Far East and London beckon Andy Murray towards No3
Scot is closing in on Roger Federer's No3 spot in the world rankings as the season reaches its climax
The courts may be hard, the journey may be long, the clocks may be unforgiving, but there is a certain glamour to the names that make up the three weeks of tennis’s Asian Swing.
The short but sweet hard-court expedition to the Far East begins in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur before cranking up the energy at a pair of 500s in Tokyo and Beijing.
The climax comes in the second week of October at the penultimate Masters of the year in stunning Shanghai.
And although this phase of the tour takes a heavy toll measured by time zones, the magnolia-roofed Qizhong arena has been voted the players’ favourite Masters ever since it hosted the Masters Cup in 2008.
The Asian Swing also takes a toll by virtue of its place in the calendar. With nine months of matches in their bodies and four Grand Slams under their feet, the players sense they are in the home stretch towards the season’s finishing line.
Timely, then, that talks about the gruelling schedule are up for discussion in Shanghai. Noteworthy, too, that some key men have already fallen by the wayside. Roger Federer will not make the Far Eastern journey at all; Robin Soderling has not recovered from glandular fever; injuries to Tomas Berdych and Mikhail Youzhny prevent them from fulfilling their Kuala Lumpur commitments.
As for Novak Djokovic, there is still doubt about whether the injuries he sustained in New York will allow him to participate: “I am feeling better but I am still unsure of playing in Beijing and Shanghai. I will know on Friday.”
The only man in the top quartet to begin his campaign this week has, perversely, been one of the most vociferous about the over-crowded schedule: Andy Murray. It is also worth noting, though, that the top four men have so far played fewer tournaments this year than anyone else in the top 50.
Murray starts his Shanghai build-up in Bangkok, the venue of his first ATP final six years ago. With Tokyo next week and Shanghai the week after, it is an intense programme that suggests a determination to build some strong momentum towards his Shanghai defence.
He faces two strong French opponents in the Bangkok draw who are both in contention for the World Tour Finals (WTF): No2 seed Gael Monfils and No3 seed Gilles Simon, who won the Thai title two years ago.
Simon and Monfils are amongst a band of 10 or so men whose performance in Asia may take them to the year-end climax in London””detailed below. Murray has already sealed his place for the WTFs, but he is part of another fascinating ranking story that could unfold as the year comes to a close.
No doubt Murray has planned his schedule primarily with a view to defending his Shanghai title, but he can also put on points in the overall rankings if he performs well in Bangkok and then improves on last year’s quarter-final finish when he gets to Tokyo. And those extra points could be the first step towards overtaking Federer in the rankings for the first time in his career.
This time last year, Federer followed up his semi-final loss to Djokovic at the US Open with an outstanding three-month run. He reached the final in Shanghai, won in Stockholm and Basel, made the semis in Paris and won the WTFs.
With the news that he will not play in Shanghai, Federer immediately forfeited 600 points. He had already dropped Stockholm from his schedule””conceding another 250 points. He is therefore under pressure to perform at his highest level to the very end of the season if he is to defend his ranking.
But if Federer fails to win Basel and then loses one of his round-robin matches in London””even if he goes on to win the title””he may be overtaken by Murray.
The current No4 will, of course, have to perform consistently well throughout the autumn, but with a final and three semi-final finishes in Grand Slams this year, there is every reason to think he can maintain a high level until London.
Uncertainties remain, of course. Will Djokovic be able to impose himself on the end-of-season tournaments as he has done through the rest of 2011? He plays Federer in Basel and in London and could singlehandedly deny the Swiss his defence of both titles.
Will Nadal defend his Tokyo title at the expense of Murray and deprive him of a repeat in Shanghai? Nadal has won their last five matches on all surfaces.
One thing’s for sure – the remaining weeks of the 2011 season promise intrigue, and possibly upsets, as the tour distils down to the final eight for London.
Race to London: the contenders
(Results from last year affect only the overall rankings not the rankings to qualify for London.)
1 Novak Djokovic, 13,295 points
Fifth straight year to qualify: winner 2008; semis 2010.
Scheduled to play: Beijing, Shanghai, Basel, Paris, WTFs (awaiting announcement on fitness to play Asia).
Results 2010: won Beijing, semis Shanghai, final Basel, third round Paris, semis WTFs.
2 Rafael Nadal, 9,110 points
Seventh straight year to qualify: final 2010; semis 2006, 2007; injured 2008.
Scheduled to play: Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, WTFs.
Results 2010: semis Bangkok, won Tokyo, third round Shanghai, final WTFs (did not play Paris).
3 Andy Murray, 5,450 points
Fourth straight year to qualify: semis 2008, 2010
Scheduled to play: Bangkok, Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris, WTFs.
Results 2010: quarters Beijing, won Shanghai, second round Valencia, quarters Paris, semis WTFs.
4 Roger Federer, 5,185 points
Tenth straight year to qualify: winner 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010; final 2005; semis 2002, 2009.
Scheduled to play: Basel, Paris, WTFs (pulled out of Shanghai).
Results 2010: final Shanghai, won Stockholm, won Basel, semis Paris, won WTFs.
Favourites to qualify (including reserve spot)
David Ferrer, 3,670 points
Qualified twice: final 2007; RR 2010.
Scheduled to play: Tokyo, Shanghai, Valencia, Paris.
Results 2010: semis Kuala Lumpur, final Beijing, fourth round Shanghai, fourth round Paris, won Valenicia, RR WTFs.
Mardy Fish, 2,685 points
Scheduled to play: Tokyo, Shanghai, Basel, Paris.
Results 2010: fourth round Beijing (did not play rest of season””chance to rise to highest ever ranking by end of year).
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 2,600 points
Scheduled to play: Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Valencia, Paris.
Results 2010: first round Tokyo, quarters Shanghai, first round Moscow, semis Montpellier.
Juan Martin del Potro, 2,050 points
Qualified twice: final 2009.
Scheduled to play: Shanghai, Stockholm, Vienna, Valencia, Paris.
Results 2010: first round Bangkok, first round Tokyo (did not play rest of season””chance to break top 10 by end of year).
Tomas Berdych, 2,350 points
Scheduled to play: Beijing, Shanghai, Paris (but pulled out of Kuala Lumpur with shoulder injury).
Results 2010: quarters Kuala Lumpur, fourth round Shanghai, fourth round Paris.
Nicolas Almagro, 2,280 points
Scheduled to play: Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Shanghai, Valencia, Paris.
Robin Soderling, 2,080 points
Qualified twice: semis 2009.
Scheduled to play: Stockholm, Valencia, Paris (but pulled out of Shanghai with glandular fever).
Gilles Simon, 2,020 points
Qualified 2008, semis.
Scheduled to play: Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, St Petersburg, Paris.
Janko Tipsarevic, 1,805 points
Scheduled to play: Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Shanghai, Moscow, St Petersburg, Paris.
Gael Monfils, 1,765 points
Scheduled to play: Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, Stockholm, Valencia, Paris.
Richard Gasquet, 1,675 points
Scheduled to play: Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris.
Alexandr Dolgopolov, 1,655 points
Scheduled to play: Beijing, Shanghai, Moscow, St Petersburg, Paris.