It was early August more than a year ago. Czech star Radek Stepanek, then 31, relaxed in a media session after one of his matches here in Washington. Radek said that his immediate goal was to do well in the August tournaments in order to improve his world ranking to at least #32. Doing so, he explained, would make Radek one of the 32 seeded players at the forthcoming U.S. Open, thus assuring that Radek would face only lower-ranked players through the first two rounds at the Open.
Having two winnable matches to start a Slam is not a free ticket, but it would be a valuable advantage toward reaching the third round and its prize money, ranking points, and opportunity to go farther. Reaching the third round at Australian Open 2012, for example, earned $54,000, and reaching each succeeding round thereafter roughly doubled again the total prize. (An overall prize-money increase of over 10 percent has been announced for 2013.) Historically over the past ten years, players seeded just inside the cut-off, i.e., seeded #30-#32, have reached the third round in Melbourne in 50% of the cases.
Stepanek indeed won the tournament in Washington and went on to win two qualifying-round and two main-draw matches in Cincinnati. He thereby improved his official ranking from #54 prior to Washington into the top 32 in time for the U.S. Open draw. (Seeded, he would win his first match at the Open but would then lose in the second round to unseeded Juan Monaco.)
Radek Stepanek's remarks revealed outlooks of other players ranked just inside or within range of the top 32. Most of them know that although their chances against high-ranked players in late rounds of Slams are small, just reaching the third round would be highly worthwhile.
LOOKING TO MELBOURNE
For the men and women of the pro tours, especially those below the superstar level, the finish of U.S. Open 2012 marked a turning point -- a redirection of plans and preparations as players and coaches now began looking ahead to Australian Open in January. For many it became important to strive toward a ranking inside the top 32 as of 7 January 2013 -- the date when each player's rank would determine his or her seeding in Melbourne.
What now emerged was a race for the 32 seeded places at Melbourne -- a race-within-a-race, measured in ranking points earned in the 12-month period starting on 9 January 2012 and ending on 7 January 2013. The unfolding of this race for Australian seeding, its drama repeated prior to every Slam, is often overlooked among fans worldwide.
Here, we track shifts in our race, just defined, that occurred in the five weeks following U.S. Open. Our compilations, derived from data announced weekly by ATP and WTA and adjusted here, capture each player's ranking points earned to date that will be counted for seeding in Australia and none that will be excluded.
Immediately after U.S. Open, on 10 September 2012, our race-within-a-race calculations showed Novak Djokovic at position #1 in Australia-seeding points. Completing the top 32 were two players equally exposed to relegation tied at #31/#32 -- Brazilian star Thomaz Bellucci and Austrian artist Jurgen Melzer. (Note that Andy Roddick, having announced his retirement, was excluded from our tally. Rafael Nadal, whose bad knee makes him questionable for Melbourne, was kept in.)
Much shifting about would ensue in the next five weeks, which included the tour's annual Asian swing. But when the sizzle cleared on 15 October, only three members of the earlier top 32 had dropped out of the 32, their places taken by three stars from below whose success during the period had been strong.
Two Weeks in September
The action began with Davis Cup weekend, 14-16 September. In World Group semi-final action, host-nation Spain defeated U.S., while visiting-nation Czech Republic defeated Argentina. Thus Czech Republic and Spain have advanced to the Cup final in November.
Individual players receive ranking points for success in Davis Cup play. However the points awarded to the World Group singles winners -- Ferrer, Almagro, Berdych, and del Potro, all of them ranked high in our standings -- had no effect on our critical range (below about #26).
The same weekend also brought Davis Cup playoff meetings at eight locations, where the eight winning nations became members of next year's World Group. Individual ranking-point awards to winners were trivial, however. Thomaz Bellucci, for example, contributed a first-day singles win in Brazil's sweep of Russia, but his point reward was too small to become one of Thomaz's "best-18" results since 9 January. His tie with Jurgen at #31/#32 , mentioned above, thus persisted.
The next week, 17-23 September, offered 250-point tournaments (250 ranking points to the winner) in St. Petersburg and Metz. One important shift in our race happened at St. Petersburg.
