The last fortnight has been a nail-biting time for many men in the top 15 or so places of the A.T.P. rankings.
Even as the final Masters of the year began this week in Paris, two guaranteed spots at the Tour End Finals were still up for grabs. For some of the players, their destiny was not even on their own rackets.
Nikolay Davydenko, for example, failed to confirm his place in Valencia and had to wait for Fernando Verdasco to lose in Paris.
Verdasco himself, poised at No. 8, had an even more agonizing wait, with his fate in the hands of Fernando Gonzalez, Robin Soderling, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Not until Rafael Nadal’s defeat of Tsonga on Friday did Verdasco heave a sigh of relief.
What did become increasingly clear, however, was that Novak Djokovic was the man to beat not only in Paris but also at the Tour finale.
The Top Ten
1. Novak Djokovic (1,405 points)
(Last Power Ranking: 2, ATP Ranking: 3)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [Winner], Basel [Winner], Shanghai Masters [SF], Beijing [Winner]
It’s hard to believe that Djokovic, despite reaching four Masters finals, had not won a single major this season.
In winning both Paris and Basel he not only took his first Masters of 2009, but also the scalps of Federer and Nadal.
In beating Gael Monfils in the Paris final, he showed stamina and impressive focus. No wonder his roaring, unsmiling celebration was the most pumped up we’ve seen all year.
Prospects for London: he has no injuries, has the best end-of-season record, and is the defending champion— he is one of the favorites.
2. Gael Monfils (656 points)
(Last Power Ranking: NR, ATP Ranking: 13)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [Final], Valencia [R16], Vienna [QF], Shanghai Masters [R16]
All the talk in recent weeks had been of Monfils’ compatriot, Tsonga: Would he repeat his Houdini act of last year to qualify for the Tour End Finals by winning his home tournament?
In the event, it was Monfils who had the French crowd on their feet as he stormed into his first ever Masters final.
A player of enormous promise and potential, Monfils has a flat speed, it is claimed, of 10.4 secs for the 100m. He used all that speed and boundless talent to push Djokovic to the wire. At stake for Monfils was a top-10 ranking and a reserve seat for London. By losing, he handed Tsonga that reserve spot.
3. Rafael Nadal (582 points)
(Last Power Ranking: 3, ATP Ranking: 2)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [SF], Shanghai Masters [Final], Beijing [SF], US Open [SF]
Nadal continues to ride high in the power rankings despite this being, in the past, his least successful phase of the Tour.
He has never won the indoor Paris event. Indeed last year he had to pull out with injury and missed the Masters Cup in Shanghai. But with his extended layoff over the summer, Nadal has posted some decent results on the indoor hard courts. A semifinal place on the very fast Bercy court may not have been what he wanted, but he came through some strong challenges along the way—especially against an inspired Tommy Robredo—and fell to what can only be described as a white-hot performance from Djokovic.
Prospects for London: He seems recovered from injuries, but some have suggested a loss of weight or conditioning. By Nadal’s standards, it’s been a decent run through his least favourite season: He has not won an indoor title since Madrid 2005. Expect him to make the semis, and then he is bound to be a contender for the title.
4. Radek Stepanek (501 points)
(Last Power Ranking: NR, ATP Ranking: 12)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [SF], Basel [SF], Vienna [QF], Shanghai Masters [QF]
Stepanek clearly loves the hard courts, and the indoor hards in particular. He opened 2009 with two wins and a final, and he has hit good form again with the Tour’s return to the hard indoor courts.
Stepanek is at his highest ranking since the summer of 2006: not bad for a 30 year old. His fast serve-volley game, when on song, is a joy, even though his demeanor rarely shows the same grace.
Had he held onto his advantage over Djokovic in Basel or gone on to beat Monfils in Paris, he could have bagged a reserve place for London. As it is, he will pose a real challenge in the Davis Cup final against Spain in December—or would if the indoor court was hard instead of clay.
5. Andy Murray (386 points)
(Last Power Ranking: OLI, ATP Ranking: 4)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [R16], Valencia [Winner], US Open [R16], Cincinnati Masters [SF]
After his long layoff, there were question marks over Murray’s fitness as he came into Valencia. Those were quickly dispelled when he won the tournament, despite a rusty start.
His showing in Paris was not entirely convincing, as he struggled past James Blake in three sets, and went down to Stepanek in three. Murray’s wrist seemed to be holding up, but he showed worrying signs of a groin strain by the end. He will be glad of a week’s rest to recuperate before London.
Prospects for London: The Paris result was his first indoor loss of the season, and Valencia was his sixth title. He is bound to come on strong, on home ground and indoors: a strong semi prospect, with a decent shot at the title.
6. Juan Martin del Potro (382 points)
(Last Power Ranking: 7, ATP Ranking: 5)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [QF], Shanghai Masters [R32], Tokyo [R32], US Open [Winner]
Del Potro continues his poor post-U.S. Open run. He pulled out of Basel, and then had a tough three-setter against Marat Safin at Paris. He looked close to retirement in the next round until his opponent, Fernando Gonzalez, took those honors at one tie-break set apiece.
