For the last handful of the tennis tour’s top men, a place in the World Tour Finals in London is so close they can almost taste it. The narrowing window of November is slowly eliminating names from the list of possibles, but the race to the Final is set to go right to the wire.
The first six berths for London were decided well before the late indoor tournaments began their final filtering. Five of them were in the same position last year, with tickets already booked for Shanghai: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Andy Roddick.
The sixth certainty for this year, Juan Martin Del Potro, secured his place for London several weeks ago but was, in 2008, still waiting on the sidelines to confirm his place. The sixth certainty last year, Nikolay Davydenko, finds himself in the same position this year. He could have sealed his spot with a win in Valencia but, like several other contenders, he now has to wait for Paris.
Who’s Already Out?
A string of players that was still in contention as October turned to November has already been discarded.
Tommy Robredo lost in Valencia to Fernando Verdasco and, at a stroke, also boosted his compatriot’s claim to London.
David Ferrer, whose chances were dependent on winning in Valencia, instead retired with a leg injury, and Gael Monfils was dropped after his second-round exit.
With 12th hopeful Radek Stepanek’s defeat by Djokovic in the Basel semis, he now has to win in Paris and see Verdasco fail to win any more matches.
The fate of Marin Cilic, 13 in the race, is almost identical: His fate would have been sealed had Verdasco beaten Murray in the Valencia semifinal, and it remains thin to zero.
Who Are The Remaining Contenders For London?
It’s just possible that the final Masters event of 2009 repeats the same trick as last year, and wins a place for its home favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga . Indeed, there’s a certain Groundhog Day feeling about Paris; a sense of history repeating (though there will be no last minute reprieve for Gilles Simon, since his bid for London has also come to an end in Valencia).
Prior to Paris 2008, Tsonga was down at 14 in the rankings, and David Nalbandian held the crucial No. 8 spot. Both fought their way to an all-or-nothing final and, in winning it, Tsonga stole both the No. 8 ranking and Nalbandian’s place in Shanghai.
Tsonga is in a similar position this year, sitting at No. 11 in the year-end race. This time around, however, he has major concerns following a first-round exit from Valencia with a wrist injury.
There is no question, however, that the main favourite, along with Davydenko, must be Verdasco. These two happen to hold the 7th and 8th London slots, and both reached the semifinals in Valencia.
Davydenko , who is currently over 300 points clear of the rest, was in line to confirm his O2 trip by winning in Spain, but went out to fellow Russian, Mikhail Youzhny. Davydenko has been in excellent form since the summer, taking titles in Hamburg, Umag, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai. He is still top choice to fill one of the remaining London places.
Verdasco’s end-of-season has not been as strong as Davydenko’s, his most recent title coming in New Haven. He also lost to the Russian in Kuala Lumpur. However, he is playing very good tennis this week, and the indoor surface suits his powerful game.
He has postponed surgery on his foot in order to make the Tour Finals, and there’s a good chance he’ll seal the deal in Paris.
Robin Soderling , sat at nine in the race, has to reach the final in Paris to keep his hopes alive, but his worry will be the elbow injury that took him out of his home tournament in Stockholm. His fate will be dependent both on that injury and on just how well his opponents play but, like Verdasco, he has the big game to do well both in Paris and in London.
Neither Verdasco nor Soderling has made the year-end finale before. One rank outsider, Fernando Gonzalez , has, and he is ranked 10 in the race. He substantially reduced his chances with a first-found exit in Basel, but may still have an eye to the main chance: perhaps a reserve berth for London.
For what these last few players must not forget is that there is always the possibility that one of the “certainties” may drop out.
Will Injury Play A Part?
Last year, Nadal was injured in Paris and had to withdraw from Shanghai. Roddick injured himself in the round robin phase at the Masters Cup, and Stepanek flew in to take his place after the tournament was under way.
And one only has to look at the injury fall-out from the women’s end-of-year event in Doha to see that reserves can play unexpected part.
So those last remaining men may therefore want to bear a few things in mind.
Del Potro pulled out of Shanghai just a month ago with a wrist injury.
Verdasco did not play a Davis Cup tie in September due to injury, and he requires foot surgery when the season is over.
Davydenko had a catalogue of foot problems early in the year.
Roddick is still nursing a knee injury, and pulled of Paris prior to the draw on Friday.
Nadal is only just back from a long lay-off with abdomen and knee problems, and Murray had to take out six weeks to repair his wrist. Even in Valencia, he turned up at his press conference with an ice-pack.
Federer, too, is just back from a six-week lay-off. There are no signs of injury so far, but last year he carried an injury to Shanghai that he’d sustained in Paris, and went out in the round robin stage.
There are no guarantees and no certainties. So Djokovic, one of the players least troubled by injury this year, and with an excellent run in Basel this week, must really fancy his chances of retaining that year-end title.
He plays Federer in the Basel final. After losses in their two most recent meetings, Djokovic will be keen to reassert his credentials and give himself a boost ahead of his campaign to repeat last year's Shanghai triumph.
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