It’s meant to be the lean part of the ATP tour, the downhill run towards the season-ending World Tour Finals in London.
The Grand Slams have been and gone, the Asian swing has been short and sweet and the chill of northern climes seems to put a dampener on the late indoor tournaments. Stockholm, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna and Basel are all beautiful cities, but are rarely bathed in warmth as autumn dovetails into winter.
This is often the season of injuries, too. Bodies are tired and, as the players succumb to the rigors of more hard court tennis, the strains and stresses start to show. Well, that’s the theory.
But this year, the first month in November in cool northern Europe is pulsing to the rhythm of almost every top-20 player on the tour.
Only Rafael Nadal—pacing himself for the WTFs from the safety of a 4,400 point margin at the top of the rankings—and an injured Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have failed to sign up for the 500 tournaments in Basel and Valencia.
The other 18 have spread their favors evenly between the modern Spanish venue and the medieval Swiss one.
Valencia, enjoying its second year since moving from the spring clay to the autumn hard courts, boasts defending champion Andy Murray and fellow top-eight players Robin Soderling, Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer. The tournament lost world No.10 Mikhail Youzhny at the last moment with a back strain.
The Davidoff Swiss Indoors at Basel, the world’s third-largest indoor tournament, is celebrating its 40th anniversary and its second since promotion to 500 status. In starring roles are hometown boy Roger Federer and fellow top-10 players Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych and Andy Roddick. World Nos. 12 and 17, Jurgen Melzer and Ivan Ljubicic, have also withdrawn with illness.
There are as many motives as men for this extraordinary explosion of tennis. For several, it is the end of a campaign to reach the prestigious WTFs: indeed London is so close that three or four of them can almost taste it.
But with the window closing on the season, the contenders are, one by one, being shut out in the cold. If Valencia and Basel don’t deliver the points, there remains only the Paris Masters.
There are other stories unfolding, too: rivalries, ambitions for 2011, hopes for reclaimed rankings…all of them lighting up the November sky in an unexpectedly colorful display.
By beating Cilic in three sets in Basel, the 29th-ranked Nalbandian put an end to the Croatian’s bid for London.
The Argentine won the Basel title on his tournament debut in 2002 and was a runner-up in 2003, 2004 and 2008, and he will not be daunted by the competition he faces in the top half of a heavyweight draw.
Next up is Andy Roddick, who he beat in their last two meetings in straight sets, and then possibly Federer. Nalbandian is that rare man who has beaten both Federer and Nadal in the finals of two consecutive Masters: Madrid and Paris in 2007. He also beat Federer to take the World Tour Finals title in 2005. So he will not lack confidence against the world No. 2.
Nalbandian has had a great return to the tour this year following major surgery and, despite two more injury breaks that took him out of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, rose from No. 153 in the world in July to inside the top 30.
His motive for Basel? He “will try to break back into the top 10 next year.” In the process he could halt the progress of one man in the frame for London.
Roddick returned a week earlier than anticipated from a three-week injury lay-off to take part in Basel for the first time in seven years. He proceeded to take out his dangerous countryman, Sam Querrey, in the first round and then make light work of Andrey Golubev, 6-3, 6-4, in the second.
In reaching the quarterfinals, Roddick has overtaken Ferrer to take the seventh slot in the race to the WTFs.
The American has qualified for the year-end championships for the past seven years, but he must have felt that history was repeating when he was forced to pull out of Shanghai: He did the same last year and was subsequently unable to play in London.
And in Shanghai the year before, he was also forced out of the WTFs with illness. No wonder he was driven to take part in Basel this week. He will, though, hope for a different result from the one back in 2003: then, he lost to Nalbandian.
Soderling has already qualified for London for the second consecutive year, though he made heavy weather of doing so during the last few weeks. He eventually sealed the deal in Stockholm, despite falling in the quarterfinals.
This week, however, he broke a personal barrier by becoming the fifth player to record 50 match wins this year, the first time he had done so.
He reached No. 50 in style, too, with a 6-2, 6-3 demolition of Daniel Gimeno-Traver in just an hour, and it marks his 13th time in the quarterfinals or better this year—including the last three Grand Slams.
If the big Swede manages a win in Valencia—and with top seed Murray out of the picture, the prospects look better for that result—and if he performs well in Paris, he will soon be nipping at the heels of Murray in the rankings.
