The Race for the World Tour Finals in London suddenly got a lot less interesting this week. With two 500-level tournaments being played simultaneously, there was room for a lot of players to make up ground. What we saw, though, was a mass choke by everyone not in the top 8 in the Race (although the ATP no longer uses the “Race” as an official term, we’ll still use it here for convenience). Only one player (Florian Mayer) who had been anywhere from #9-#20 of the Race advances past the first round in either tournament. Only two more from the 20-25, who had been practically eliminated from reaching the Finals anyway, got farther than that. Andy Roddick, in erasing whatever tiny hopes he had (though he is technically not yet completely eliminated) with his first-round loss in Beijing, will not qualify for the Finals for the first time since 2002.
Those already in the top 8, on the other hand, too care of business. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Mardy Fish, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all reached the semifinals or later of their respective tournaments to pretty much seal their spots in London. This, in essence, is what has separated these 4 from the rest of the other challengers (aside from the top 4 of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray). These 4 players have managed to step up, time and again, over the course of the year when it mattered. Tsonga and Ferrer have both reached Grand Slam semifinals while Berdych has been nothing but solid (not amazing though) all year and Fish has made one incredible summer run. No one other than Djokovic, Nadal, Murray (Cincinnati), Ferrer (Monte Carlo), and Fish (Montreal) has reached the final of a Masters 1000 event yet this year.
But that last stat could change this week in Shanghai. The Chinese Masters tournament is one of the quickest-growing in interest and prestige on the ATP Tour. It has quickly become the driving interest in the ATP’s late-season Asia swing and has won the award for best Masters event in both years of the tournament’s existence. It is a great venue and has provided the quality of tennis expected from a Masters event these past two years.
That might change this year though, with a field that has been deeply depleted by injuries. 4 top 10 players will not be competing, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Robin Soderling, and Gael Monfils-who is rumored to possibly miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. And 3 more top 20 players (Juan Martin Del Potro, John Isner, and Richard Gasquet) will also sit out Shanghai.
Honestly, I don’t think that this is such a bad thing. The number of players ranked 6-20 who will be missing the tournament is disappointing, but I am not so upset about Federer and Djokovic pulling out. Yes, the tennis will be of lower quality. That cannot be denied. But the important ranking and seeding discussions for most players for the end of this year has already basically been determined. Missing this tournament won’t affect Djokovic’s ranking at all. And even if it costs Federer the #3 spot there is no practical difference in draws between being the 3 or 4 seed. It will be nice to have some fresh blood for once. At least 3 of the “Big 4″ have been in the semifinals of every mandatory event this year except for Montreal and Cincinnati. And even in those, 3 out of 4 of the semifinalists were from the current top 8 in the Race.
Shanghai is an amazing venue. It won’t lose too much appeal by not having the biggest names. And it will be exciting for fans to see someone else step up and do anything, really. Thomaz Bellucci’s run at Madrid, where he dominated Murray and Berdych and also played Djokovic tougher than Rafa did, was exciting and amazing to see. Tennis has not had much of that this year, really due to the absolute domination that we have seen from the top 4. And the fact that really no one below that has stepped up anywhere (pretty much) this year doesn’t help either. We have not seen anyone but the top 8 in the Race, Robin Soderling, and Juan Martin Del Potro (and Bellucci in Rome) string together good tournaments. Some players have played individual matches at high levels but no one else has really put together any memorable victories over significant opponents.
Just looking at the Shanghai draw, we can see plenty of places where talented players can make runs. One quarter has no absolute top player, though Fish and Tsonga are both currently playing at high levels. Still, there are a lot of very talented players in that quarter and it would be a great opportunity for any of them to make a good run. Andy Murray has won two straight tournaments and is probably tiring a little. The other top seed in his quarter, Gilles Simon, has looked a bit off recently too. There is a great opportunity for a lot of players on that half of the draw. The issue this year has not been that opportunities like that haven’t arisen. It’s that no one has really risen to the occasion to take them. It would be nice to see someone surprising come out of there. (Though it would also be nice to see Fish finally win a Masters tournament. This may be the best chance he ever gets.) The other half of the draw has soles as well. We have seen one of the greatest years in recent memory, and possibly ever, at the very top of the game this year. But it would be nice to see some talent coming through from the next level of tennis players as well.
David Ferrer will officially qualify for the World Tour Finals if he reaches the quarterfinals.
Andy Murray will take the World #3 ranking from Roger Federer if he wins the title.
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