November 3, 2009

The Jury's Still Out

This week I'm doing my civic duty and serving on a jury -- or at least sitting around waiting to see if I'll be selected to serve on a jury -- to decide another's fate. Meanwhile the fates of a couple men playing on a different kind of court are similarly undecided.

For all that's been said about how open the women's field is this year, there's been plenty of movement on the men's side too. Rafael Nadal started 2009 at #1 and dropped unceremoniously to #3 for a couple weeks in August. Roger Federer reclaimed his top spot and set a mass of records, but then fell in the finals of the one tournament he hasn't lost since 2003. Andy Murray himself got within one Grand Slam win of a #1 ranking but, due to a persistent wrist injury, is now fourth. And a strong back half of the year has brought Novak Djokovic back securely into the third spot.

And while the Majors might be over, there are still a chunk of points up for grabs -- sure, not everyone can hope to end the year as #1, but a couple of wins in the next few tournaments can bring with them a lot of momentum into 2010.

This week marks the return of Roger and Andy, neither of whom have played since the U.S. Open, both facing some tough fields in Europe.

In Basel Roger Federer had an easy time with Stockholm runner-up Olivier Rochus, but with Djokovic, who's already beaten him twice this year, Fernando Gonzalez and Marin Cilic all in the mix, a title in his homeland is not exactly a given. He may be a bit rusty after his time off, but even still, you have to believe the case for Roger to end the year with some big wins is strongest.

A little further west and south in Valencia, Murray could face Fernando Verdasco, Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, all of whom have impressive wins in their head-to-heads. And he's probably the most in need of some irrefutable evidence to prove his case as a Slam contender -- everyone likes to point out how Dinara Safina folds under the pressure of the Majors, but Andy Murray doesn't have a terribly solid history himself.

As for Rafa, well, I'm still waiting for him to bring the force I know he can. It's not that he's done badly since returning from the knee injury that forced him to skip Wimbledon -- he's made at least the quarters of every tournament he's played, and the finals in Shanghai. But a couple of doubters seems to fear his best is behind him.

I don't believe them. I think Nadal has clearly shown his prowess on all court surfaces. Maybe he hasn't played his best in recent months, but he certainly hasn't lost to no-name players, and his injuries haven't seemed to plague him too badly. He'll have had almost a month off by the time he gets to Paris next week, and with everyone in the hunt for that title, we'll know beyond a reasonable doubt whether Rafa's back on top of his game soon enough. The motive for him to do well is certainly there -- he's probably the only one with a chance to take #1 from Roger.

It'll be a few weeks before the final verdict on this year's ATP season is in, but I have a feeling these closing arguments could get very interesting!

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