win in these sky-scraping cities carry far more weight than for others.
Rafael Nadal stands atop the men’s rankings like a colossus, almost 5,000 points clear of the field. He is guaranteed to be world No1 at least until Monte Carlo next spring without lifting a finger. He has already assured his place both at the WTFs and as the year-end champion in the 2010 ATP race.
It is an extraordinary achievement for the man who lost in every round-robin match at the O2 last November and was forced to retire from the Australian Open in January. Now with three Slams under his belt, he looks in better shape than he has done in years. He now seems set, at the very least, to equal his results in the Far East last autumn.
Novak Djokovic doesn’t put in an appearance until Beijing next week, but is riding high after his defeat of Roger Federer in the US Open and gaining the No2 ranking.
Djokovic has been in the top three in the world almost continuously for over three years. His misfortune has been to see first Federer and now Nadal locked in at No1.
For the time being, he does not have to check his rear-view mirror for Andy Murray, though he could be overtaken by Federer. Last year, Djokovic won in Beijing, Paris, and Basel, and was a semi-finalist in Shanghai: that’s a lot of points to defend. He should nevertheless be a shoo-in for a place in London.
Federer, in the rare situation of trailing two men in the rankings and reaching not one Slam final since Melbourne, is only playing the Shanghai Masters before the tour heads back to Europe.
He was producing some excellent tennis in the latter stages of the US Series until he lost out to a scintillating Djokovic in New York. He has very few points to defend this autumn: He missed much of the indoor season last year with back problems. He should therefore regain the No2 ranking with relative ease.
Federer has already guaranteed his place for the WTFs, but this feels like a turning point. How he plays between now and the end of the year may give a clue to his chances of regaining the No1 ranking on 2011.
Had Robin Soderling performed better in the two North American Masters, he could by now be enjoying a new high of No4 in the rankings. As it is, he sits a mere 125 points behind Murray.
The Swede likes the indoor season, so if he gets his serve and forehand back into their best groove, he may edge deeper into Shanghai and Paris than he did last year. That could take him to a new end-of-year high for the fifth successive year -ahead of Murray and comfortably in the WTFs.
Murray also joins the strong field in Beijing, and if he recovers some of his excellent pre-US Open form, he can hold his ranking against Soderling. Murray did not play Shanghai last year, so a good run in China should help to open a rather healthier gap between him and the Swede.
What of the other top dozen or so who need points to give themselves a leg-up to London?
Nikolay Davydenko had an excellent autumn season in 2009, winning two titles and then the WTFs. He plays in Kuala Lumpur this week, but will need to find some renewed form in the coming tournaments with so many points to defend. Will he make the cut for the O2 at all this year?
Tomas Berdych looked a cert for the WTFs just a couple of months ago, but will need to target quarterfinal finishes in this autumn to stay in the top eight.
Fernando Verdasco, after a poor summer, will have to repeat his hard autumn schedule of 2009 to seal his berth in the WTFs for a second time.
Mikhail Youzhny has not been inside the top 10 since February 2008, and few saw it coming in New York. His high-tide mark of No8, however, will probably remain just that. He was a finalist in Tokyo, Moscow (which he won), and Valencia last autumn, and that’s a lot to defend for the rest of the season.
David Ferrer may just be able to play himself into contention for London after a good performance in New York that took him into the top 10 for the first time in two years. With virtually no points to defend before the WTFs, he does have an outside chance of being in the frame come November.
And the last spot? If things improve for the fighting American, it could just be Andy Roddick, who missed out last year because of injury.
Between SE Asia and WTFs, there is the Paris Masters and a clutch of Russia and Europe based tournaments. But the writing is already well and truly on the wall for London.