Tennis superstars rarely run marathons (with the exception of Caroline Wozniacki), but it’s the most fitting sports parallel for the top men who endure the year-long race to qualify for the 2016 World Tour Finals.
They must grind from Australia’s summer heat in January to New York’s blazing nights in September, and along the way battle through Paris’ red clay and London’s slick grass.
By the time the U.S. Open ends in mid-September, tennis stars could be forgiven for hitting the proverbial wall, needing time to heal from injuries and the mental exhaustion of competing on the ATP tour.
In the 26.2 miles required to run a marathon, runners often meet their greatest trials of endurance in the final 6.2 miles where the difference between greatness and failure is measured. Willpower and training are most needed to push even the greatest competitors to the finish line.
Men’s tennis has now entered this home stretch, the race to place in the top eight of the rankings by early November—after the motivation of the Grand Slam season has been left in the dust—and the daunting distant travel to the Far East can take its toll.
Which of the top stars will be able to cruise to the tape, and which players must step faster to hold off the footsteps that are tramping closer behind?
Race to London
The ATP rankings feature the Race to London on the home menu of ATP World Tour.
Unlike the momentary rankings that calculate each player’s points for the previous calendar year, the Race to London adds the tournament points each player gains since the start of 2016, needing to be filled with however many tournaments are left until November’s WTF in the English capital.
Only the top eight players in the rankings are selected for London. Here are the current standings as compiled by ATP World Tour on Twitter:
The results show that three stars have already crossed the finish line and can somewhat enjoy the recovery banquet and clap their hands for the next five elite.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has topped 10,000 points already, and even if he pulls out of competition to heal from nagging injuries, he will finish no lower than No. 2 by the end of the year.
Andy Murray had a terrific summer charge in winning Wimbledon and the Olympics gold medal in singles. He is over 2,000 points behind Djokovic, but if he wins a couple huge tournaments and the Serb is sidelined, he could finally track down his bigger rival.
Stan Wawrinka clinched his berth at the O2 Arena in London by winning the U.S. Open last week, but he’s competing at St. Petersburg in Russia with all the euphoria and momentum of a confident champion.
Surprisingly, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori are hot on the heels of Wawrinka as the threesome dash to complete their marathon with all virtually a lock for London. They round out the top five considerably more consistent than their pursuers with their results in 2016.
Three Spots Remaining
Only Monfils is playing anywhere near his best tennis, which is a bit surprising for the streaky talented Frenchman. But he’s been healthy and hot and, barring a collapse, should cross the finish line with one of the three remaining slots.
Thiem and Nadal are another matter. They have both been banged up with injuries, missed time and produced uneven play since the French Open. Not coincidentally, that came at the same time as the end of the clay-court season where the Austrian was a French Open semifinalist and the Spaniard won Monte Carlo and Barcelona. They invested a lot of their training and bodies to compete on their favorite surface, and neither has recovered his best form or optimum energy.
The Race to London is old hat for Nadal, who ended 2015 with a solid rise. Traditionally, though, it’s never been his best part of the season where the court surfaces are faster and when the grind of the yearly marathon racks his body.
Thiem is in the race for the first time, and the 23-year-old will have the enthusiasm and desire to compete over the next six weeks to qualify for London.
He’s the No. 1 seed this week at Metz, and he will need strong showings at Beijing, Shanghai and Paris if he is to cruise in for his medal. Maybe a semifinal showing at one of those venues will be enough to hold off his pursuers.
Trailing the Pack
Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic trail Nadal for the coveted eight slot by about only 800 points.
Berdych was dealt a blow prior to the U.S. Open when he had to skip the tournament because of appendicitis. He needs to return to his best form, and, if he does, perhaps his legs will be fresh for the October run.
Cilic won his first career Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati in August, but he was upset early at the U.S. Open. He’s fully capable of scoring one of the big titles in Asia or Paris as long as he continues the excellent momentum he produced in Davis Cup competition to power his home country past France. He is great on fast surfaces, so a hot streak and a fading Thiem or Nadal could get him in as one of the elite eight.
Beyond that, David Goffin, Nick Kyrgios and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are all distant long shots, each needing an epic run of multiple titles if they are to elbow their way into contention. Goffin is the No. 2 seed at Metz, but the Belgian’s going to have to knock out bigger, powerful competitors on fast surfaces, which is unlikely.
The top eight listed above in the Race to London are strong enough favorites to have removed most of the drama from any potential photo finish. But pay attention to Thiem and Nadal to see if they will play with renewed energy and success. If so, the race will be over, and Berdych and Cilic will not catch them.
If there’s any slippage, especially if Nadal’s left wrist is still troublesome, give the nod to Cilic to grab the eighth slot. He’s got the strength, tools and composure for a great year-end streak, and if anyone above him drops out for one reason or another, the Croatian will be there at the end.
Running, anyone? After all, a marathon only takes a few hours. Tennis has the long and winding ride that runs through another six weeks to decide London. Wars have been fought in less time.