You can add another “classic” experience to the list of fall activities that loom so large in places where the seasons actually change. You know, apple-picking, pumpkin-carving, and 5K races for a good causes in small towns all over the semi-rural landscape; it’s also the opening of bow and bird season, and then there’s tailgating at football games, and oh, those leaf-peeping tours!
I could go on; doubtless, you wish I wouldn’t.
So here’s the addition to the joys of fall: WTA and ATP tennis.
The irony in what I just wrote does not escape me. For years now, I (and others) have looked at the fall season through a jaded lens, conditioned by the chronic shortcomings of autumn tennis: Sparse or utter lack of participation by top stars, the collapse of story lines, the frequent irrelevance of the final months to the rankings picture.
But as September turned the corner into October, look what God (or Rod Laver) hath wrought: A trio of high-quality events covering both tours, revived story lines, and relevance. And two of the three events (the ATP ones) are not even of the highest grade. Beijing and Tokyo are both ATP 500 tournaments, while the WTA division in Beijing is a top-class regular tour event, a premier mandatory.
So just in case you’ve been busy tying bundles of Indian corn to the door knocker or trying to find your kids in a corn maze, here’s what’s happening in China and Japan:
ATP Tokyo: Every once in a blue moon, you get a relative newcomer like Milos Raonic rather than a crusty and dedicated veteran (think Mardy Fish) making a run for a spot in the ATP World Tour Finals. In addition to being a good story in and of itself, the push can mark a critical step in the development of that player. Tomorrow, Raonic will play Juan Martin del Potro for the title in Japan. Tough match, you say. They all are, once you get to where Raonic is spending his time these days.
Raonic is one of a handful of men within reasonable striking distance of qualifying for the World Tour Finals. You can see the “Race for London” standings here, and they'll change a bit after this weekend. Note that while Raonic is currently 11th, he’ll likely only need to move into the Top 9 to qualify, with No. 3 Andy Murray presumably skipping London while recovering from surgery. Sure it’s a tough ask, but that’s why they use the word “run.”
Of greater concern for the 22-year-old, who’s ranked No. 11, is del Potro. The 6’6” Argentine is in sixth place and thus almost assured of a place in the World Tour Finals. That might help motivate Raonic even while it makes his task seem more formidable. Del Potro arrived in the final after Nicolas Almagro gave him a few tense moments in a 7-6 (7), 7-6 (1) semifinal, while Raonic had an easier time against Ivan Dodig, winning 6-4, 7-6 (5).
Being a nice kid, Raonic might have uttered a few words of thanks after the handshake at the net, for Dodig had upset second-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Thursday. Tsonga is one the the two main obstacles to Raonic’s London ambitions (the other one is Richard Gasquet, a Beijing semifinalist this week). Tsonga led Raonic by a slim 180 points before this event. Both Tsonga and Raonic were defending 300 points this week, so the Canadian has made up some ground and then some. Stick around, folks; the fur—like the leaves—will be flying.
Raonic has beaten del Potro the only time they played, a few weeks ago in Montreal. You might remember a certain controversy about that encounter.
WTA Beijing: It just wouldn’t be right if tennis didn’t kick out at least one result that the politicians like to call the “fall surprise.” For the WTA this week, that’s Jelena Jankovic. But baseball fans also have their seasonal meme, the ritual “fall collapse” of a league-leading team. For the WTA this week, that’s Petra Kvitova.
The women earned those associations simultaneously today, with Jankovic powering past the red-hot Kviova and into the final (where she’ll play Serena Williams, who routed Agnieszka Radwanska in her own semi). Jankovic was the No. 8 seed in a loaded field; Kvitova was seeded just one notch lower, but coming off a win in Tokyo last week. A streaky player, Kvitova seemed on fire. But after she won a tight first-set tiebreaker, Jankovic made great use of her nimble feet, excellent defense, and Kvitova’s reliable tendency to self-destruct to salt away the final two, ugly sets. They cumulatively lasted under an hour; Jankovic won the match 6-7 (7), 6-1, 6-1.
Fans of Jankovic’s fluid, athletic game—if there are any of those left, after she’s teased and then dashed their hopes so frequently—are probably wondering if this fall surprise might be a harbinger of the long-awaited, extended moment when she regains the confidence that once propelled her to the No. 1 ranking, a runner-up finish at the 2008 U.S. Open, and a triumph at Indian Wells. A win over Williams, who has already clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking, would certainly advance that theory.
And here’s the thing: Serena will need to keep her eyes on the ball in the final. Jankovic has an excellent record against Williams, 4-6. There’s nothing deceptive about that record, which makes the thrashings and flailings of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka against Williams seem almost amateurish (the combined record favors Williams, 27-5).
By contrast, Williams is just 2-1 in meetings with Jankovic since 2010. Granted, Jankovic’s win in that period was on clay, in 2010, but she has the kind of game than can trouble Williams, mainly because her defense is superb. Jankovic’s big problem in recent times has been winning enough matches to get opposite Serena. That hasn’t been a problem in Beijing.
ATP Beijing: What is there left to say about yet another meeting between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic? They’ve dominated the headlines this week, shoving even Serena's big personality and game to the background. But here we are, in Rafa vs. Nole territory once again. And this time, my guess is that it will get ugly.
Nadal re-claimed the No. 1 ranking today, and he did it via a TKO of Tomas Berdych. The Czech luminary could have provided Djokovic with one more bittersweet week at the top of the rankings, had he been able to stop Nadal. But it all became moot when Berdych retired at 2-4 with a back injury. It was not exactly the way anyone, including Nadal, expected to re-gain the top spot, but he was the last person complaining—or rejoicing.
Referring to his struggle to find his game after having to take seven months off starting in July of 2012, Nadal said: “At the end, (number one) is just a number. . .What [makes] me happy is [everything] I did to be back where I am today.”
You could hardly blame Djokovic if he responded to this surprise ending to Nadal’s semi with a shrug and the comment, “It figures.” For things have broken Nadal’s way for a good portion of this year. Djokovic must feel a little hollow at being stripped of his ranking, yet he’s borne the inevitable news with his chin thrust out. He hammered Gasquet in his own semi, 6-4, 6-2, continuing the march to the showdown that everyone wanted to see: Rafa vs. Nole. This will be their 38th meeting; already a record for most career meetings (Nadal leads, 22-15), and it speaks volumes for the consistency of these two men.
The outlook for Djokovic may look terribly bleak; does anyone doubt that he’s feeling a little down about now? But you can also ask, can there be a better time for Djokovic to experience the sweet taste of revenge? A win over Nadal in the final tomorrow would add a tag-line to the headline, “Nadal Reclaims Number One Ranking.”
That tag-line would read, “To be continued. . .”