Martin Klizan, age 23 at height 6-2, a lefty from Slovakia, had appeared on our watch list of risers announced at the end of 2011. We calculated for Martin a target ranking of #50 twelve months hence. In the subsequent actuality, Martin's rise indeed continued, marked by his reaching the round of sixteen at U. S. Open 2012 though unseeded.
Prior to the start at St. Petersburg, Klizan ranked #35 in our rank order. In the St. Pete semis Martin was severely tested by Russian veteran Mikhail Youznhy, 30, top seeded in the tournament. Slender and athletic, Martin showed his excellent serve and ground-strokes, often dominating play. But Youzhny was quick and skilled in answering, indeed producing consistently the better depth and placement. Both men were patient and determined fighters, as the scoreboard shifted back and forth for nearly four hours. Either player might have won. Klizan d. Youzhny 67 64 76.
Less than 24 hours later, looking tired, Klizan defeated a lackadaisical-seeming Fabio Fognini. Fabio was also a veteran of our watch lists, but a foot injury in early 2012 slowed his improvement. The Italian star on this occasion only belatedly showed the form to be expected in a main-tour final. By winning the tournament, Martin moved up in our standings to #27, well inside the top 32. Thus eight players each dropped one level including Bellucci and Melzer, now tied at #32/33.
With the week of 24-30 September came separate 250-point events in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Advancing at Kuala Lumpur was Julien Benneteau, age 30 at 6-1, who previously had been just outside our 32 at rank #36. Julien now scored four victories, winning his semi-final match against David Ferrer, top seeded in the tournament and officially ranked as world #5. Julien dominated the usually dogged (but now tired-looking) Spaniard with a potent forehand, a crisp and accurate backhand, and much fine play in forecourt. Benneteau d. Ferrer 64 61.
Julien then lost in a three-set final to Juan Monaco, and a nagging leg injury then ended his Asian swing. Meanwhile the tournament in Bangkok had no effect on our rank order, as the event's top four seeds all reached the semis, Richard Gasquet winning the final.
The fourth week of our current scrutiny, 1-7 October, featured 500-point events in Tokyo and Beijing. Jurgen Melzer won twice in Beijing, breaking his recent tie with Bellucci, who lost in the first round and thus exited the 32.
But a bigger, and eventually more significant jump was that of Marcos Baghdatis, who won three times in Tokyo to reach the semis there. Marcos's excellent point reward lifted him in our rank order from #41 upward to #36, in reasonable range for penetrating the 32. Also climbing upward was Feliciano Lopez, who also won three matches at Beijing and now stood an eyelash behind Baghdatis.
The 1,000-pointer at Shanghai loomed just ahead, 8-15 October. All players ranked #30 through #40 in our tally were entered except for Benneteau and Granollers. The latter had lost ground steadily amid inactivity and had now dropped outside the 32.
A significant gainer in Shanghai was Marcos Baghdatis, who defeated Fognini and seeded Raonic before falling to Tsonga. Following- up his success in Tokyo, Marcos thus vaulted upward to a tie for #31/32, pushing Benneteau and Melzer narrowly outside the 32. Closely behind these players was Feliciano Lopez, who also won twice in Shanghai.
And what of our original hero, Radek Stepanek, amid all this?
Once again, it seemed that Radek responded to the opportunity of becoming seeded at a Slam. Joining the Asian action in Tokyo he began inauspiciously, losing in the first round to Raonic. But then at Shanghai -- attacking forecourt frequently and skillfully -- he won his first three matches, beating first Hewitt and then seeded players Gasquet and Isner. Then, having attained the round of eight, he lost to Andy Murray but not before winning the first set. Radek had been ranked in the low #40's previously, and his 180-point reward at Shanghai now moved him into a flat tie with Baghdatis at #31/#32.
With his ascension, Stepanek joined Baghdatis and Klizan as the three penetrators of the top 32 over the five weeks since the Open. The three relegated downward were Granollers, Benneteau, and Melzer.