Soderling's chances of overtaking the Scot this year look slim, but he will certainly enjoy a new end-of-year high for the fifth successive year.
The roadrunner Ferrer has gradually been playing himself into contention for the WTFs since New York, where only an outstanding match from Verdasco could fight off one of the biggest hearts in the game in a five-set marathon. It still took Ferrer into the top 10 for the first time in two years.
The indoor season may not offer his best surface, but the Spaniard is helping his cause by learning to attack the net more. He was runner-up in Beijing, one of four finals—including the Rome Masters—this year. His 55 match wins are second only to Nadal this year and the second highest of his career.
Ferrer sits eighth in the race to London and must reach the Valencia final to add points. He is playing on home ground in Valencia, though, where he is joint owner of the event. A good run in Paris next week could confirm that hard-won London place and, by-the-by, boost his ATP ranking.
His pride was undoubtedly wounded in Basel in 2009. After all, Federer had won his home tournament for three successive years until Djokovic wrenched the trophy from his hands in last year’s final. So the prospect of revenge against the same man in the 2010 final must be very sweet.
Thus far, everything has gone to plan, with straightforward progress to the quarters. But it’s been the same for Djokovic, and from here on, things look a little more tricky. In what has turned into a top-heavy draw, Federer faces Radek Stepanek and then either Nalbandian or Roddick, both men on a mission.
Meanwhile, Djokovic has no seeds in view, though Richard Gasquet in the semis may prove to be a test.
Federer has reached two consecutive finals in as many weeks—Shanghai and Stockholm. He now faces the possibility of a fourth confrontation with Djokovic from the last five tournaments they have both played. Theirs is indeed becoming one of the key rivalries of the tour, and any meeting is certain to bring both quality tennis and high tension to the court.
After losing in front of an adoring Swiss crowd last year, there could be some extra fireworks if they do indeed face off for the Basel title.
There’s another big prize up for grabs the week after Basel: the final Masters of the year in Paris. It’s the only Masters on the tour where Federer has yet to reach the final. It would put him equal with Nadal in Masters titles and, to add a little more spark to the occasion, Djokovic is also the title-holder there. What’s more, they are separated by just 350 points in the rankings.
Suddenly, it all becomes clear why the two men who qualified for London long ago are throwing their weight into the last few weeks of the season.
Verdasco is bidding to qualify for London for the second year in a row and, just like last year, he remains on the very edge of qualification right up to the last moment.
The good news in Valencia is that he won his first round match. The bad news is that it was only his first win since his quarterfinal exit at the U.S. Open. And he has since lost his second round match to Gilles Simon in under an hour.
The Verdasco story since the clay season has certainly not been a happy one, and he will need an outstanding run in Paris to ensure he rises from ninth place in the race to the top eight.
Right behind Verdasco in the race is Youzhny, who opened his Asian campaign with a bang by winning at Kuala Lumpur. However, he failed to keep the momentum going, falling in the first round at both Beijing and Shanghai.
Although he pulled out of Moscow with a viral infection, he reached the finals of St. Petersburg and things looked back on course when the Russian equalled his highest ever ranking of eight just last month.
But once again, he’s been struck down, this time with a back strain, and will lose valuable points. Unless he makes Paris, and performs well there, he will lose out to one of the surprise packages of the year.
Melzer is enjoying the best year of his career: some achievement at 29. He reached a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time at Roland Garros and then won the doubles title at Wimbledon.
He beat Nadal in the third round at Shanghai and went on to take the doubles title there. Only last week, he also won the Vienna title.
Melzer has already qualified for the WTFs in doubles and, ranked at an all-time high of 12, he was hoping to qualify for the singles, too.
Things could not have looked better until he was forced to withdraw from Basel this week, and his only consolation can be that Youzhny is in the same injury boat and Verdasco is all at sea.
The last player who seemed guaranteed to qualify just a few weeks back was Berdych, who has sat comfortably within the top eight since the late summer. His campaign fizzled after Wimbledon, where he reached his first Grand Slam final, and he has since managed just seven wins to 11 losses.
Things have continued badly in Basel, with defeat in the first round to lucky loser Tobias Kamke, 6-4, 6-1. Berdych’s hopes, like those of several other men, now rest on his performance in Paris.
It’s proving to be one of the closest ever races for the year-end final and just who will fill those last three places is anyone’s guess.
Roddick and Ferrer look like good choices for slots six and seven, but it would be a very foolish person to predict the eighth…