It’s October, which means playoff baseball is heating up, presidential campaigns are in full swing and the tennis season is barreling on toward the year-end finals. The ATP’s Big Four have each already officially qualified for the World Tour Finals, set to start on Nov. 5, in London, which leaves half the spots still up for grabs.
This week, tennis writer Lindsay Gibbs joins The Toss discuss the year-end jamboree and the players who deserve a spot on the dance floor.
Today’s Toss: How would you like to see the final spots filled for the World Tour finals?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me for this week’s Toss, Lindsay. I hope you’re surviving the vampiric sleep schedule that’s been forced upon tennis fans during this part of the season. I can’t say I’m thriving. Heck, I’m not even sure I’m surviving.
Thankfully this is the last week for the Asian tournaments, as the men will return to Europe next week for their final push towards the end of the season. For a select few, the ATP’s World Tour Finals in London is still well in their sights. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have — shocker! — already secured their spots for London, leaving four spots remaining (though with Rafa questionable there might actually be five open spots).
So let’s start with the most important question surrounding the WTFs: Seriously, who thought that acronym was a good idea?
Lindsay Gibbs: Hey Courtney! Thanks so much for having me this… morning? Night? I’m really never sure this time of year. The WTF acronym is probably my favorite thing to ever happen to tennis. I mean, how many times throughout the year do tennis fans resort to typing “WTF” when watching a match? It’s at least a daily occurrence in my life. So I think it just makes sense that the crown jewel tournament at the end of the year would pay homage to that… intentionally or not.
Anyway, I’m extremely excited for the WTFs this year. In fact, it’s probably the only ATP event I actively look forward to after the U.S. Open.
Nguyen: It’s the If Stockholm Open, for me. Mainly because I keep waiting for them to finish the sentence. “If Stockholm… THEN WHAT?” I’m a sucker for suspense.
But yes, the WTF is a great tournament, particularly since it moved to London in 2009. As we saw at the Olympics this summer, the Brits do know how to throw a big event and their penchant for pomp and circumstance actually plays into the year-end championships seamlessly. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to finish the year in the Top 8 and the London event truly feels like a reward. Attentive crowd, laser light shows, visits to the Prime Minister, it’s enough to bring a smile to Andy Murray’s face.
So with four (or five) spots open for London, who do you see grabbing those last few spots, Lindsay?
Gibbs: First, I’m going to say there are five spots open because I’m a buzz-kill and really, really don’t think we’ll be seeing Rafael Nadal again this year. Looking closely at the Race rankings, it’s hard to imagine that the end of the “Race” is going to be very dramatic. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro seem like very safe bets for spots 5-7, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seems to have enough of a lead that even if he, well, pulls a Jo, he should still sneak in.
I’d love to see Almagro, Gasquet, Monaco, Raonic, or Isner challenge Tipsarevic for the ninth “Rafa replacement” spot, but I don’t really see it happening. I hope I’m wrong, though, the final European indoor stretch is always more exciting when there are WTF spots up for grabs. Am I being too pessimistic?
Nguyen: Four days ago I would have said yes, but the five guys you mentioned are sitting pretty after a week that’s seen Almagro, Gasquet, Monaco and Raonic tumble out of Shanghai early. A quarterfinal or better run by any of these guys could have tightened up the race by a considerable margin given the amount of points available in Shanghai. Each of the men I mentioned were within 1,000 points of the No. 8 spot. I’m not saying any of those guys were going to win the tournament and collect all the points, but they could have at least closed the gap on Tipsarevic and Tsonga, especially with yet another Masters tournament coming up in Paris. Instead, the gap will only widen, as Berdych, Tsonga and Tipsarevic are still in the tournament.
So maybe Shanghai took the excitement out of the Race to London. But let’s put the numbers aside. Who would you love to see at the World Tour Finals, regardless of whether they’ve earned enough points to realistically qualify?
Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of having one wild-card spot into London that you could either award to the No. 8 qualifier or to someone else for whatever reason. Like, why not invite Andy Roddick to play one last tournament as a celebration of his history there and as a proper send-off? Or even Kei Nishikori, a guy who had a breakthrough year and represents a country with little tennis tradition. An invite to the World Tour Finals would be a nice pat on the back for what he’s accomplished this year and what he’s done for tennis in Asia. If people are concerned about it creating a competitive imbalance in round-robin pool play, then offer the wild cards for alternates instead. I think it would be a fun way to reward players for the intangible contributions to the year in tennis.
Gibbs: Oh wow, I LOVE the idea of having a wild card to the WTFs. If the balance of play is a big deal (which, I understand it should be), then why not have two wild cards, one for each group, and make it something that the fans or players can vote on — a little nod to an All-Star Game or Pro Bowl? They could also link the wild-card spots to some of the player awards. Perhaps have the Newcomer of the Year and the Most Improved get a WC spot in London? That would certainly give those awards a bit more weight than they’ve had recently.
Sure, there are plenty of logical holes to both of those plans, but the current WTF qualification system certainly leaves some room to dream about improvements. I’m obviously a die-hard tennis fan and will watch anyone play on any surface at any point of the year at any time of day, but even I can admit that if we insist on dragging tennis into October and November, we need to add a bit of spice.
Oh, and if Andy Roddick isn’t invited to the WTFs for an official send-off filled with sappy speeches and cheesy montages, then I might have to quit tennis. If they did it for Moya …
Nguyen: The Brits love Roddick like a fat kid loves cake. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t march out under the spotlight in ratty jeans and a Lacoste trucker hat to accept an award that he’ll no doubt say he doesn’t deserve.
OK, Lindsay. You get two wild cards to this year’s WTFs. Who do you give them to?
Gibbs: OK, so in the past five minutes of thinking I’ve come up with about 40 candidates, ranging from Benneteau to Isner to Raonic to Safin, but I think I’ve systematically narrowed it down.
My first WTF wild card would go to Tommy Haas, because seriously, how insanely awesome and unexpected and enjoyable and awesome has his renaissance been? He’s currently No. 21 in the Race, and even more remarkably he has played 18 tournaments this year without dying. I mean his Halle victory alone should have qualified him — he beat Tomic, Granollers, Berdych, Kohlschreiber and Federer and only got 250 points!! People have won Grand Slams with easier draws than that. Plus he’s 34 years old, he started the year ranked 205, he has seven top 20 wins (including 3 over guys who will probably be in London: Tsonga, Berdych and Fed), and he’s Tommy Haas and he should be invited to every tournament always.
My second WTF wild card would go to Lukas Rosol. Because even though he hasn’t backed it up and Rafa has been injured, I still get goosebumps when I think of how he played in that Wimbledon match. That upset will be one of the things that the 2012 tennis season is most remembered for, and there should be an extra reward attached to that.
How about you, Courtney?
Nguyen: Hah! I like that call on Rosol. It’s the least we can do for the guy who practically tore the roof off Wimbledon with his forehand.
As for me, I really would give a wild card to Roddick, who as of this writing is still on the ATP rankings list, the No. 3 American at No. 27. That is both weird and amusing.
So with one wild card going to a man who’s leaving tennis, I’m handing my second wild card to Raonic. The 22-year-old is the best and brightest of the next generation of tennis stars, he’s getting Canada excited about the sport, and I would love to see him take on the top eight on a fast indoor court like the O2 Arena. Maybe he could finally get that win over Federer that he’s been so close to nabbing this year.