Countdown to Shanghai and Madrid
by Ray Bowers
Arriving in November are the year-end championships--the Sony Ericsson in
Madrid for the women, Masters Cup in Shanghai for the men, both held indoors. The
eight leaders in the year-to-date singles races, male and female, plus the top
doubles artists, will assemble for these round-robin events. The final
year-end orders of rank will emerge.
A principal focus of the recent men's tournaments in Madrid and Paris was the
year-to-date race, where a dozen or so stars competed for the two or three
remaining places among the Shanghai Eight. But the greater story was the
unexpected emergence of a player whose career had seemed mired well behind the game's
elites. David Nalbandian, now age 25, by claiming the championships at both
Madrid and Paris and winning five matches against the game's
megastars--Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic--showed that he too belonged at the highest level.
NALBANDIAN AND THE RACE TO SHANGHAI
Just after U.S. Open in September, five players seemed likely to be among the
eight elites to compete in singles at Masters Cup, November 11-18. Federer,
Nadal, and Djokovic had already assured themselves places, while the fourth and
fifth players in the year-to-date race, Davydenko and Roddick, were also
safely inside the group. David Ferrer's capture of Japan Open in the first week of
October lifted him close to qualification.
The sixteen seeded players, all of them either qualifiers or contenders for
Shanghai, had first-round byes at Madrid, starting October 15. But there was
plenty of interesting first-round action, including impressive performances by
Andy Murray, now 20, and Argentine player Juan Martin del Potro, age 19 and
height 6-5. Both youths stood out in the sureness and potency of their serving
and stroking. Then in the second round, the sixteen first-round winners faced
off against the seeded stars.
It was not a good time for the seeded players, of whom eleven were eliminated
in that second round. Del Potro's victory over Robredo was an entertaining
struggle featuring breathtaking rallies and a high level of net-attacking.
Murray won comfortably over Chela. Megastars Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic all
survived, while unseeded Nalbandian advanced by beating seeded Berdych in three
Nalbandian next dispatched countryman del Potro impressively. in straight
sets, while his next opponent, Rafael Nadal, survived two tough sets against
Murray. Their Friday quarter-final meeting, Nalbandian vs. Nadal, would ignite
David's stunning run to the championship. The match brought many thunderous, long
rallies, but most of them seemed to end in an error by Nadal. The abrupt
reversal of expected form, it seemed, might be explained by Rafa's difficult
previous match or perhaps by recent wear on his troublesome knees.
But we would later realize that we had been watching Nalbandian at his best,
at a level not seen before--moving easily into his groundstrokes, pounding away
to the sides with velocity and depth, ripping away with severely forcing
shots and angles when taking opponent's deliveries on or inside baseline, all with
fewer errors than his opponent.
David's semi-final win over Djokovic and his final-round triumph over Federer
were just as stunning. Against Federer, Nalbandian lost a closer-than-the
score-suggested 61 first set, but he then broke serve early in both the second
and third sets. Federer could never engineer the expected break-back. Most of
the way, David outplayed Roger from back court, again driving the ball from side
to side with better velocity, better placement close to the lines, and better
avoidance of error. He was also better in his occasional net forays. Federer
tried to apply his familiar pressure, but his own untimely errors and his
opponent's strong replies prevented Roger from regaining and sustaining his
PARIS INDOORS - "TOURNAMENT-WITHIN-THE-TOURNAMENT"
The traditional indoor tournament in Paris began October 28 after a one-week
interval. Ferrer was now safely within the Shanghai Eight and Gonzalez needed
only one win in Paris to qualify. But uncertainty remained as to the eighth
qualifier and also as to the first alternate. (The alternate would travel to
Shanghai to be available in case of injury to one of the principals.) The
standings were close--seven other players were within a single match-win of passing
Tommy Haas, presently in eighth place. Several others, among them Nalbandian,
could conceivably qualify but only by winning the tournament. What emerged in
Paris would be an interesting "tournament-within-the-tournament." All the
contenders had first-round byes, and all surely noted that in Madrid, in most cases
a bye had meant an early exit.
In early action, Fernando Gonzalez, who needed a win to cement his seventh
place status, lost in three sets to Mikhail Youznhy. Mikhail showed the better
backhand, the quicker movement in positioning himself for next shot, and an
excellent net game, but his own inconsistency in stretches kept matters close.
Gonzalez, whose serve and forehand carried the greater power, gradually faded
after winning the first set. Youzhny, who was in the group who needed to win the
tournament for hope of qualifying for Shanghai, thus stayed alive.
Of the eight stars at the bubble of contention, two lost quickly. Carlos Moya
lost to Nalbandian, and Ivan Ljubicic fell victim to Baghdatis. Three others
faltered in the next round--Berdych was beaten by Ferrer in straight sets,
Blake lost to fellow contender Gasquet, and Haas lost to Youzhny in a ferocious
late-night three-setter. Three close contenders remained--Robredo, Murray, and
Gasquet--with Youzhny, Baghdatis, and Nalbandian still faintly alive.
One by one the survivors fell away. In the Friday quarters Youzhny, who was
tired from his midnight win over Haas, lost quietly to Nadal, Robredo fell
victim to the surprising Baghdatis, and Murray lost his showdown with Gasquet in
three sets. Then in a Saturday battle both furious and dazzling Rafael Nadal
defeated Marcos Baghdatis. Amid the several momentum swings, Marcos regularly
moved his opponent about the court with excellent power and angles, often
claiming the close-on-baseline position. But with Rafael seemingly close to his
best, the final outcome inexorably followed. The Shanghai Eight thus became
finalized, with Gonzalez and Gasquet now certified for the last two positions.
Meanwhile Nalbandian continued to advance even as his chance of penetrating
the Shanghai Eight disappeared amid the outcomes of matches beyond his control.
