Heading East: Race heats up in Asia as Zverev, Thiem and Goffin target London debuts
The race to the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November is hotting up, with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer the only two players to have qualified so far
So it’s farewell to North America, to the Majors, and—for most—to Davis Cup.
But after the gruelling heat and hard courts of Montreal, Cincinnati, and New York, and the intense three-day, best-of-five schedule of Davis Cup, the sweat and toil continues on the other side of the globe. For the tour has headed East for the Asian Swing, and five points-rich tournaments in just over three demanding weeks.
Demanding because the distances are vast, the climate conditions challenging, and the time to adjust from jet lag and the late summer schedule, is so limited.
And it is worth putting the scale of the adjustments required by these elite athletes into context. From New York to South China’s Shenzhen is over 8,000 miles and a 12-hour time difference. Between London and the other ATP250 in the heart of China, Chengdu, it is 5,200 miles with a flight journey of almost 12 hours.
But factor in temperatures in the 30s and humidity in the 90s, and the challenges are multiplied.
Straight after those Chinese appetisers comes a pair of lucrative 500s: Take your pick from Tokyo and Beijing. And immediately after that is the spectacular Shanghai Masters, played in one of the most magnificent arenas in tennis, the Qi Zhong stadium. Yet the distances and the conditions continue to punish.
However, the rewards that beckon the successful drive the young and the bold towards what could be a place at the season finale at the O2 in London, in a few weeks’ time.
For this year in particular, those rewards seem a little more attainable. Former World Tour Finals champion Novak Djokovic is out for the rest of the year, as are Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori.
Defending WTF champion Andy Murray has been unable to play since Wimbledon, and continues to rehab a hip injury not only through the Asian swing but also, he has suggested, through the Europe indoor tournaments that usher in London.
Milos Raonic, who reached the semis at the O2 last year, has missed many weeks following wrist surgery, and even if he makes it back to competition in October, he faces a near impossible battle to rise from 18 in the Race to qualification level.
Little wonder, then, that a number of new faces are pushing hard against an opening door. A few of them have been round the block a few times, but are enjoying career highs: Sam Querrey, Kevin Anderson, Roberto Bautista Agut are pursuing a place among the elite for the first time.
Three 26-year-olds are making a strong case for a place, too.
Grigor Dimitrov, with three titles this year, including his first Masters in Cincinnati, has gone from No40 a year ago to equal his career-high No8 of three years ago. In the Race, he is at No6, and pacing himself carefully. His first appearance since the US Open is in Beijing next week, though the 500 event is packed with other men aspiring to London.
Fellow 26-year-old Pablo Carreno Busta broke the top 10 for the first time after a breakthrough Major semi-final in New York having also made the quarters at Roland Garros and the semis at Indian Wells. He too has kept his powder dry since the US Open, beginning his Asian campaign in Beijing.
The other 26-year-old hoping for a first stab at the O2 is David Goffin, who entered the top 10 this February after a strong start to the season: quarters at the Australian Open, finals in Sofia and Rotterdam, then semis in Monte-Carlo and quarters in Madrid. Were it not for an accident at Roland Garros that injured his ankle and ended his chances in the third round, he may well have asserted himself still more strongly in the top 10.
As it is, he missed the entire grass swing, and only slowly worked his way back into shape ahead of a fourth-round run at the US Open. Perhaps, compared with fellow competitors, that has boosted his energy levels for the home straight, and he has certainly been putting in the miles since New York.
He was one of a small clutch of London hopefuls to venture onto Europe’s hard courts—in Metz—before heading East: Bautista Agut and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga opted into St Petersburg. For Goffin, his two matches came on the back of two gruelling contests in Davis Cup, and his pair of four-set wins helped Belgium to the final. Then following Metz, he flew to Shenzhen—a mere 6,000 plus miles—and has already won three matches to reach the final four.
The Belgian has a heavily taped knee, so could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea if he makes the final: It is another six-hour flight to his next scheduled destination, Tokyo, where play gets under way Monday—and this time no byes.
For an example of the dangers of too little recovery time, look no further than the two youngest men in line for a London place.
At No3 in the standings, 20-year-old Alexander Zverev has impressed throughout the season, notching up 48 wins from 64 matches, and five titles—including two Masters in Rome and Montreal. Add in the Halle final, plus wins over the likes of Roger Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Tomas Berdych, and Anderson, and his growing physical stature and confidence have made him a formidable opponent.
No wonder, then, that he was a top pick for Federer and captain Bjorn Borg for the inaugural Laver Cup last weekend. And no wonder this young player steeped in a tennis family and tennis history, wanted to be part of that unique event.
But the Laver Cup was no hit-and-giggle tournament. Every one of the dozen men involved wanted to win for their team-mates and out of respect for the celebrated man himself, Rod Laver.
Zverev proved his star appeal with two singles victories, though the matches were just part of the demands placed on all the players in Prague: launch events, press conferences, interviews, plus cheering on colleagues court-side through every match, took an emotional as well as physical toll.
So come the final post-champagne, late-evening meeting with press on Sunday, and asked what celebrations were planned, he said simply:
“I’m on a plane to China, if anybody wonders.”
The penny dropped with Federer:
“Yeah, honestly, we need a shower, and then we need to figure it out. Some can stay. Some have to go to the tour. We’ll figure it out once we go back to the locker room.”
Yes, Zverev would also lose 12 hours on time difference alone as he raced to Shenzhen. Fortunately, he had a first-round bye, but was put through the mill and two and three-quarters hours in his opener against Steve Darcis in punishing humidity. Three times he came from behind to win, 4-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(5), but looked dead on his feet. Sure enough, come the quarters, and his left ankle was causing problems and he went down in straight sets.
Will he have enough to make inroads in Beijing in a few days’ time? Even if he does not go deep there or in Shanghai, he has a good margin in the Race over most except Dominic Thiem—and there lies another Laver Cup story.
The 24-year-old Austrian played and won just one match in Prague, but that was on the back of two wins in Davis Cup. And he could not make it past his opener in Chengdu. That may be to his benefit, of course, with a little more recovery time, even though he is making the longer onward journey to Tokyo.
Just how far these young men can push things—especially with the arrival of the top men, Rafael Nadal and Federer, who are involved in their own race for No1—remains to be seen. As always, these closing weeks are packed with questions, but what does not seem in doubt is that there will be some new faces among the elite eight in London this year.
Race to London, and where playing rest of Asia swing
1 Rafael Nadal [qualified] — Beijing, Shanghai
2 Roger Federer [qualified] — Shanghai
3 Alexander Zverev — Beijing, Shanghai
4 Dominic Thiem — Tokyo, Shanghai
[Stan Wawrinka out injured]
5 Grigor Dimitrov — Beijing, Shanghai
6 Marin Cilic — Tokyo, Shanghai
7 Pablo Carreno Busta — Beijing, Shanghai
[Novak Djokovic out injured]
8 Sam Querrey — Tokyo, Shanghai
9 Kevin Anderson — Tokyo, Shanghai
10 Andy Murray — None
11 David Goffin — Tokyo, Shanghai
12 Tomas Berdych — Beijing, Shanghai
13 Roberto Bautista Agut — Beijing, Shanghai
[Kei Nishikori out injured]