Del Potro never looked like he was going to make it through another round, and unable to serve, he retired with an abdomen strain at 4-0 down against Stepanek.
Prospects for London: There is currently no further news of his injury, but he looked a tired man even before his Paris retirement. The RR format could well be a step too far for the Argentine.
7. Nikolay Davydenko (380 points)
(Last Power Ranking: 1, ATP Ranking: 7)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [R16], Valencia [SF], Moscow [R32], Shanghai Masters [Winner]
Davydenko remains one of the form players at the tail-end of the season. With the scalps of both Nadal and Djokovic under his belt on the hard courts of Shanghai, he will relish the prospect of similar conditions in London.
He had a decent run in Valencia, eventually taken out by Mikhail Youzhny in a competitive three-setter. He might have preferred to confirm his seventh slot for London with a win over Soderling in Paris, but the Swede needed a good performance of his own, and got it with some big serving and power-play.
Prospects for London: The Russian seems confident and energetic, and is developing some useful all-court tactics and net-play. He made the finals last year and would be a good tip to make at least the semis this time.
8. Roger Federer (357 points)
(Last Power Ranking: 4, ATP Ranking: 1)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [R32], Basel [Final], US Open [Final], Cincinnati [Winner]
Federer had a decent showing at his home-town Basel, though he still lost ranking points by failing to hold the title. The final against Djokovic showed lack of match-play practice, with some problems on timing and over-striking.
Though he played better in Paris, he came up against a man possessed in Julien Benneteau. Few would have beaten the Frenchman hitting such a purple patch, but Federer would almost certainly have liked a few more matches to improve his timing.
Prospects for London: no injuries, but little match-play. Like Nadal, he is looking a little thinner—perhaps family life taking its toll. But London has the year-end No. 1 at stake, which should be incentive enough to drive him into the final stages.
9. Mikhail Youzhny (269 points)
(Last Power Ranking: 9, ATP Ranking: 19)
Last Four Tournaments: Valencia [Final], St. Petersburg [R16], Moscow [Winner], Tokyo [Final]
The Russian’s season ended in Valencia with another excellent showing that has taken him to his highest position in the A.T.P. rankings since the summer of 2008. Perhaps his recent hard-court successes will give him the incentive to perform well on the outdoor equivalents in the new year.
10. Robin Soderling (269 points)
(Last Power Ranking: NR, ATP Ranking: 9)
Last Four Tournaments: Paris Masters [QF], Stockholm [SF], Shanghai Masters [QF], Beijing [SF]
Soderling had to pull out of his semifinal clash with Marcos Baghdatis in Stockholm with injury. However, he came back with a strong performance in Paris to reach the quarterfinals, losing in a three-setter to Djokovic. (Surprisingly, Soderling has never done better in a Masters event.)
With his solid results in the Asian swing, the Swede won the first reserve* place for London, his first time at the event.
Prospects for London: He may get a chance to play should just one of the top eight drop out, and will enjoy the indoor hard courts. But it would require an exceptional performance to get beyond the RR stages.
* With the confirmed withdrawal of Roddick on Tuesday, Soderling is now in the final eight.
Paris marked the last A.T.P. tournament of the year, so the ranking points for the Tour End Finals are now set. However, three names on the firm or reserve lists for London failed to make the final Power Rankings.
Andy Roddick: He confirmed his place for London long ago, but has been out since the first round at Shanghai with a knee injury. There is no word, at the time of writing**, about his status, though his website shows he has a string of charity events lined up for December. Assuming he makes it to London, he will have no recent match play, so he could end the season as he did last year, retiring early at the RR stage.
Fernando Verdasco: The Spaniard gained the eighth spot at the very last minute. He looked tense in losing to Murray in Valencia and to Cilic in Paris. Qualification clearly meant a lot. But now that he’s in the mix, he has the power to cause problems to any opponents who are less than 100 percent, as long as he has enough self-belief.
Jo-Wilfied Tsonga: As second reserve** Tsonga may not be required to play, but there is certainly an outside chance that two of the top eight, Del Potro and Roddick, may succumb to injury early on. If that happens, Tsonga is on his favorite surface, and talented enough to cause an upset. Whether he can maintain consistency against the best players across several matches is another question.
** Roddick has since confirmed his withdrawal. Tsonga thus becomes first reserve.
The Other Year-End Prize
Federer’s early exit in Paris has left the door ajar for Nadal to steal the year-end No. 1 ranking.
If Nadal had won Paris, his task would have been easier. As it is, Nadal will either need to reach the finals in London and see Federer lose all his RR matches, or win the tournament and see Federer lose at least one RR match. The last permutation is that Federer wins two of his three RRs, in which case Nadal needs to win the tournament undefeated.
In short, the year-end No. 1 looks like it's Federer's to lose.