In his second match he met and again defeated Roger Federer, this time in
straight sets, both of them extremely close. He then defeated Shanghai qualifiers
Ferrer and Gasquet, and he became the final-round opponent for Nadal, who
seemed now to be playing with his old energy and intensity.
It was even more convincing than at Madrid. Even in the early going, when for
eight games both Nalbandian and Nadal held service, it was David who held
serve comfortably, Rafael who struggled. The score reached four games all, but
after that Nalbandian swept all eight remaining games. David became absolutely
superior in weight of shot, in moving his opponent from side to side,
sustaining rallies while keeping at least moderate pressure on his opponent. Stepping
in to meet Nadal's high-bouncing ground-strokes on the rise, leaping upward to
return high-bouncing serves to his backhand, there was no turning back of the
Argentine on this day. Nor was there hint of mental weakness in his closing
out matters at the end.
MASTERS CUP ODDS
Masters Cup Warriors Photo Courtesy Quentin Shih
Federer won Masters Cup in three of the last four years, and during 2007 he
again won Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open. Despite his two recent
losses to Nalbandian and loss during the summer to Djokovic, he remains the clear
favorite. The odds offered here for winning the forthcoming Masters Cup 07
event were reached by subjective judgment.
Nalbandian's triumph in Paris elevated David to the first-alternate position
at Shanghai, ahead of Robredo. If another player's misfortune opens up entry
for David, then the above odds would change drastically. Nalbandian, it may be
recalled, won Masters Cup two years ago in its first staging in Shanghai. In
that final round, he defeated Federer in five sets, having lost a split-setter
to Roger in the round-robin phase earlier.
If David receives entry to the eight at Shanghai prior to the outset, his
odds for winning would seem only slightly longer than Roger's and surely more
favorable than Djokovic's or Nadal's. But if his admission should come after an
injury to another player midway in the round-robin phase, the rules allow him
only small chance of advancing to the weekend semis.
Also to be missed in the field at Shanghai will be the likes of Murray, del
Potro, Berdych, Baghdatis, Youzhny, and Robredo, all of whom performed with
brilliance in Paris. The thought arises that, this year, a 12-player or 16-player
entry field would have been wonderful.
Federer will be end-of-year leader in the points race regardless of results
at Shanghai. It is his fourth consecutive year as world #1.
WOMEN'S RACE TO MADRID, NOVEMBER 6-11
The late season was quieter among the women. Safely assured of places at
Madrid after U.S. Open were the highest five--#1-ranked Henin along with two
players from Russia (Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze) and two from Serbia (Jankovic and
Ivanovic). Meanwhile Sharapova and the Williams sisters completed the top
eight, with Venus in the eighth position vulnerable to a surge by any lower player.
By winning the tournament at Seoul in late September, Venus moved ahead of
Sharapova, thus leaving Maria in the position of vulnerability at #8.
Two Tier One tournaments headlined the women's fall calendar. At Kremlin Cup
in early October, the winner was Elena Dementieva. Although Elena's serving
was as usual her weakest area, her second serve was strong enough to avoid
consistent attack by her opponents (at a price in an undesirable number of
double-faults). But Elena's wonderful stroking power and excellent court mobility more
than overcame her serving weakness. Against Serena Williams in the final, it
was Elena who showed the superior strokes--more potent and less error-prone.
Most of the time it was Serena who was forced onto the defensive and eventually
Elena's standing in the race had been previously retarded by injury problems,
so that despite winning at Moscow she remained outside the First Eight. Then
in yet another example of the glowworm syndrome, Dementieva failed to survive
her first match at the next week's Tier One, in Zurich. Eventually hoisting
the champion's trophy there was Justine Henin, winner enroute over rising stars
Vaidisova and Golovin.
The victory of Hantuchova at Linz in late October moved the Slovak star into
an exact tie for eighth place with Sharapova. Both qualified for Madrid,
however, as Venus Williams withdrew from the year-end event while awaiting tests
for dizziness. Meanwhile Sharapova's shoulder problems created the possibility
of her withdrawal. That eventuality would open a place for the first
alternate, Marion Bartoli, and would move Dementieva to first-alternate status.
Only three of last year's cast return for Madrid 07, including Henin, who
finished last year's event with straight-set wins over Sharapova and Mauresmo.
Also returning are Sharapova and Kuznetsova. Former superstars who will be
absent this year are Hingis and Mauresmo, set back in 2007 by injuries and illness,
respectively, and Clijsters, now retired.
Of this year's Madrid Eight, only Henin performed at superstar level during
the fall. The recent results heavily influence the odds offered here for
triumphing at Madrid.
S. Williams, 4-1
Win or lose at Madrid, Justine's place atop the 2007 year-end rankings is
assured. She also finished as end-of-year #1 in 2003 and 2006. With six Slam
triumphs already in her collection at age 25, her resolve for further triumphs
November 22-25 will bring three exhibition matches from Asia pitting Federer
against Sampras. Although I dislike match-ups outside the organized pro sport
and would prefer Pete accepting wild-cards into tournaments, the appeal of
this scheme is of course irresistible. Sampras would seem likely to be outgunned,
outmoved, and outsteadied, but nothing is certain in sports.
Soon to follow, November 30-December 2, will be Davis Cup final-round action
from Portland, Oregon, United States against Russia. The customary American
team of Roddick, Blake, and the Bryans should be slightly favored on an indoor
hard court over a potent Russian squad probably featuring Davydenko and Youzhny.
Both the Federer-Sampras exhibitions and the Cup matches will be broadcast by
The Tennis Channel. Here's wishing year-end excitement for all.
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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.
Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular
competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75
singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four
years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where
the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington
Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history
of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A
tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award
from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.