The year-ending ATP (men's) and WTA (women's) "championship" events are
always interesting. Both feature round-robin competition among the year's top
performers--a format that produces wonderful match-ups from the outset. What
happens on-court cements the year's individual rankings and often determines the #1
player--the year's champion.
The women's (WTA) event will be in Staples Center, Los Angeles, starting
November 8. The men's (ATP) will run November 12-20 in Shanghai. In both cases,
eight singles entrants will divide into two four-player groups for round-robin
play, where two from each group will survive for the semi-finals. Both events
will also include doubles.
FORECAST LOS ANGELES
Injuries have plagued the top ranks of women's tennis all year. Absent from
L.A., for example, will be Serena Williams, who won Australian Open 2005 but
played seldom thereafter. Also sidelined for much of the year was Justine
Henin-Hardenne, who won Garros 2005. Her year-to-date point total is enough to
qualify for L.A., but a reinjury to her hamstring in early October suggests that a
withdrawal (or a sub-standard performance at L.A.) seems possible. We
therefore severely mark down her chances to win the tournament. Venus Williams also
seems a possible candidate for withdrawal, not having competed since a knee
injury in September. Meanwhile Sharapova has been troubled by a right pectoral
strain and has withdrawn or retired from several recent events.
Because of the possible withdrawals, we expand our scrutiny here to include
two additional players, the ones next in line to become substitutes in L.A. We
then sort out our ten candidates using a formula that has been helpful in the
past-- (1) we count each player's match wins against other members of our
top-ten elite group and then (2) subtract total losses to all opponents. Shown
here is the rank order from the formula--i.e., elite wins minus all losses,
starting with the championship event one year ago (through October 30, 2005).
Maria Sharapova will be fighting injuries and her opponents as she tries to defend her 2004 title at the WTA Tour Championships. |
Photo by Cliff Kurtzman.
Kim Clijsters, 12 - 7 = plus 5
Justine Henin-Hardenne, 10 - 5 = plus 5
Lindsay Davenport, 11 - 10 = plus 1
Mary Pierce, 7 - 12 = minus 5
Venus Williams, 6 - 11 = minus 5
Maria Sharapova, 6 - 12 = minus 6
Amelie Mauresmo, 10 - 17 = minus 7
Elena Dementieva, 7 - 22 = minus 15
Nadia Petrova, 2 - 22 = minus 19
Patty Schnyder, 3 - 23 = minus 20
Note that possible rustiness in recently sidelined players is less of a
consideration than in pure knock-out tournaments. The round-robin scheme allows a
player to survive an early loss, especially if the loss is a split-setter.
Occasionally a player losing twice in the round-robin still qualifies for the
semis. (Ties in the round-robin standings are broken by W-L record in sets.)
Very recent results show which players are probably at their peak. Most of
the late tournaments have been indoors, including Tier One events in Moscow and
Zurich. Subsequent to U.S. Open in September, Lindsay Davenport climbed into
first place in the year-to-date point standings, having won Zurich and
remaining undefeated entering November. Kim Clijsters regained the lead in late
October, with Lindsay likely to regain it in the final tune-up this week in
Philadelphia. Mary Pierce won in Moscow. Most of the others (Mauresmo, Dementieva,
Schnyder, Petrova) have been competing regularly. Henin-Hardenne and Venus
Williams have been largely inactive and lost ground in the official rankings. This
was also true of Sharapova to a lesser extent.
Either Davenport or Clijsters will end the year #1 in the points standings.
The two will be placed in opposite round-robin groups, so they will not meet
until the semis at the earliest. It seems to me almost certain that both will be
playing in the Saturday semis. Very likely a head-to-head match between the
two, whether Saturday or Sunday, will decide the tournament and the year's
Their head-to-head results in 2005 confirm that they are almost equal.
Lindsay defeated Kim in split-setters at both Garros and Wimbledon. But Kim won at
Indian Wells in their only hard-court meeting this year, also in a
split-setter. By the narrowest of margins, my choice to prevail is Clijsters, based on
Kim's primacy in our calculation and also her success in winning the most recent
Slam, U.S. Open.
Offered here are what seem the current odds to win the singles at L.A.
Clijsters, Davenport, each 5-2
Pierce, V. Williams, Sharapova, each 10-1
Dementieva, Petrova, Schnyder, each 50-1
Four pairs will compete in the doubles. There have been many partnership
changes among the top doubles players this year. Last year's overall champions,
Ruano Pascual and Suarez, won Garros 05 but a hip injury to Suarez then broke up
the pair. Since then Ruano Pascual and veteran Martinez have been successful
partners, although Conchita now has wrist troubles. Raymond-Stosur won U.S.
Open 05 and both remain healthy. I pick the Spanish pair to prevail.
The year-ending women's event began in 1972. It has always been held in
United States except in 2001 in Munich. It will move to Madrid next year after four
consecutive years in Staples Center. Overall prize money this year is an
impressive $3 million. Last year, Maria Sharapova defeated a wounded Serena
Williams in the final match, ending a fairy-tale year for the tall teen-ager.
