It’s never too early to start looking ahead: The race for London

For most tennis fans, that awkward period after the US Open and before the World Tour Finals is a time to relax and tend to some non tennis pursuits. For those of us who just can’t put tennis aside, it means watching blurry streams of Florian Mayer beating Pablo Andujar, on clay, in Bucharest or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga overcoming Ivan Ljubicic in Metz. Sure, for most players, and fans, the season is winding down, but for about twelve guys, things are just revving up. These are the guys still in contention for the last few coveted spots in the Barclays World Tour Finals in November.

ATP Tour finals in London

If you are unfamiliar with the format, the World Tour Finals are held at the end of each season and the eight players who have compiled the most ranking points in that season are invited to participate in the event. They are divided into two groups for round robin matches, with the top two guys from each group advancing to the semifinals. So far, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer have all qualified for this year’s event. That leaves four spots for the rest of the competition.

One guy will be conspicuously absent this year. Andy Roddick has qualified for the World Tour Finals for eight years in a row, but after a disappointing 2011, where he dropped out of the Top 20 for the first time in what seemed like forever, he just couldn’t keep the streak going. However, Andy’s absence could mean a first time appearance for his good friend Mardy Fish, who is currently in 6th place and will very likely make his World Tour Final debut in November just before his 30th birthday. Let’s look at the rest of the competition

Shoo-Ins

David Ferrer: At 5th in the race, David will most likely have no trouble qualifying for third trip to London. He previously qualified in 2007, where he lost to Roger Federer in the final and last year in 2010, where he bowed out in the round robin stage. He’s got a lead of nearly 1000 points (a Masters title worth of points) on his nearest competitor, so I would say it’s a safe bet to book him a spot.

Mardy Fish: As I mentioned, Fish is chasing his first appearance in the year end championships. Mardy had a great summer in 2010, but few people believed he would back up those results in 2011. However, Fish has had the best year of his career, reaching the Top 10 for the first time as well as the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He’s done well taking on the demands of being the top US player, a crown Roddick has worn for many years. I have little doubt we’ll being seeing him at the O2 this year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Jo seems to have found his 2008 form again. He had career best appearances at Wimbledon (semifinals) and the US Open (quarterfinals) this year and has cracked the Top 10 again. This week, he beat Ivan Ljubicic to take home the title in Metz and he will seek to build on that momentum going into the Asia swing.

Tomas Berdych: Berdych currently holds the tenuous eighth spot in the race. He hasn’t had the best results this year, but he has been able to maintain his Top 10 ranking. If the reports are correct, he’s also had a tumultuous year in his personal life, breaking up with long time girlfriend Lucie Safarova. Perhaps he’ll be able to right the ship this fall. A good run in Shanghai or Paris, or a title run at one of the smaller events would certainly keep him in contention.

On the Cusp

Nicolas Almagro: When I looked at the race, I was actually shocked to see Almagro in 9th place. When did that happen? I couldn’t remember any significant Grand Slam contribution this year, because there weren’t any. But, once I did a little checking, sure enough, Nicolas has appeared in five ATP finals this year, and won three of those titles. They were all 250 and 500 events, but those points add up. He’s less than 100 points behind Tomas Berdych and has a real possibility of taking one of the remaining four spots.

Robin Soderling: Soderling made his debut in London in 2009, where he reached the semifinals, and followed it up with a second appearance in 2010. He had an amazing start to the year, winning titles in Brisbane, Rotterdam, and Marseille. However, since then it’s been a sea of injuries and illness that has kept him from competing in a lot of key events. He recently announced that a case of mono will keep him out for at least another month. The outlook is a bit grim for Robin’s third consecutive appearance at the World Tour Finals.

Juan Martin del Potro: After not playing for basically all of last year, Juan Martin del Potro has been making up for lost time. In January 2011, del Potro was ranked 485 in the world and depended on wildcards and a protected ranking to get him direct entry into tournaments. He started rising up the rankings after semifinal appearances in San Jose and Memphis and his first title back in Delray Beach. He topped his February performances by reaching the semifinals of Indian Wells. He won a second title for the year in Estoril in May. He’s now back in the Top 15.

Gilles Simon: Simon had a breakout year in 2008, reaching the semifinals in his lone appearance at the World Tour Finals and then reaching a career high ranking of 6 in January of 2009. However, he missed a great deal of 2010 due to a knee injury. Like his countryman Tsonga, Simon seems to have rediscovered his form and could be a force going into the final legs of the season.

Dark Horses

Janko Tisparevic: At 13th in the race, he’s a long shot, but it’s been quite a year for Tisparevic who reached the quarterfinals of the US Open and broke into the Top 15 for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Gael Monfils: It would take some stellar results this fall for Monfils to leapfrog the other competitors and reserve a spot in London. I doubt he has the consistency for it, but Gael always brings the surprises.

Richard Gasquet: Like his French compatriots, Richard has had a pretty good year. He’s not quite back to his Top 10 form, but I would not be surprised if we see big things from him in 2012.

Alexandr Dolgopolov: At 22, Dolgopolov will have plenty more chances to qualify for the World Tour Finals. If he keeps up his current trajectory, we’ll likely be seeing a lot of him next year.