WTA Finals Update: Maria Sakkari clinches a spot in Guadalajara

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Is your impression that there isn’t much left to the 2021 season? The majors are over. The Asian swing, including multi-million-dollar Masters 1000s in Beijing and Shanghai, has been cancelled. And several of the sport’s marquee names—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Dominic Thiem and possibly Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka—have already called it a year.

But tennis is still tennis, which means that until the off-season officially begins, there’s always a lot going on, probably more than even the hardest of hardcore fans can keep up with. While the pandemic has shut down its share of tournaments, it has also stretched the calendar into a 12th month; the year’s final event, Davis Cup, doesn’t end until December 5.

Here’s a look at what to watch for, and what’s still at stake, from now until then.

We'll be seeing plenty of Novak Djokovic in the coming weeks.

We'll be seeing plenty of Novak Djokovic in the coming weeks.

Novak Djokovic’s return

When Djokovic exited the US Open in disappointed defeat last month, he sounded as if he might not come back until 2022. “I don’t know if I’ll play anything, anywhere,” he said. His long-term plan, he had announced when he set the ATP record for weeks at No. 1 earlier in 2021, had been to concentrate solely on the Slams from now on. So it was good to hear him say earlier this week that he plans to return for the Paris Masters, the inaugural ATP Finals in Turin and the Davis Cup.

The stakes and interest at all of these events will rise with the world No. 1 participating in them. And he’ll have his own interests as well: Finishing his seventh season at No. 1, which will break Pete Sampras’ 23-year-old ATP record; and winning a second Davis Cup with Serbia, 11 years after the country's first. Djokovic currently leads Daniil Medvedev by 1,900 points in the race to Turin, and has less points to defend than the Russian, who won the Paris Masters title last year.

Overshadowing all of that, most likely, will be the potential confrontation between Djokovic and the Australian government. The country’s Minister of Immigration announced this week that everyone visiting Australia, including all tennis players coning to Melbourne in January, will need to be double vaccinated to enter. Djokovic, who wasn’t happy with the Covid rules Down Under last year, and who hasn’t revealed his vaccination status, says he may or may not make the trip in 2022.

Hopefully, the prospect of missing out on a chance to win his 10th Australian Open title, and his 21st major overall, will be enough to convince him to join the nearly three billion people worldwide who have already received their double dose.

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GettyImages-1342350979

GettyImages-1342350979

Year-end races to new places

Last year’s tour finals were held in London and Shenzhen. This year, for different reasons, the Top 8 men will be heading to Turin, Italy, and the Top 8 women to Guadalajara, Mexico.

The ATP’s move has long been planned. Over the last 12 years, the O2 Arena in London has made a great home, and made the tournament into a world-class production. But it feels as if the men’s game will be entering a new era soon, and Turin will be a welcome change of scenery. With Italians like Matteo Berrettini, Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti on the rise, it makes for a logical home for the ATP’s best right now.

The WTA’s move is pandemic-driven. With China’s Covid lockout still in place, the tour has been forced to pull its final out of Shenzhen and take it to the 6,000-seat Pan-American Tennis Center in Guadalajara. Simply being able to stage the event, after last year’s cancellation, may be victory enough.

On the men’s side, the race for No. 1, between Djokovic and Medvedev, will likely still be in play in Turin, but so will the race for heir-apparent status. Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas all made strides this season—Tsitsipas was one set from winning Roland Garros, Zverev won Olympic gold, and Medvedev won his first major. Together they’ve won the last three ATP Finals. If any of them can do it again in Turin, it may give him an edge heading into 2022.

At the other end of the men’s race, we could see a few new and surprising faces turn up in Turin. Casper Ruud is currently in seventh place, Hubert Hurkacz in ninth, and Cam Norrie in 10th. Each of them is under 27, each has come a long way in 2021, each would inject some new personality into the tournament, and each seems highly motivated to do bigger things in the future. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ruud, 22, wins Roland Garros and Hurkacz, 24, wins Wimbledon someday.

On the women’s side, Barty leads Aryna Sabalenka by 1,800 points in the year-end race, with Barbora Krejcikova about 100 points behind. Barty may or may not play Guadalajara, and it doesn’t look as if her fellow major-title winner Osaka will qualify. But there are new names ready to take their places: Iga Swiatek, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all poised to qualify for the first time. There’s not much time, and not many tournaments left, to catch them.

Jessica Pegula, a consistent threat on tour all season, will play for the United States at the Billie Jean King Cup.

Jessica Pegula, a consistent threat on tour all season, will play for the United States at the Billie Jean King Cup.

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Old team events feel new again

Once upon a time, when we were asked what changes we would make to modernize Davis Cup and Fed Cup (now called the Billie Jean King Cup), many of us suggested holding them every two years, à la the Ryder Cup in golf. Now we’ll get to see whether that would have a made any difference, because it has been two years since either of the game’s traditional team events has been staged.

Going in, I’m feeling more curiosity about both, for exactly that reason: After 24 months away, it will be good to have them back, and it will be interesting to see if there’s more enthusiasm among players and fans. They’ll feel a little traditional and old school, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they’ll also feel a little bit new. This will be the first time that the Billie Jean King Cup will be held entirely in one location, in Prague, from November 1 to 6. Davis Cup made that change in 2019, in Madrid; this year it will stretch back out a little. It will be played in three locations—Madrid, Innsbruck and Turin—from November 25 to December 5.

Who’s playing? Djokovic is in, and as of now, most of the top men seem committed to the competition, despite the fact that it will take their seasons into December. Few of them have a Davis Cup title on their résumés yet, and with Nadal absent for defending champion Spain, this will be an opportunity.

Among the women, the world’s top three—Barty, Sabalenka, Karolina Pliskova—won’t be playing, and neither will Osaka, Leylah Fernandez or Emma Raducanu. But after that, the turnout should be decent: Krejcikova, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber will be there; defending champion France will bring veterans Caroline Garcia and Alizé Cornet; Spain will have a formidable duo in Garbiñe Muguruza and Paula Badosa; and the U.S. will be led by Jessica Pegula, Danielle Collins and Sloane Stephens.

Still feel like there isn’t much left to the 2021 season?