The new Qi Zhong facility in southwestern Shanghai may itself stir as much
interest as the Masters Cup tennis. The futuristic Centre Court seats 15,000 and
has many sky-boxes. The convertible roof consists of eight segments, which
open or close like a flower. Because of the season it seems likely that the roof
will be closed during much the forthcoming play, making this at least partly
an indoor event. Each seat has an individual heating/air conditioning outlet.
Facilities for players and media are lavish. The court surface is of hard
plastic, said to be fast. Eventually the grounds will have three other indoor
stadia and a total of 40 tennis courts, 14 of them indoors, along with a golf
course and residences. Funding is by the Shanghai municipal government and the Qi
Zhong Company. The facility will host Masters Cup for the next several years,
the event having moved from Houston, host in 2003 and 2004. The $4.45 million
prize money this year is eyepopping.
This year's eight-player singles and eight-pair doubles fields are nearly
set, though an important Masters Series tournament, the Paris indoors, remains in
progress. The singles favorites in Shanghai will be Roger Federer and Rafael
Nadal, the leaders in the ATP point standings, though Roger sprained a foot in
practice and has not competed for several weeks. The next six in the
year-to-date points race will also qualify. (Marat Safin, who earlier qualified by
winning Garros 05, has had knee trouble of late and recently withdrew from the
event.) Several uncertainties remain besides the results at Paris. Will Andre
Agassi's back trouble allow him to compete? Will Lleyton Hewitt remain in
Australia for the birth of his child?
Views of Qi Zhong Stadium.
Photos by John Gollings and courtesy of ATP.
Listed here are ten Shanghai candidates--the current eight leaders plus
Nalbandian and Gonzalez, the players who seem most capable of penetrating upward as
a result of Paris or qualifying as a substitute. (Several others are also
close behind the first eight and still have a chance to rise.) Our ten are here
sorted by the same scheme we used for the women--total wins against other members
of the group minus total losses to all players (elite wins minus total
losses), starting with Masters Cup 04.
Roger Federer, 24 - 3 = plus 21
Rafael Nadal, 6 - 10 = minus 4
Lleyton Hewitt, 7 - 12 = minus 5
Andre Agassi, 4 - 12 = minus 8
Ivan Ljubicic, 8 - 20 = minus 12
Andy Roddick, 6 - 18 = minus 12
David Nalbandian, 3 - 17 = minus 14
Fernando Gonzalez, 1 - 21 = minus 20
Guillermo Coria, 2 - 27 = minus 25
Nicolay Davydenko, 2 - 28 = minus 26
Federer's extreme margin in our calculation is almost beyond plausibility. He
won both Wimbledon and U.S. Open this year, while his only losses during 2005
were to Safin in Australia, to Gasquet at Monte Carlo, and to Nadal at
Garros. If Roger's sprained foot is healthy, it is unimaginable that he not reach
the final four at Shanghai. After that--as the winner of the last two Masters
Cups and the player most renowned for raising his game in the late rounds of
events--he should be a strong favorite against any opponent.
Nadal will be in the opposite round-robin group. Clay is unquestionably
Rafael's best surface, but his improving success on hard courts has also been
impressive. On hard surfaces this year he (1) carried Hewitt to five sets at
Australian Open 05, (2) carried Federer to five sets in the Miami final, (3)
defeated Agassi to win Canadian Open, and (4) recently defeated Ljubicic to win the
Roger Federer is heavily favored to reprise his 2003 and 2004 Masters Cup titles. |
Photo by Cliff Kurtzman.
Ljubicic is an interesting contender, currently #8 in the points race. Ivan
defeated both Agassi and Roddick on a California hard court in Croatia's Davis
Cup win early in the year. But his tournament record thereafter was
undistinguished until an October surge when he won consecutive indoor events in Metz and
Vienna, and then reached the final in the Madrid indoors. He holds two
head-to-head wins in 2005 over Davydenko, the player just ahead of Ivan in the
Hewitt, Agassi, and Roddick should play well at Shanghai, but their combined
W-L record against Roger starting last year in Houston is 0-9. Gonzalez,
Coria, and Davydenko seem impossibly doomed by the evidence from our formula.
Here are current odds for winning Masters Cup 05, as they seem to me.
Agassi, Roddick, Ljubicic, each 15-1
Gonzalez, Coria, Davydenko, each 100-1
MASTERS CUP DOUBLES
The format for doubles at Shanghai is the same as for singles, featuring two
round-robin groups. The ATP standings will determine the entries, except that
Huss-Moodie are assured admission as the Wimbledon 05 champions.
It appears that the Bryan twins will be in the same round-robin group as the
excellent North American pair Knowles-Nestor. Both are hard-hitting twosomes,
wonderfully aggressive, and both should reach the semis. Meanwhile in the
opposite half, Bjorkman-Mirnyi should prove too powerful to be denied. As
to the final champion, I like the styles and the strengths of Knowles-Nestor
and the Bryans, which are both righty-lefty combinations. Guessing, it seems
to me that Knowles-Nestor will be an eyelash ahead on the fast Qi Zhong surface
behind Daniel Nestor's strong serving and returning.
The L.A. and Shanghai events will both be carried daily on ESPN-2 television.
A spell of wonderful tennis-watching should be just ahead.