It seems like history repeating. The 2009 men’s tour is approaching its final stages, and the jostling for position at the top of the rankings is working up a real head of steam.
The prize is one of eight places in the World Tour Finals in London.
And right up there, pushing for a last-minute spot—in a scenario almost identical to the one in 2008—are France’s best: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon.
Just three places remain for the London finale, and one of those has Andy Roddick’s name all but engraved on it.
Which means that the remaining handful of ATP tournaments—offering their last-minute opportunity for valuable ranking points—is taking on ever greater significance for the hopeful handful hovering between Nos. 7 and 12. And each of those players is applying the thumbscrews to their opponents.
First, world No. 8 Nikolay Davydenko beat No. 9 Fernando Verdasco for the Kuala Lumpur title last week. Robin Soderling and Fernando Gonzalez, just below them at Nos. 11 and 12, also stole some valuable points by reaching the semis.
Soderling this week took another step nearer the Finals with his semi place in Beijing, while Verdasco and Davydenko picked up 90 points from quarter-final places.
But back to those two Frenchmen.
Simon—currently at No. 10—last week took the Bangkok trophy, his first ATP title of the season, having been the only top 10 player without a title this season.
The win will do him no harm at all in his race to reach the Tour Final. And he finds himself in a situation with which he is very familiar.
At exactly this point last year, Simon was also No. 10 in the world, and was also making a strong late run.
Indeed, in Madrid—the indoor Masters that Shanghai replaces this week—he made it all the way to the final. He followed that, the very next week, with a semi run in Lyon.
By the beginning of November, he was world No. 9. And by the skin of his teeth, he made the trip to Shanghai when Rafael Nadal had to pull out with injury.
It seemed, at that time, that Simon’s skills and speed—as well as a gift for coming back from the dead to win matches that seemed lost—would carry him further.
There is something of Davydenko about him: slight, wiry, and determined. He has great court coverage, endless energy, and good all-round skills without one particular stand-out shot.
Against the current crop of players, that is not enough to help him climb further. But he’s a grafter and a fighter who cashes in rapidly on an opponent's off-day.
He also, it would seem, gets a second wind on the late-season hard courts, especially indoors.
Whether that autumn surge will pick up enough points to help him squeeze one of those last places remains to be seen.
Tsonga, though, appears to be a far more comfortable proposition in the race to the Tour Finals.
The current world No. 7 won this week’s Japanese Open in classy style, with sparkling wins over Gael Monfils in the semis and Mikhail Youzhny in the final.
Tsonga looks and sounds confident going into Shanghai. But things were less rosy at the latter stages of 2008. As he prepared for the final Masters event of the year in Paris, Tsonga was still down at 14 in the rankings, and David Nalbandian held the crucial No. 8.
The script for that tournament could not have been better, as these two players fought their way to an all-or-nothing final. Tsonga won and stole the No. 8 ranking. Nalbandian dropped out of contention at 11.
It seems appropriate, this year, that Tsonga should hold the superior position over Simon.
When he burst onto the scene at the 2008 Australian Open, the tennis world let out a cheer, because he brings charisma, creativity, and flair to the tennis court like few others in the top 20.
Tsonga has faced two particular challenges, though.
First, he has had to overcome a number of niggling injuries that took him off the boil at various stages during the last 18 months.
Second, he has had to develop more focus in order to channel his multiple talents into winning several matches on the trot.
With three titles to his name this year, he seems to be well on his way to mastering both challenges.
Tsonga, by his own admission, likes the Asian swing, and plays at his best on hard courts. All his titles this year have come on indoor or outdoor hard surfaces that show off his big serve, athletic volleying, and variety of spin to their greatest advantage.
Tsonga himself looks trimmer and more agile, his demeanour quieter and more focused.
The backhand can still be a little wayward, which encourages him to run around to his forehand more than he should. The rewards from his nimble footwork and piercing drives, however, usually counter any disadvantage.
He has great touch that allows him pick up balls from his feet, often on his way to attack the net. And when he’s at the front of the court, his shot-making can verge on genius.
Tsonga’s comment after winning in Tokyo, reinforces what was clear from his performance: “I have so much confidence going into Shanghai and the indoor events. It’s a great time of the year for me.”
It’s a good time of year for French tennis in general. Tsonga is lined up for one of the spare London slots. Simon is not far behind, and he is hot on the tail of another aspirant finalist, Verdasco.
The next few weeks will determine whether France, rather than Spain, is once again, the only country boasting two men in the Tour Final.
That would be some achievement over their all-conquering European neighbours.
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