But the margins are thin. Here was the critical fragment of the standings as of 15 October:
#30. Viktor Troicki, 1,020 ranking points
#31/32. Radek Stepanek, 1,015
#31/32. Marcos Baghdatis, 1,015
#33. Jurgen Melzer, 1,007
#34. Julien Benneteau, 1,005
#35. Feliciano Lopez, 995
But the men's calendar provides three more weeks of tournaments in Europe, including the 1,000-pointer Paris Indoors. These, along with the tournaments of the first week in January, will all contribute in reaching to the final standings in our race. Drastic scrambling of the segment just listed can occur.
Other gatherings just ahead will also merit attention apart from our race. In early November the top eight male superstars will meet in the ATP tour finale in London, and soon afterwards Czech Republic will face Spain in the final round of Davis Cup 2012. The Czechs with Berdych and Stepanek should be almost equally matched by a Spanish team probably without Nadal. There will also be a strong schedule of Challenger tournaments, ending with a finale for the top eight Challenger scorers.
RACE-WITHIN-A-RACE -- THE WOMEN
A similar process unfolded among the women -- week-by-week changes in our rank order measured in Australia-seeding points. Of the 32 players listed atop our standings just after U.S. Open, all but four were still among the top 32 at the close of the Asian sequence on15 October. The replacements, four risers from below, all showed strong results during the period. Note that Kim Clijsters, having announced her retirement, was excluded from our tallying.)
The changes began in the first week, 10-16 September, when our then #35, Urszula Radwanska, attained the semi-finals in the tournament at Tashkent. Urszula thus penetrated our 32, and one week later, she would reach the semis Guangzhou, thus moving further upward. Urszula, age 21 and sister of top-tenner Agnieszka, had been climbing nicely previously, having appeared on our midsummer 2012 watch list of risers. Meanwhile Kaia Kanepi, 27, from Estonia, who had been out of action since Garros, captured second place in the tournament at Seoul, thus also entering our top 32.
The Guangzhou final, held outdoors on 22 September, produced some intriguing tennis -- British riser Laura Robson, 18, against Hsieh Su-Wei, 26, of Chinese Taipei. Hsieh won their three-setter, showing superb accuracy with her firm two-handers from both sides, mixed with side-sliced forehands often low over the net to the opposite short corner. Robson's superior power allowed her to crack winners in serve-returning and in rallies, but these were wasted amid too many unforced errors by Laura. Su-Wei's victory lifted her upward to #33. (Robson improved into the low #50's.)
The third week brought the Premium Five 900-pointer (900 points to the winner) in Tokyo, 23-30 September. Our focus was on the first-round match-up of Czech star Klara Zakopalova and Hsieh Su-Wei. Klara, age 30, from Czech Republic, resided at the bottom edge of our 32, her margin of safety threatened by recent risers from below including Su-wei. Hsieh was four years younger and two inches taller, but Su-wei's triumph in Guangzhou had allowed her only two days for travel, rest, and preparation. Klara prevailed, winning 63 67 61.
Klara thus moved upward to a more comfortable #27. Su-wei would keep pace a week later by winning her first-rounder at the 1,000-point tournament in Beijing,1-7 October. Meanwhile Austrian star Tamira Paszek also climbed out of the danger zone by first-round wins at both Tokyo and Beijing.
Most impressive was the success of plucky Carla Suarez-Navarro, age 24 at height 5-4, who won three matches at Beijing, defeating Kvitova and Jankovic and then carrying Bartoli to three sets. Always a resolute competitor with excellent court manner, Carla had recently won a set from Agnieszka Radwanska at U.S. Open. The 250 ranking points she earned at Beijing lifted Carla to our #31.
Three of the players knocked out of the 32 by the upward movement of Radwanska, Kanepi, Hsieh, and Suarez Navarro knocked four other players out of the 32. Three of these had been inactive or nearly so during the period. These were American Venus Williams, Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, and German player Mona Barthel. Also sliding backward from inactivity was American Sloane Stephens, who now became vulnerable at #32. One player, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, slipped narrowly outside the 32 despite fairly good success during the period, having been the hot-seat occupant previously.
