Race to London heats up in Asia: Del Potro, Zverev, Anderson edge to qualification – and Djokovic targets No1

Novak Djokovic is eyeing the world number one ranking as the race to the ATP Finals in London continues to heat up

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic

The long North American swing has faded into the distance of the rear-view mirror and, for a few weeks, it is the Far East that takes centre stage on the tennis tour—one of the fastest growing and most lucrative phases of the year.

China in particular has taken to tennis like a duck to water, building world-beating venues and cultivating sponsors to provide the biggest prize. No ATP500 offers more than the China Open in Beijing this week—a purse of more than $4.6 million—and no Masters can match the $9.2 million offered by the Rolex Shanghai Masters next week.

This is, in short, an eye-watering month, and worthy of the huge, time-zone-busting journeys that the top players face.

But the financial rewards are just one element in the tennis equation at this time of the year. The opportunities to qualify for the season-ending finale in London are diminishing fast, with these three Asian tournaments followed by only six more as the tour heads indoors for its final push towards mid-November. And of those six, players can fit in a maximum of three—a 250, a 500, and the Paris Masters, a maximum of 1,750 points should any man win three of them back-to-back.

So the door is closing: All the more reason to chase big points in the coming dozen days.

No1 ranking up for grabs

Notably, the three who have qualified for London already, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer—the three Major champions this year—are not in action in the either of the ATP500s in Beijing and Tokyo this week, although somewhat bizarrely, Federer is a high-profile visitor to Japan for publicity events with his new [Japanese] clothing sponsor Uniqlo.

As for Djokovic, he is in the best possible position going into Shanghai. Last year, he did not play any events after Wimbledon, so has no points to defend, only points to gain.

Meanwhile Nadal, who won in Beijing and was runner-up in Shanghai, will miss both tournaments this autumn as he rehabs the knee injury that forced his retirement in the semis of the US Open. He announced last month:

“Although this knee pain is nothing new to me, we have decided that I won’t be playing the Asian swing in Beijing and Shanghai. I need to rest and recover my knee as always.”

And that gives Djokovic the chance to reach the No1 ranking for the first time in two years and end the year at No1 for a fifth time.

Talking to the media from Belgrade, where the Serb has returned after his US Open victory and excursion to Chicago for the Laver Cup, he made no secret of his ambition for both milestones. According to the AFP, he admitted:

“I planned to be here [in Belgrade] with my family… and everything is set so that I’m again in the race for No1.”

He is certainly in the best position of the current top-ranked players to make a charge to the top. Nadal has 180 more points to defend in Paris, while Federer, currently third in the Race, has championship points to defend not just in Shanghai but also in Basel later this month.

Del Potro back in the London frame

Then there is Juan Martin del Potro, who this time last year was ranked 24 after making his own steady comeback from injury. This year, he reached a career-high No3 in August after winning his first Masters title in Indian Wells and making impressive runs to the semis at Roland Garros and Miami, the quarters at Wimbledon, and the final of the US Open.

He has only to reach the final in Beijing this week to qualify for London—for the first time since 2013 and 10 years after he first joined the elite eight when the Masters Cup was played in Shanghai. And he has a decent run in prospect if he can get past the impressive young Russian Karen Khachanov in the second round. With No7 seed Borna Coric beaten, del Potro could well set a final showdown with fellow London hopeful, No2 seed Alexander Zverev.

However, while the No1 ranking is, in theory, also possible for the big Argentine, he would have to make an extraordinary run to the end of the season, including the ATP Finals, bearing in mind he has around 1,000 points to defend over the coming month.

Zverev continues to carry #NextGen standard

The young German Zverev has continued to impress after making his real breakthrough to the big time last season: He qualified for the ATP Finals for the first time, at just 20 years old, after topping out his ranking at No3, and this year he has added another Masters title to the two he won in 2017, and made the finals of two more.

Should he win the Beijing title this week, Zverev could also overtake Federer in the Race, so is in line for London again—which would vacate his space at the top of the NextGen Finals Race to Milan.

Anderson, Fognini could make London debut; 2017 finalists Dimitrov and Goffin off the pace

No6 in the Race, Marin Cilic, is aiming for the O2 for the fourth straight year, and began 2018 with a career-high No3 after making his first Australian Open final. But after helping his nation to the Davis Cup final a fortnight ago, he fell at the first hurdle in Tokyo, where he is a two-time former semi-finalist.

