“I expected myself (this year) probably not to be as successful and as busy playing matches and tournaments. My mindset now is, okay, next year is going to be a great year again where I’m not going to have that many points to defend, especially at some very key moments where I consider myself a favorite. For that reason I’m really looking forward to 2014 already.”—Roger Federer, speaking with reporters before the start of the Shanghai Masters a few weeks ago.
It’s easy to see why Federer might want to move on to next year already. This year, especially the second half of it, has been unkind to him. He hasn’t won a tournament since Halle, an ATP 250 where the draw was just 28 deep and the man seeded No. 2 behind high-flying Federer was barely inside the Top 10, Richard Gasquet.
That’s the same Gasquet who’s making Federer’s life a little more complicated these days, as he threatens to overtake the all-time Grand Slam champ at No. 8 in the “Race to London” points table. Both men are lucky that world No. 3 Andy Murray is out for the year, and thus the top nine in the race will qualify for the eight-man ATP World Tour Finals. But neither man has sewn up a berth, which is one reason the coming days are critical. Failing to secure a spot in the year-end championships (with all those rankings points on offer) could be taken as a dirge for Federer, no matter how cheerfully he looks ahead to his future.
This week in Federer’s home town of Basel, where he was once a tournament ball boy, he’s seeded No. 3 and Gasquet is in there at No. 5. Gasquet trails Federer by a mere 25 points in the race, which is the difference between a player making the round of 16 and the quarterfinals. And he’s not the only one hot on Federer’s trail.
The others are, in descending order, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic, and Tommy Haas. Only Haas is playing this week (in Valencia, where he’s seeded No. 2); presumably all three will show up in Paris for the final Masters 1000 tournament of the year. Tsonga trails Federer by a mere 90 points, Raonic is 375 points back, and Haas is 720 off the pace.
Just to give you an idea how close this all is, a semifinalist in a Masters 1000 tournament gets 360 points, so every point earned from here on in will increase the cushion for Federer; he’s master of his own destiny.
That destiny would seem to include making the World Tour Finals. His record in that event is one of the least celebrated yet most striking of his achievements, even if this isn’t a typical single elimination event and it’s usually played on a surface that suits Federer’s style. Federer has won the exclusive tournament a record six times.
Federer’s 42-9 record at season-ending championships is astonishing when you take into account that he was playing against only the eight top players in the world, and it’s possible to absorb two or even three defeats each year because of the hybrid round-robin/knockout format. It would be downright ominous were Federer to falter and not qualify; it would be a little like Rafael Nadal not making it into the second week at Roland Garros.
There’s a practical dimension regarding 2014 in play as well. Should Federer not qualify for the World Tour Finals, he’ll automatically lose the 800 points he earned as a finalist in London last year and, depending on what else happens, conceivably fall out of the Top 10. If he stayed there into mid-January, he wouldn’t even enjoy the protection of a quarterfinal seeding at the Australian Open.
When it comes to looking ahead to 2014, my advice to Federer would be, “Not so fast, buddy. You’d better take care of some business first!”