Here then was the list fragment showing the players slightly above and below the #32 cut-off as of 15 October:
#30. Klara Zakopalova, 1,445
#31. Christina McHale, 1.422
#32. Sloane Stephens, 1,418
#33. Mona Barthel, 1,416
#34. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 1,371
#35. Venus Williams, 1,370
All three players just behind Stephens at #32 played in tournaments the next week -- Barthel and Venus in Luxembourg, Pavlyuchenkova in Moscow. The perch of Sloane Stephens thus looked precarious.
Indeed, the 2012 women's calendar ahead was now short. After Moscow and Luxembourg would come (1) the WTA finale in Istanbul for the sport's top eight superstars, (2) the Tournament of Champions in Sofia for eight next-level stars, (3) the Fed Cup final between Czech Republic and Serbia, and (4) the initiation of women's Challenger tournaments in Taipei and India. Inasmuch as none of these events appeared likely to influence our race for the 32, that verdict would depend on the tournaments of the first week of January.
A ranking divider almost as critical as #32 is the rank #16, which brings assurance against meeting a higher-ranked player through three rounds at a Slam.
In our hot seat at rank #16 as of 10 September was Philippe Kohlschreiber. Philippe then lost a close three-setter at Metz to Gael Monfils, who was returning to action from several months with knee trouble. Philippe slipped to #17 one week later, passed by Gilles Simon, runner-up at Bangkok, and slipped further to #18 the next week. Becoming the new #16 was Stan Wawrinka, who won two matches in Tokyo. Thus the standings fragment on 15 October showed four players in close contention for #16, all behind #15 MIlos Raonic.
#15.Milos Raonic, 2,085
#16. Stan Wawrinka, 1,810
#17. Gilles Simon, 1,785
#18. Phil Kohlschreiber, 1760
#19. Kei Nishikori, 1,740
The two players at the extremes of this fragment produced excellent action in Tokyo, where Raonic met Nishikori in the final round, both of them members of our currently active watch lists. Nishikori, age 22, had knocked out Berdych in Tokyo, while Raonic, 21, had beaten Andy Murray in a fierce three-setter. In the latter affair Milos employed his severe power to create and exploit openings, and also played well in following-up at net. The third-set tiebreaker was close, but toward the end Andy missed two routine shots, serving, to yield the day to the Canadian youth. Then in the final match, it became the extreme power of Raonic against the excellent speed and variety of Nishikori. After countless fascinating points, it was Nishikori over Raonic, 76 36 60.
In the race for 16 among the women, Lucie Safarova stood at #16 following U.S. Open, ahead of Nadia Petrova at #17. But Moscow-born Petrova, 30, jumped ahead of Lucie, and indeed ahead of four others as well, when she captured the tournament in Tokyo, defeating three higher-ranked players enroute.
For the first set in her final-round victory over Agnieszka Radwanska, Nadia played like the top-five superstar she was in 2006, scorching the lines with every rocket-like forehand, serving with superb pace and placement. Nadia recorded 16 winners against 3 unforced errors in that set. Her brilliance disappeared in the second set, but in the third set both players found their best. Agnieszka faded in serving game eight, and Nadia closed out magnificently in the final game. Petrova d. A. Radwanska 60 16 63.
By her run at Tokyo, Nadia climbed from our rank #17 to #12. Several players thus slipped downward one place, and it was Maria Kirilenko that found herself now at #16. She remained in that seat despite losing her first match in Beijing.
As of 15 October:
#14. Dominika Cibulkova, 2,445
#15. Roberta Vinci, 2,400
#16. Maria Kirilenko, 2,344
#17. Lucie Safarova, 2,125
Two of these along with Petrova are among the four players already identified to compete at the forthcoming eight-woman Tournament of Champions in Sofia.
VIEW AT THE TOP
The long-standing domination of the Big Four in men's tennis has continued in 2012. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray between them have captured this year's four Slams, the eight Masters-1,000 tournaments to date, and the Olympics. Federer is currently #1 in the ATP rolling-12-month official race, Djoikovic ahead in the year-to-date tabulation.
