by Pete Bodo
It's axiomatic in pro tennis that one person's dire misfortune represents tremendous opportunity for someone else. We know that when the top seed in any quarter of a big draw is upset early on, the primary beneficiary is the player who beat him or her. But the reality is that the entire half of the draw potentially reaps rewards. The poor schmo who was quaking in his boots because he may have to face a Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic in round three suddenly feels better about dropping a hundred bucks on dinner on his night off, knowing he's got a real shot at beating the winner of that unexpected Michael Llodra vs. Fabio Fognini match.
And so it goes.
The fall is the ultimate season of opportunity for ambitious players—those who have slumped and need to re-group, or those who are sufficiently motivated to want to beef up their ranking for those critical end-of-the-year discussions with sponsors and tournaments that might be inclined dole out appearance fees. And don't forget young players (a Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov, or Bernard Tomic), or veterans who lost large chunks at the heart of the year due to injury (a Sam Querrey)—they too can position themselves nicely for the new year by closing strong.
The condition is especially relevant this year, what with Roger Federer out of the Asian swing entirely, Nadal back down to two events (Japan Open and Shanghai) and Djokovic's availability and/or fitness uncertain (he pulled out of Beijing the other day, saying the torn muscle in his back required further rest, and remains questionable for Shanghai).
So let's look at some of the players who can—"should," some might say—take heed of the wisdom in the old adage, While the cat's away, the mice will play. ..
No. 4 Andy Murray: This is a no-brainer. Murray has had a shockingly up-and-down year, yet he's managed to hold his place in the elite quartet of top players so he remains the ultimate "glass half-full, glass half-empty" guy in the Top 10. He's also the defending champ at the major fall event, the Shanghai Masters 1000. He needs to play well and close strong to feel he had a good year.
There are two significant ATP 500 events this next week, the Japan and China Opens. Murray is in the group that will go to Japan, which is too bad for him. The top seed in that event is Nadal, who's been a real nemesis for Murray this year (he once again ended Murray's Wimbledon and U.S. Open campaigns—both times in semifinals). Getting over the Nadal hurdle at least once after those two losses in majors would give Murray renewed hope that he can beat two or even all of the Top 3 in any given Grand Slam event to win that long awaited first major.
No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Did you notice that as soon as the Grand Slam season ended, Jo-Willy caught fire and won the title in Metz? He's in the China Open group, and could benefit from a good fall that positions him to look at 2012 as a potential career year—he's 26, hasn't been to a Grand Slam final since 2008 (Australian Open, l. to Djokovic), and injury-prone. Time to make a move, Jo.
No. 9 Gael Monfils: He's going to be top-seeded at the China Open (Beijing) now that Djokovic and Federer are out of the picture. The only Grand Slam event at which Monfils survived the third round this year was on his home court at the French Open (l. in quaterfinals to Federer); that's just not good enough for a guy with his talent.
As if his tendency to under-perform on big occasions wasn't bad enough, he's also struggled with injuries this year. Monfils has much to defend this year—a win in Montpellier, finals in Tokyo (l. to Nadal) and at the Paris Masters (l. to Soderling). In fact, the only place Monfils disappointed in the fall last year was the Shanghai Masters (l. in second round to countryman Richard Gaquet). His own act will be hard to follow, but he needs to do it in order to maintain his high ranking. You can bet he won't have Federer or those other dudes to worry about quite as often.
No. 10 Tomas Berdych: A little over a year ago, he hit a career-high No. 6; now he's on the verge of falling out of the Top 10. He retired during his third-round match with Janko Tipsarevic at the U.S. Open but played Davis Cup the week after the final major, so his injury could not have been too serious. He set to start his fall at the the China Open, and it's all potential gain. Berdych won just one match in the Beijing/Shanghai double last year, and he'll have to do better—much better—if he hopes to cling to his place among the elite.
No. 12 Gilles Simon: If there's a poster boy for what a good fall can do for you, this is the guy. He reached his career-high ranking of No. 6 in January of 2009, after a terrific fall during which he won Bucharest and made the final of the Madrid Masters. Of course, that was before the tour realignment that ended up with Madrid yielding its place on the calendar to Shanghai. But Simon proved in 2009 that he can play in Asia, too, with a win in Bangkok and a quarterfinal finish in Shanghai. If Simon, who had a good if tiring U.S. Open, hopes to get back in Top 5 territory, this is the time to do it.
No. 13 Juan Martin del Potro: Delpo has the profile of a potential big winner this fall, and he can use the boost. He seemed poised to return to full form during the U.S. hard court swing—a time when he's been particularly good in the past—but he ended up with lackluster results. Delpo is terrific on outdoor hard courts, he's always had good stamina, and he's still working his way back to top form after missing most of last year. But here's the weird thing—it's hard to find out where he's entered in the coming weeks. The guy doesn't even have an official website. The great Greg Sharko tells me that Delpo isn't playing until Shanghai, which is somewhat surprising given the opportunity.
No. 14 Andy Roddick: He had a good fall in 2010, making the quarters everywhere he played in a regular tour event after the U.S. Open (he was, however, 0-3 at the World Tour Finals) with the exception of Shanghai, where he had to pull out injured. He could really benefit from another strong fall, because the lower he falls in the rankings the tougher it will be for him to achieve the thing that has most mattered to him for some years now—a shot at winning Wimbledon. Roddick has struggled to keep up with the top four and this fall gives him an excellent chance to regain some of the lost ground.
No. 17 Janko Tipsarevic: He declared earlier this year that he's got his sights set on the Top 10, and he's played well to crack the Top 20. This is a guy who could really do some damage on the hard courts that so suit his game over the next few weeks, starting with the Japan Open.
Tisparevic won just one match in Asia last year, and he's already surpassed that total in Kuala Lampur, where he's a semifinalist with Kei Nishikori in his sights. He could be a big winner over the next few weeks.
No. 23 Fernando Verdasco: After losing a quarterfinal to Nadal at the U.S. Open last year, Verdasco went to Asia and failed to win a match in three tries. It was part of the free fall that saw him drop far from his career-best No. 7 ranking in the spring of 2009. It's all upside for Verdasco; he ought to feel free to swing from the heels over the next weeks, maybe get his A-game back.
No. 55 Donald Young: Is there a better example of a guy who has a great deal to gain by playing well this fall, and seems nicely set up to get it done? Young is coming off his best-ever U.S. Open, and now that he's in the semis at Bangkok, he's assured of cracking the Top 50 in the next rankings. Why not keep it going, and leave Asia knocking on the door of the Top 30 or even 20?