Race heats up as Nadal, Ferrer and Nishikori reach quarters but Berdych falls
The race for the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals is heating up as Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori all seal wins
With only four of the eight places at the ATP World Tour Finals filled—by Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka—the chasing men in the Race to London know there is all to play for at this week’s 500s in Tokyo and Beijing.
The window is slowly closing on chances to gain the points that could assure one of the four remaining places—plus a ninth reserve. And that is aside from the fact that the big names are still after many of the spoils for themselves. Djokovic headlines the seeds in Beijing and Wawrinka in Tokyo, and they will be joined by Federer and Murray at the remaining Masters in Shanghai and Paris.
This, too, is an arduous phase of the season, following hard on the long and demanding US Open Series, and with big journey times and jet lag to contend with. Already this week, No5 in the Race Tomas Berdych has fallen at the first hurdle in Beijing after winning a rain-delayed final in Shenzhen.
He explained just how tough this month can be: “It’s always a difficult part of the year. We have to travel a lot. The conditions are always very different, very difficult, week by week here in China. It’s not easy to adjust.”
The US Open quarter-finalist Richard Gasquet, currently No9 in the Race, also lost in the first round in Tokyo, as did Kevin Anderson, who stands at a career-high No12 after also reaching his first Major quarter-final in New York.
Meanwhile, No12 in the Race, Milos Raonic, who made his debut at the World Tour Finals last year, continued his patchy, injury-hindered hard-court season by also losing in the first round in Beijing.
And with fewer than a 1,000 points separating Gasquet at No9 and Gael Monfils at No20, early losses can make a big difference. Indeed, with only 455 points separating Nos 9 and 15, there is sure to be some jostling for position as the draws unfold. No11 John Isner, No13 Marin Cilic and No14 Gilles Simon could all usurp Gasquet—Isner by reaching the Beijing final, Cilic and Simon if they win in Tokyo.
However, it is surely only a matter of time until Berdych seals his place for the sixth straight year, while iron-man David Ferrer, though still in eighth position, is showing the kind of form that his colleagues have come to expect from the evergreen 33-year-old.
Like Berdych, Ferrer was a winner at the weekend, winning his fourth title of the season in Kuala Lumpur. And already he has made his way to the Beijing quarters via two tricky players in Thomaz Bellucci and now Lukas Rosol. From 3-5 down in the first set, Ferrer won 10 out of 13 games to beat the Czech, 7-6, 6-2.
Ferrer is never a welcome opponent, but he may be even less so this autumn. After a strong start to the year, he picked up a rare injury that saw him manage just one match between the French and US Opens. So while he may have 56 matches under his belt, he will be fresher through this closing swing than usual.
But what of that fourth member of the ‘big four’, who finds himself just one place above Ferrer in the Race at No7?
Rafael Nadal’s progress to Beijing’s second round was not entirely straightforward against the Chinese wild card, No230-ranked Di Wu. It took him an hour and a half to win, 6-4, 6-4, and he suffered multiple breaks in the second set to trail 4-2 until he found his baseline groove.
Nadal next faced a bigger test in the shape of 6ft 4in Canadian Vasek Pospisil, a former No25, currently ranked 44, who reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in an otherwise a patchy season.
It was the big-hitting Pospisil’s first meeting with Nadal, but the Canadian had proven his worth against Federer, taking the Swiss to deciding sets on his favourites courts in Cincinnati and Basel. He had not been a walk-over for Murray in that Wimbledon quarter-final either, and he held his own, 3-6, 5-7, against Djokovic at this tournament last year.
So Nadal, whose return to form from injury and illness at the end of last year had taken longer than expected, would need to produce better tennis than he had in the first round, and he did just that.
Pospisil, as expected, was strong on serve, and in addition to his 10 aces, he used it to attack the net often and with some success. It was easy to see how he and Jack Sock had won the Wimbledon doubles title last year, and the Indian Wells title this year. He would end the match with 16 points from 25 net attacks.
A couple of break points came and went in the first and eighth games, but the Canadian held them off, and after a finely-contest hour, the two men headed to a tie-break.
Now Nadal took the early advantage, and despite a superb lob winner to stay in touch at 2-4, Pospisil made a couple of errors at key moments—a netted forehand for 2-5, for example—and Nadal punished him, 7-6(3).
Pospisil had made 16 winners to Nadal’s four, but it was his error count that let him down. A double fault in the fifth game and a dreadful netted forehand conceded the one break of the match, and Nadal visibly relaxed into the job in hand, hitting some signature running passes and quality serves. The Spaniard served out the win, 6-4, after an hour and three-quarters.
It has been Nadal’s declared target for this season to qualify for the World Tour Finals: He did so last year but was forced to withdraw. He took a step closer to that goal via Pospisil and, as luck would have it, will now try to do the same against the Canadian’s friend and doubles partner Sock.
The 23-year-old American pushed Nadal to four sets at Roland Garros this year, and is close to a career-high No30. Expect more high-octane hitting, but expect, too, more sweat and toil from one of the toughest men ever to wield a racket—with or without his eye on that end-of-year prize. Nadal is on a mission.