A Fall to Remember

Monday, September 26, 2011 /by

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by Pete Bodo

Greetings. We're now officially well underway in what I've always thought of as, with no malice intended, the "twilight zone" portion of the ATP and WTA calendars—the fall Asian circuit. Three weeks worth of tournaments that seem an ideal fit for the part of the world in which they take place (the temperature in Shanghai at noon today was a pleasant 75-degree F.), but which most of us in the "traditional" capitals of tennis have some trouble focusing on because of the apparent backward lurch in the calendar they represent. It doesn't help that this is also the start of the WTA and (mostly) ATP's official CCS (Calendar Complaint Season). 

Didn't we just stagger and lurch out of the long, hot summer, with another classic segue into early fall at the U.S. Open? Granted, it's been different these past two or three years. You must remember the years when the heat and humidity in New York seemed borderline intolerable at the start of the American Grand Slam, only to yield with startling predictability to the first cool, crisp days of autumn. The weather has been much wetter these recent years, but also more temperate. All the more reason to see the U.S. Open the way the architects of the pro tennis calendar would like us view it—not as the end of something (the Grand Slam season), but part of a continuum that doesn't play out until the ATP and WTA year-end championships are done.

That is, we're supposed to reserve judgment on the events of the year until the season has officially concluded. This is a hard thing to do, because the four majors are still the most important events of the year; thus, everything that comes after the last one is finished in New York has the feel of anti-climax. The fall, overall, is like the obligatory third-place game played between the losing semifinalists in a knock-out tournament. And there's a reason there's no third place match at a Grand Slam event.

Of course, we might embrace the attempt to capture those vaunted "emerging markets" and bring them into the family fold, even if we have to shoehorn them into the attic or basement. But in yet another proof that life really is very different for the players at the very top of the food chain and the rank-and-file, the Asian swing also spells opportunity—a chance for those who blew it during those majors and Premier Mandatory and Masters 1000 events to rekindle hope and, picking through the leavings, add a few more ranking points here and there.

Or is it? 

The best example of what a good, strong fall can do for you comes to us from Novak Djokovic. His resurgence began in 2010 during the U.S. Open, where he made the final and lost to Rafael Nadal. Now imagine how different recent tennis history might have been had the season ended right then—one of the most logical of moments to pull the plug on all but Davis Cup if you're really wedded to the idea that tennis players need and deserve a two or three month off-season.

Perhaps nothing would have been different in 2011 for Djokovic, had he decided to lounge around Monaco for a few months after Flushing Meadows and Davis Cup, emerging now and then to play an exhibition event. Makeovers of either game, character, or priorities are rarely circumstantially triggered—rather, they're banks of the Rubicon decisions, taken at sometimes unanticipated personal crossroads. And they can shape an entire career.  

Pete Sampras, for example, spent over two years (starting in 1991) mentally treading water before he decided to give his all, emotionally and physically, to the challenge of becoming—and remaining—the dominant player on the tour. He met his crisis head-on at the U.S. Open of 1992, when he failed to dig deep enough and more or less yielded the final to Stefan Edberg. But he didn't demonstrate what a difference that match made in his career until almost a year later, when he won Wimbledon for the first time and knew that, henceforth, he would always be in it to win it.

It doesn't seem to have been quite so black-and-white a decision for Djokovic, partly because of the increased status and value of the fall tournaments. He really began the drive that set him up for 2011 with a win in Beijing and a semi at the Shanghai Masters (losing to Federer). Djokovic lost to Federer three times last fall (in Shanghai, the final of Basel, and the semis of the ATP World Tour Finals) and the dynamic seemed clear—a newly energized Djokovic was making a run; the veteran Federer, still ensconced behind Nadal as the strong and clear No. 2, was doing yeoman's work keeping the likes of Djokovic and Andy Murray down on the farm.

For Djokovic, it only took that final, season-ending Davis Cup championship (note that two of the critical wins leading to Serbia's triumph occurred during what we can properly call the "fall season," a fact that helps boost the status of the fall events in the eyes of those who appreciate Davis Cup) to confirm that he had indeed turned some kind of corner, both status and results-wise. One of the more intriguing questions is just how much less confident Djokovic might have been had Serbia lost that Davis Cup final. But never mind about that now.

In the same way, Nadal's autumn of 2010 carried portents of a different kind of fall. He was upset at the ATP 250 in Bangkok by Guillermo Garcia Lopez, skipped Beijing, won the 500 event in Tokyo but fell in the third round at the Shanghai Masters to Jurgen Melzer. In his last event, Nadal lost at the World Tour Finals to Federer.

Speaking of whom—Federer had the best fall among all the players in 2010. After that critical failure against Djokovic at the U.S. Open (remember Double Match Point, Episode 1?), Federer took a month off. Then he went 21-2 for the fall, losing only to Murray (final of Shanghai) and Gael Monfils (semis of Paris Bercy, in three tiebreaker sets). With hindsight, it now seems that perhaps the major difference between Federer and Djokovic in 2011 was nothing more complicated than six years of age—at a time when, in Federer's case, each year brings exponentially bigger obstacles than the last.

Now that we can blank out what emotional prejudices we have against the way the calendar creates a back-to-the future summer in Asia, it's obvious that 2010 produced a fall to be remembered—a fall fraught with significances, hints and omens, perhaps the greatest fall segment, ever. But it's shaping up as a different story this year. Federer has already pulled out of Shanghai—that means he won't play in Asia at all this autumn. Nadal is penciled in for just two Asian events (he played three last year), and Djokovic is scheduled for two as well, Beijing and Shanghai. However, we last saw Mr. No. 1 limping off the court with a bad back after abandoning a Davis Cup match, so who knows what his near future will be?

Clearly, we're already looking at a radically altered landscape for 2011. The good news, if that's the right term for it, is that the tepid support by the top players (only Djokovic is playing as much in Asia as he did last fall) will translate to opportunities for those players who have the energy, determination and skill to make the most of the fall. Murray is entered in three tournaments in Asia, and given his up-and-down year, he could certainly benefit in many ways from having a good fall.

It's unlikely that the Asian tournaments and the remainder of the fall events will wind up resonating quite the same way they did in 2010, but if you're having trouble wrapping your head around the fall season, just think how last year's events foretold those of this year, as well as how they led us astray in at least one case, that of Federer.

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