Novak Djokovic Close To No. 1; Tennis Calendar Crowding — The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

Ice in the Veins

Novak Djokovic battles for the top ATP ranking with Roger Federer

Autumn tennis enjoyed a boom as the race for No. 1 heated up thanks in no small part to the spectacular brand of tennis that came off the racquets of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the Shanghai final last Sunday. Meeting for the first time since their five-set US Open final encounter won by Murray, it was Djokovic who played the more inspiring tennis and found a little magic to turn the tables on the Scot. Aside from pulling off the “tweener” when Murray was 30-0 up serving for the championship, he saved five match points in breathtaking fashion – three winners, an unreturnable serve, and a gutsy display of defense to force Murray into the error. As he’s done so much over the course of the last two years, he played fearless tennis when it mattered. That’s a large part of why his win in Shanghai makes him only the second player since Federer to reach the final of all nine of the current Masters events and majors, as well as the sole player to have won seven out of the current nine Masters. But from Djokovic’s standpoint, the most significant thing about his win in Shanghai is that it puts him within less than 200 points of Federer and the No. 1 ranking. With fewer points to defend than the Swiss down the stretch, it looks like this is one goal for 2012 that Djokovic may just meet.

Final Push

Who finishes as the WTA No. 1 won’t ultimately be decided until the WTA Championships, but after a dominant showing in Linz, Victoria Azarenka is looking just short of a lock. She stormed through the field, with only her opponent in the final, Julia Goerges, able to take more than two games off of her in any set. By securing her sixth title, the Belarusian has made it impossible for anyone to overtake her at No. 1 with the exception of Maria Sharapova – and an awful lot has to go right for the Russian if she’s to pull off the near-impossible feat. In a nutshell, the WTA Championships should be filled with plenty of drama and enthralling matches, but based on current form (and Serena’s absence since the US Open), Azarenka should be the favorite in the field and the one most likely to walk away with the top ranking for 2012.

Breakout Performance

It may not be the powerhouse that nations like Spain, France, and Russia are, but there’s no doubt that 2012 has been a banner year by British tennis standards. Murray brought home Olympic Singles Gold, Mixed Silver, and gave the UK its first male Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry. Laura Robson partnered Murray to that Mixed Silver, put together a breakthrough run in the US Open, and last month she became the first British woman to reach a WTA singles final since Jo Durie in 1990. Last week at the Japan Open, her oft-overlooked countrywoman Heather Watson went one better to become the first British woman to win a WTA singles title since Sara Gomer in 1988. With her relatively small stature, Watson is likely to have to work extra hard if she’s to continue to find success, but getting the monkey off her back with her first tournament win is a big step in the right direction. Furthermore, her breakthrough is apt to push Robson to reach greater heights, just as all of the British players seem to have fed off the success of their fellow compatriots at the 2012 London Games. Granted, jury is definitely still out on some of these young guns, but 2012 may just be the beginning of a much-needed revival in British tennis.

Pillar of Consistency

Though he’s often used as the poster-boy for the gap between the Big Four and the rest of the field, World No. 5 David Ferrer is a phenomenal player in his own right. It’s because of his consistent deep runs over the course of this season that he has become the fifth man behind Federer, Djokovic, Murray and Nadal to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals. It marks the third consecutive year he’s qualified, and fourth time overall. He’s won a personal best of five titles on three different surfaces this season, proving he possesses a solid all-court game. As evidenced by some of the more recent tussles he’s had with members of the Big Four, the gap isn’t as big as some might have once thought. He’s also shown he’s capable of shouldering the pressure when he’s forced to take on the expectations of a Top 4 seed, which he’ll likely have to do in London with Nadal almost assuredly out of contention. But whether he goes in as the number four or five player in the field, he’s going to be a tough customer to handle.

Crowded Calendar

It seems that more changes may be coming to the ATP calendar as there is growing talk of potentially moving the Paris/Bercy Masters to February in an effort to further shorten the season. Bercy Director Guy Forget is all for looking for a new spot on the calendar and for good reason. Though it’s always managed to provide a quality field, its proximity to the ATP World Tour Finals (in 2012, it’s the week immediately prior) has frequently led to some of the sport’s biggest stars opting to pull out in order to rest. Finding a home for the event in February won’t be easy, however, and it’s likely to make a lot of other tournament officials unhappy. In addition to Davis Cup week, the remaining three weeks of the month feature three tournaments per week. These events make up the South American clay court swing, some popular American hard court events, and others, such as Rotterdam and Dubai. Displacing three of any of these events and forcing them to find a new home is apt to cause more than a little grumbling. It would also be interesting to see how the players would feel about such a change. Many of the same big names that skip Bercy in its current calendar location may look to do the same in February. They frequently only play one event or sit out that month, and they may think it’s too big an ask so close on the heels of the Aussie Open and heading into the established Indian Wells/Miami combo that’s seen as a tough one-two for the players. The ATP Board of Directors will be meeting next month to discuss the possible move, and things are bound to only get more interesting from here.