London awaits, as Cilic and Goffin chase crucial points at the Swiss Indoors
Marin Cilic and David Goffin look to seal a place in London as Tomas Berdych suffers a surprise defeat
It has been along time since the World Tour Finals promised so many new faces at the season finale. But then it has been a long time since two of the stalwarts among the top eight, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have both been out of the reckoning.
Nadal has qualified every year since 2005, made the final twice, and the semis three times, and was still in the top eight when he removed himself from 2016 contention to focus on healing the wrist injury that forced him out of the French Open.
Federer has not missed the tournament since he first qualified in 2002—that’s 14 consecutive appearances, 10 of them producing finals runs, and six of them titles. But he, too, removed himself from the Race after Wimbledon: The knee that underwent surgery after the Australian Open was simply not right. Time is a great healer, but the tennis tour is a harsh mistress. He could not take part in London even if he wanted to, ranked at 14 in the Race as he is.
But the silver lining is that at least two of the remaining three places could be filled by some new names, and already, two of the those locked in are relative newcomers to the World Tour Finals: Kei Nishikori has made the cut for the last two years, Milos Raonic just once, in 2014.
The most surprising debutant, and next in line to qualify, is 30-year-old Gael Monfils, who has been putting together the best season since he hit his previous career-high of No7 in 2011. He already has 10 more match-wins than back then.
The athletic Frenchman is currently No6 in the Race, and while his ranking has stalled since his semi-final run at the US Open—he won just a single match in Shanghai and Stockholm combined—it will be an ill wind that blows him off course to London, even though he is not playing this week.
The freshest face in London could be that of No8 in the Race [No7 in practice], 23-year-old Dominic Thiem. His 56 wins and four titles during 2016 have thrown the young Austrian into the limelight, and he goes for the killer blow in his home tournament of Vienna this week.
Tomas Berdych, another stalwart of the World Tour Finals for the last six years, put his qualification on hold after missing the US Open with appendicitis. He battled to a win in Shenzhen on his return, but lost in the first round of Tokyo and Shanghai. His latest chance to qualify also comes in Vienna.
But Basel, where Federer and Nadal contested the title last year, is offering up not just the chance of a fresh name on the trophy after being dominated by the Swiss star, but a chance to close in on London.
Riding high at No10 in the Race—effectively No9 with Nadal’s withdrawal—is 25-year-old David Goffin. The Belgian’s position has been hard earned in his best ever year: He began with back-to-back semi runs in the big Masters of Indian Wells and Miami, made his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland Garros, and added two more quarter finishes in Masters.
But while Goffin was the losing finalist here in 2014, he has failed to win a title since that same year, and finds himself in a tough quarter at the Swiss Indoors.
An opener against the unpredictable flair of Marcos Baghdatis, who has beaten him four times in five matches, is likely to be followed by the unseeded Juan Martin del Potro. The big Argentine is the only former champion in the draw here—twice over—and made an impressive return to the tour from wrist injury to beat both No1 Novak Djokovic and Nadal on his way to the silver medal in Rio.
As if the Argentine’s unbroken 10-match streak in Basel through 2012 and 2013 was not enough, he arrives here having won his first title in almost two years in Stockholm.
Should Goffin get past that big hurdle, he is scheduled to meet Nishikori in the quarters, and the Japanese star has beaten the Belgian in all three previous meetings, all of them last year.
This is only Nishikori’s third visit to Basel, but in his first in 2011, he made it all the way to the final. If there is one question-mark over the No3 seed, however, it is his fitness. He has completed just one match since reaching the semis at the US Open, retiring in his second match in Tokyo with a hip injury.
On paper, his first match here against the No77-ranked Serbian Dusan Lajovic promised to be a one-sided affair, but the first set was anything but. Lajovic stayed with Nishikori through long early points, though if there was one weakness, it was his one-handed backhand.
Even so, Nishikori could not shake him off until the very end of the first set, bringing up the first break points and converting the second—courtesy of a wide Lajovic backhand—for 7-5.
That broke the Serbian will, the errors sprayed, and Nishikori broke immediately. He did offer up his only break point of the match in the third game, but righted the ship to hold, and led 5-0 before Lajovic got a game on the board. But the second set was done in barely 20 minutes, 6-1.
It was, of course, more important that Cilic win his first game to keep his London hopes alive, but he had a tough opener against veteran Mikhail Youzhny, who owned a 5-4 lead over the Croat.
They had not played in well over three years, and the Russian is not the force he once was, but even so, there was little between them in the first set. One break early on to Cilic did it, 6-4, with just one break opportunity apiece.
The second set began in the same vein with an early Cilic break for 2-1, but this time, the rust in the Youzhny game began to show, and the Croat served it out to love with an ace, 6-2, in just 66 minutes.
Cilic’s route is still a tough one, with Pablo Carreno Busta, at a career-high of 32 this week after winning the Kremlin Cup, the likely second-round opponent.
The Croat’s first seed could be the in-form Jack Sock, finalist in Stockholm, followed by either No1 seed Stan Wawrinka or the yesterday’s Antwerp champion, Richard Gasquet.
Neither Cilic nor Goffin can seal a London place this week, even with a win in Basel. There are still the big points of the Paris Masters to come next week, and at least half a dozen competitors for those last three London places. However an early loss may seal their fates.
But one more piece of fortune for Cilic and Goffin arrived from Vienna, though it was a blow for Berdych. The Czech lost his first match in Vienna to Nikoloz Basilashvili, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-5.