The Stakes of Autumn

Tuesday, October 05, 2010 /by

Rn What's the least logical part of being a sports fan, writer, prognosticator, analyst, or what have you? Here’s one strong contender: Trying to discern any significance in the week-to-week results of a particular player or team. For example: When Tomas Berdych reaches the Wimbledon final and nearly beats Roger Federer three times in a row, you’re pretty much duty-bound to think or say or write something like, “this guy has got it together, he’s finally making good on all that potential, he’s going to be a new threat to the top players.” When the same Tomas Berdych barely shows up for the U.S. Open or the start of the Asian swing, you might find yourself saying, in direct contradiction to your statement from two months before, “the slacker will never pull it together, and it just shows you how special the top guys really are, that they can go out and win week after week after week, unlike this bum.”

Ideally, we would reserve our judgments until, say, the end of a season, when we’ve seen all the hills and valleys that a player has traveled and where they have ultimately led. But what would we do in the meantime? What would we watch on TV? How would I spend my time if I couldn't watch the Pardon the Interruption pontificators contradict themselves each week?

No, there’s always another day in sports, another day for an athlete to prove you wrong. There are lots of other days in tennis, especially at this time of year. At the macro level, the level where the sport’s history is written, the season essentially ended with the U.S. Open. But at the micro level it continues on, for love or money or both. The women are in Beijing for a nominal mandatory event that doesn’t include Serena, Venus, Kim, or Justine. The men are split between two spots in Asia, but between them nearly everyone of importance, excluding Federer, is in attendance. What are the stakes for these players at this point in the season? Is there any reason to try to attach significance to their results this week? As illogical as it may be, let’s see what we can do.

Rafael Nadal
Rafa is in Tokyo, after losing in the semifinals in Bangkok last week. The draw is decent but not loaded—Melzer, Lopez, Roddick, and Monfils are the other seeds. A loss in this appearance-fee event would not mean anything by itself, until we see what he does at the Masters event in Shanghai. The only half-worry for him is that each loss does further stalls the momentum that he had generated through the two weeks at the Open. Nadal is a momentum guy, and he wants to use what he has this time to carry him through the World Tour Finals—might as well knock that one off, too, while he has a chance.

Or wait, is Nadal still a momentum guy? He didn’t have a whole lot of it coming into the Open, after losing to Murray and Baghdatis in Toronto and Cincy, respectively. That time he almost seemed to be saving himself for the big push in New York. We’ll see how he plays it this fall; there’s still a fairly long way to go.

Andy Roddick
The season started out so well, the rest of 2010 has had the look of decline about it. And when you’re 28, any decline could be the start of a career decline. So there’s a good deal at stake for Roddick in Tokyo and beyond. He can qualify for London, yes, but you’d also like to see him use this time to try something new with his game, specifically his attacking game. Or is it just too late for that?

Vera Zvonareva
Now that she’s been to the Slam mountaintop, will the weekly tour events begin to seem like a letdown? Or will they inspire her to think of herself as a higher-class of player? Zvonareva beat Andrea Petkovic easily in the first round in Beijing. We’ll know more by the end of the week.

Robin Soderling
His position is similar to Zvonareva’s. Off-season events and indoor tournaments are his traditional feeding ground, but will he be as motivated for them as he was before he started scaring, and beating, Federer and Nadal at the majors? He could get Murray in the semis in Beijing.

Andy Murray
After the Open, he seems to be in a similar boat as the other Andy. If any loss would make you want to make changes and experiment with new ways of attacking and creating, I’d think it would be Murray’s dismal loss at Flushing to Wawrinka. We’ll see if not having a coach—Murray has put off hiring a new one until next year—allows him to feel more free, or just makes him stick with what he has.

Novak Djokovic
He had a very good fall last year, and he's coming off a surprisingly strong U.S. Open, where he had his best result at a major in nearly three years. It would be nice to think that he could consolidate that and go into the new year on a high. Two things will get in his way: (1) His natural tendency to get up on the wrong side of the bed, or court, at least once per tournament; (2) The Davis Cup final that will constantly be in the back of his mind, and which he won’t risk anything for. This week he’s in Beijing, where he plays Mardy Fish next

Nikolay Davydenko
Come on, Kolya, get it in gear—after all, I’m on record as saying this part of the season is Davydenko Time. He’s won a round in Beijing, and could face Djokovic in the semis. We may be seeing more of the defending WTF champion very soon.

Ana Ivanovic
She plays Dementieva next in Beijing. A win would be big, but a loss shouldn’t be devastating. Ivanovic is still in one-point-at-a-time mode.

Francesca Schiavone
Sciavine has a lot left to play for. In Beijing, she'll get Dushevina next and then possibly Zvonareva, so it might be a chance for the Italian to reclaim a little of her early season status, help herself qualify for the year-end championships for the first time, and build some confidence heading into the Fed Cup final against the U.S. Even at 29, it would be nice to think that she’s got more big matches and big performances in her future.

John Isner
He took a wildcard in Beijing and won his first round. It’s been a long season for him already, but he seems to want more. Isner may never be a Slam contender, but he can use this time to continue to establish himself as a weekly fixture on tour—the new Mikhail Youzhny, perhaps?

Nicolas Almagro
He notched 40 wins for the first time in 2010 and has Soderling next in Beijing. If Almagro keeps this up, he could be the next Tommy Robredo someday.

Ernests Gulbis
New season, new hope, for our favorite Latvian wit . . . oh, wait, he already lost. In straights. To Tursunov. Have fun, whatever you do with your week, Ernests.

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