But there are times when the highest ranking player is not also the current Il Primo -- the one whose recent results and level of play establish him as the current and immediate overlord of the sport. Indeed, during summer 2012 Andy Murray fairly became our Il Primo by capturing both the Olympics and U.S. Open.
Andy returned to action in October, winning three matches in Tokyo before losing to Raonic closely. In the same week Djokovic won the tournament in Beijing, defeating Tsonga, who fought well and nearly won the first set. Thus the message of early October clearly favored Novak.
Both Murray and Djokovic competed in Shanghai. Andy defeated Federer in the semis, Novak beat Berdych. Their final-round meeting on 14 October before a fully engaged gallery became another in this year's run of classic matches between the two and an obvious separator of the two in our game of Il Primo.
The quickness, power, and agility of both men almost defied belief, both consistently displaying breathtaking offensive and defensive abilities. Andy almost became the winner but failed to convert several match-point opportunities late in the second set. After more than three hours, Djokovic at the finish reestablished himself as our Il Primo of pro tennis. It could hardly be argued that Murray was, just as plainly, the current Il Secondo.
The Big Four in the women's official rankings looks quite different now than it did at the start of 2012. The top two then -- Wozniacki and Kvitova -- have both dropped out of the Big Four amid declining results. The top two places now belong to the former next two -- Victoria Azarenka, now at #1 having won Australian Open 2012, and Maria Sharapova, now at #2 and winner at Garros in June. Azarenka won the recent meeting of the two in the Beijing final.
But it is plain that every discussion of the top players in women's tennis today starts with Serena Williams. Absent from the game for much of the tennis year, the veteran American megastar has nevertheless captured three of the great crowns of 2012 -- Wimbledon, the Olympics, and U. S. Open. Officially, Serena is #3 in the rankings. But until she is overthrown in major competition, her place as our La Prima of tennis is hardly debatable. With like clarity, the current La Seconda is Azarenka.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX 1. WATCH-LIST NOTES
The third trimester of 2012 will soon close and our newest watch list of risers will be known. Interim calculations identify several male newcomers who seem likely of places -- among them recent collegiate champs Brad Klahn and Steve Johnson.
A surprise among the women was the recent emergence of very young Donna Vekic, age 16 at height 5-7, from Croatia. Donna reached the final at Tashkent behind strong serves, forehands, and, if given setup time, backhands as well. She seemed to have adequate mobility but was seldom required to show it. Other young candidates for our forthcoming list are Samantha Crawford of U.S.A., 17, and Eugenia Bouchard of Canada, 18.
Watching the Current Watch Lists
Several female members of our most recent list, announced in July 2012, have since risen nicely. Sara Errani, 25, won five matches in reaching the semis at U.S. Open, thereby attaining world ranking #7. Sloane Stephens, 19, was a semi-finalist here in Washington and won two main-draw matches at both Cincinnati and U.S. Open, attaining her peak official ranking, #36. Kiki Bertens, 20, advanced through in the qualifiers at both Canada and Cincinnati and defeated McHale in the first round at U.S. Open. Her world ranking is now #60. Urszula Radwanska, 21, moved comfortably into the top 32 in our race for seeding in Australia, noted earlier.
Meanwhile the most successful members of our other running lists, of December 2011 and March 2012, respectively, are Angelique Kerber and Laura Robson. Both Kerber and Robson have already reached their predicted 12-month target rankings.
Male members of the currently running lists have been less robust in their achievements, though many have improved in their rankings. Most successful have been Klizan and Nishikori, both noted earlier, along with Raonic, Goffin, and Bautista-Agut.
APPENDIX 2. A NOTE ON THE CALCULATIONS
The changing standings in the race for seeding in Australia are calculated here using the ATP and WTA data for calendar 2012 to date, publicly announced weekly, here modified to delete results happening in the first week of January 2012 and where appropriate replacing them with each player's best result otherwise not counted in the official tally. Thus our counts seek to capture all ranking points earned to date that will be included for seeding purposes in Australia and none that will be excluded.