Running my eyes down the Basel brackets yesterday, I began to wonder: Is the fall legit? Is it no longer a haven for all that is bloated and disreputable about pro tennis? First we watched as every member of the Top 20 flew to Shanghai for an October Masters event. Now it's November and we’ve got two simultaneous non-mandatory 500s that can fairly be described as loaded. Federer, Djokovic, Roddick, Berdych, Nalbandian, Isner, Querrey, Gasquet are in Basel (see the draw here); Murray, Soderling, Davydenko, Monfils, Ferrer, Youzhny, Verdasco, and that traitor Wawrinka are in Valencia (see the draw here). What happened to all the injuries? I’ll knock on wood, assume it’s just good luck, and enjoy having an extra season of men’s tennis this year. Let’s see what’s in store for all of us lucky live streamers in the days ahead.
The elegantly sinister logo for Davidoff cigarettes is gone from the back of the court, and the surface itself has more of a purple tinge this time around. Basel, which is played on a neutral Greenset hard court, is best known for being the home tournament of Roger Federer, who has already made it through his first round. He’ll play Janko Tipsarevic next. That’s a manageable match-up on paper, as is the rest of Federer’s half. Roddick is the next highest seed, followed by Cilic. What’s Federer’s motivation? It may be to win this event again, after losing a three-setter to Djokovic in the final in 2009. It may be to implement any new wrinkles that Paul Annacone has helped devise for his game. Or it may just be, as it always is for Federer, and as it very obviously was for him when he won two weeks ago in Stockholm, for the fun of competing. There was an elder statesman, living legend vibe to the way the fans received Federer in Sweden. He seemed to like it.
Andy Roddick, who plays his countryman Sam Querrey in his opener, has a much stronger motivation. He’s looking for points that will move him from No. 9 to No. 8 and into the year-end championships in London. He’s competing with, among others, No. 8 David Ferrer and No. 10 Mikhail Youzhny, both of whom are in Valencia this week. On the other side of the draw, Tomas Berdych, currently ranked No. 6, would seem to be a lock for London, and at first glance his draw will help him. He starts with a lucky loser and then gets the winner of Lu and Gasquet. But while Berdych is usually a natural indoors, his game has been in free fall recently.
The bottom section of the draw offers two intriguing match-ups: Djokovic vs. Ernests Gulbis, which may be over by the time you read this, and a real specialist’s special, Haase vs. Isner, the smooth vs. the not-so. What is Djokovic’s motivation at this point in the year? This is a tournament he won in ’09; he’ll feel good walking out on that court. The Davis Cup final does loom, though, and that’s the whole ball of wax for him for the rest of 2010. The tournaments before it, Basel, Paris, and London, will be a balancing act. He’ll want to stay sharp but not burn out or injure himself—in a way, he’d be better served not to worry about the DC at all. If Djokovic wins his first two rounds, he might get Isner, never a happy proposition. Past that, you have to like his chances of reaching another final here. And facing Federer once again.
Talk about distinctive places to play. The Agora arena in Valencia is part of a futuristic set of buildings in this city's downtown. Its towering rib-like structure makes it look like the players are in the belly of a whale. The surface is the same as Basel’s, and the money is almost as good. The players, though, are a good deal more Spanish. Eleven of the 32 are home-country boys.
Andy Murray, the top seed and defending champion, has some of that home country in him as well, having spent part of his youth training in Barcelona. As I write this, Murray has just saved two set points and gone on to beat Feliciano Lopez in his opener. If Djokovic is pointing toward the Davis Cup, Murray is doing the same for London. Last year he lost a fiery, high-strung contest with Federer in front of the home folks there. This time, after his win in Shanghai, Murray must believe he’s got a good shot at the biggest title of his career, and he’ll want to get to it with the right of match play behind him.
The tournament’s second seed is Robin Soderling, who has already qualified for London; we’ll see what his motivation is like for this appearance-fee event. Other players will be anxious to join Soderling at the WTF: Ferrer, Davydenko, Verdasco, and Youzhny are all on the bubble, and will presumably be trying to scrounge every point they can out of Valencia. In that sense, this might be the surperior event of the week. Call it an Indian Summer for the sport: The homestretch is a slow time in men's tennis no more.