Misson: (Nearly) Impossible

Monday, November 16, 2009 /by
81238283 by Pete Bodo

Good mornin', everyone. Early this morning, I filed some further thoughts on the sad history of the number 3 for ESPN, so check that out if you're so inclined. The post ought to be live soon. Then I went for a four-mile run in my new neighborhood. Our apartment more or less overlooks Riverside Park, right by the Soldiers and Sailor's Monument on 89th St. and Riverside Drive. The monument looks like a giant crown supported on tall pillars, and has a commanding view of the Hudson River.

I ran south, along the east bank of the Hudson. For years, I wondered why New York has done so little to take advantage of its Manhattan shorelines, and today I realized just how much things have changed - even if there's still a pretty long way to go. My entire two-mile run was on a handsome, scenic waterside promenade, with just enough formidable industrial fixtures (like rusted barge docking facilities) still standing to remind us of the industrial, brawny past of New York harbor.

It's different, these days; the vibe is sort of yuppie (if that word still means anything), what with the enormous Trump Plaza development towering over the shoreline near the southern end of my run. Trump Plaza is a cookie-cutter if upscale development, something like the high-rise dwellers answer the suburban McMansion. But the waterfront it faces, just across the West Side Highway, has been beautifully developed. There, the walking-jogging path runs between little islands of willow trees and dune grasses (no dogs allowed in the grass; it's a particularly cruel if understandable rule); every few hundred feet there are benches, picnicking areas, and even metal stools right at the edge of the river, with tray-like shelves built into shapely fence along (and slightly above) the water. You can sit and eat your lunch, or bang away on your netbook, on an al fresco barstool right at the edge of the water, across which the slopes and cliffs of New Jersey are still ablaze with fall foliage.

On the way back north, the George Washington Bridge looms on the horizon, entirely. . . Presidential. It was a glorous morning, full of surprises (including running into my boy, Luke, whose class happened to be on a field trip to Riverside Park).

But back to tennis. Novak Djokovic has given the numeral 3 a boost in status with his big win in Paris. The run he's been on also puts into perspective the Tennis needs a longer off season! meme. I'll bet Nole, who spoke out about the length-of-season a few weeks ago (I guess he drew the short straw this year), isn't exactly distressed over having had to play these past few weeks. And did that notional "summit" he called in Paris to discuss the length of the season actually take place? I haven't heard a thing.

If I happened, I imagine it went something like this: Roger Federer was late, because one of the girls (not Mirka) was cranky and wouldn't stop crying. Andy Murray was off in the corner, posting a Tweet. Andy Roddick was sprawled across three chairs, listening to the new Fitty Cent album on his iPod. Rafael Nadal, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, looked at Djokovic and asked, "What the hail are we doing here? Let's go back to sleep. We''ve got a semi to play later!"

Having lost that semi - athough there certainly was no shame in it - has hurt Nadal, who now goes into the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships, aka the Tennis Masters Cup, trailing Federer by 945 ranking points. But let's not forget that Federer will be earning points next week as well. So let's say Nadal runs the table in London, and wins all three of his round-robin matches plus the ensuing semi and final, to earn the maxmium 1500 points. That still means Federer needs only to gather 555+ points to retain his lead and finish no. 1.

In other words, Federer can still hold off Nadal if he wins all three of his round-robin matches, or the final (via any combination of Ws and losses). You can read the rest of the potential Nadal vs. Federer scenarios here, but when you come right down to it, the bottom line is that Federer will have to blow it, big-time, for Nadal to end up in the year-end no. 1 position.

When the ATP took this original Grand Prix concept (a year-long points race to determine a champion regardless of the Grand Slam event results) and ran with it, hopes were high that it would become the ultimate standard for the game. If enough blue-chip players got into the mix at the top, the year-end championships could not only  provide a dramatic, spectacular finish to the tennis year, they also might determine the all-important year-end no. 1 ranking - the official world champ - of the year.

It's rarely worked out that way, thanks partly to the gap the front-running Federer (and his predecessor, Pete Sampras) maintained for so long for most years. The problem you run into when you have a dominant top player is that by the time the YEC rolls around, all the big questions have been answered. The tournament becomes a tool used by contenders to get within striking distance of the top, and to that extent it creates an almost artificial facade of competitiveness. Sure, it's great to be nipping at the big dog's heels, a close no. 2 or even 3. But the big dog knows that it makes no difference in tennis if you win by inches, or a mile - in our terms, by 7-6(11) in the third, or 6-1,6-0. If you finish no., 1 by a measly 200 points, or 2000.

All that serves to make the memory of the ATP Tour finals of 2000 all that much more remarkable. You'll remember that it was the year of Safin (pause here for a moment), and it never looked more certain than when the Russian newcomer and surprise US Open champion won his seventh singles title of the year at Bercy (it then traveled under the considerably more elegant name, The Paris Indoors).  Remember that final? Safin beat the best-player-never-to-win-a-major (at least in my book), Mark Philippoussis. The scores were 3-6,7-6(7), 6-4,3-6,7-6 (8). Year-end no. 1 honors were almost certain to be visited upon Safin; the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon seemed like a mere formalty.

But in Lisbon, on an indoor, slow hard court, Gustavo Kuerten beat Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, respectively, in the semis and final) to take the Tennis Masters Cup. Even that stunning performance would not have been adequate for lifting Kuerten to the top had Safin taken better care of the things that were in his power to control. But Safin took a bad loss to Agassi in the round-robin portion, by a desultory 6-3,6-3 score, and that both kept Kuerten's long-shot hopes alive - and undoubtedly struck some motivational sparks. And so it came to pass that Safin's bid for the year-end no. 1 ranking collapsed, and instead tennis crowned an unexpected world champion on the very last day of the season. Kuerten immediately went into the record books as the first South American man to finish as the year-end no. 1 since the rankings went on-line, in 1973.

There's a chance something like that could happen again this year, with Nadal snatching away the top ranking in London. But it's an outside chance - at the very best.

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