Cilic turned 30 last week, leaving Zverev as the only under-30 man in the top six of the rankings. And Cilic will be watching his back as the likes of Dominic Thiem—resting ahead of Shanghai—Kevin Anderson, Kei Nishikori, and Fabio Fognini jostle for position.

Anderson, in particular, is an interesting one to watch. He has ticked off new ‘firsts’ all year: the Wimbledon final, No5 in the rankings, two Masters semis, in Madrid and Toronto, victory over Federer—saving match points—and now hoping to make his first ATP Finals, at the age of 32. He is currently only around 1,000 points behind No5 in the Race, Zverev, and in the overall rankings, he has only 145 points to defend for the rest of the year.

He is, in short, in a strong position to be among the elite come London and the end-of-year ranks, a position helped by the absence of the current Race No9, John Isner, through the Asian swing.

Nishikori is chasing from No10 in the Race, having made a strong comeback from long-standing injury this time last year to rise from a low of 36 in April. He plays Tokyo this week, where he has twice been champion, though he has a tough draw: He shares his half with Benoit Paire, then Stefanos Tsitsipas—himself an outside chance for London after a stunning breakout season—followed by Nick Kyrgios or Anderson. But on his form thus far, and with some decent points in Shanghai, Vienna and Paris, he could well be among the top eight in London for the fourth time.

Conversely, last year’s ATP Finals champion, Grigor Dimitrov and last-minute qualifier Jack Sock, are well adrift of the pace. Both are in the bottom half of the Beijing draw, but already Sock has lost, his 12th first-round loss of the year, and could tumble much further in the overall ranks: After all, he won the Paris Masters last year.

Worth remembering, though, that he lost in the first round of the US Open, Beijing and Shanghai on the bounce last year, so still has time to hold firm on his current No17 ranking, but can do nothing about his extraordinary 165th place in the Race.

There are two more intriguing players among the Race-to-London men. David Goffin, runner-up in London last year, is at No12 in the Race, but is missing the Asian swing. The Belgian has had ill-fortune this year, missing weeks after an eye accident in Rotterdam, forced to retire injured in Cincinnati, and unwell during his first-round exit to Andy Murray in Shenzhen.

He is scheduled to play Antwerp, Basel and Paris, but much will depend on his own fitness, and on the performance of the half dozen men ranged just 85 points behind him—among them, Tsitsipas at No13.

And one place ahead of Goffin is the unexpected name of Fognini, now age 31, and at a career-equalling high. The Italian was runner-up in Chengdu last week, and his first-round win in Beijing takes him to 41 match-wins and three titles this year. He has Stockholm, Vienna and Paris lined up after Shanghai—and the very real chance of making London for the first time.

Race to London: current standings and Asia schedule

1. Rafael Nadal, 7,480 (absent Asian swing)

2. Novak Djokovic, 6,445 (Shanghai)

3. Juan Martin del Potro, 4,955 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)

4. Roger Federer, 4,800 (Shanghai)

5. Alexander Zverev, 4,365 (Beijing, Shanghai)

6. Marin Cilic, 3,815 (lost R1 Tokyo, Shanghai)

7. Dominic Thiem, 3,525 (Shanghai)

8. Kevin Anderson, 3,450 (Tokyo, Shanghai)

9. John Isner, 2,930 (absent Asian swing)

10. Kei Nishikori, 2,565 (Tokyo R2, Shanghai)

11. Fabio Fognini, 2,045 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)

12. David Goffin, 1,785 (absent Asian swing)

13. Stefanos Tsitsipas 1,782 (Tokyo R2, Shanghai)

14. Milos Raonic, 1,755 (Tokyo R2, Shanghai)

15. Grigor Dimitrov, 1,745 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)

16. Pablo Carreno Busta, 1,730 (Shanghai)

17. Marco Cecchinato, 1,719 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)

18. Borna Coric, 1,700 (lost R1 Beijing, Shanghai)

19. Diego Schwartzman, 1,690 (lost R1 Tokyo, Shanghai)

20. Kyle Edmund, 1,630 (Beijing R2, Shanghai)

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