November 1, 2011

The Boys Are Back

Is it me, or has something been missing from the ATP Tour the last few weeks?

Sure Andy Murray has been tearing up the Asian hard courts, and Janko Tipsarevic has carved himself quite a nice little niche, making the finals or better more than a few times this fall. But without the presence of superpowers like world #1 Novak Djokovic and Grand Slam master Roger Federer, the draws have seemed fairly sparse since the U.S. Open.

That changes this week, though, as both the Swiss and the Serb -- along with a few ther once-familiar faces -- take the courts in Basel and Valencia. They've been absent for a variety of reasons, from injury and illness to fallen rankings and time spent on the Challengers' circuit, but they return to the scene this week in full force. Not all can be successful, of course -- John Isner, who's been out of commission during the Asian swing, already lost his first round in Spain to young Canadian Vasek Pospisil --but others could really use this week to get back in the swing of things.

Roger Federer hasn't played since the Davis Cup World Groups in September, and though he won both those round robins, he's seen his ranking drop to a level not seen since March of 2003. He came back to Basel the defending champion, one of the last few tournaments he won, but this time he's not the on-paper favorite. Still he powered through his first round against Potito Starace, earning the right to meet Jarkko Nieminen tomorrow. A few more wins under his belt and he could very well re-establish his position before moving on to Paris.

Novak Djokovic has been riding a slightly more successful year, but after recording just his third loss of the season -- he pulled out of his match with Juan Martin Del Potro after a nagging back injury put an end to his most recent run -- he's been on break. He too is back in action in Switzerland and had a opening round date with veteran Xavier Malisse earlier today. And though he had a longer day at work -- the Belgian won every one of his first serves in the second set -- Djokovic was ultimately able to secure the win. He'll get a day off while Tobias Kamke and Lukasz Kubot battle for the right to face him next, and the rest could serve him well if he's going to keep up his success.

Over in Valencia the stars shine a little less bright, but with six of the top fifteen players entered in the draw, the road to a title is no less difficult. So it's encouraging to see co-marathon man Nicolas Mahut seeing success again. He's only played a handful of pro Tour matches this year but made it through a couple tough qualifying rounds to make the main draw. On Monday he faced one-time top twenty-five player Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and, after surviving a tight first set and tiebreak, he eventually sailed through the second, notching only his second victory over a player ranked in the double-digits this year. He probably has a decent chance against Nikolay Davydenko in his next match, but it's encouraging to see him notch even one upset.

Another player ranked outside the top hundred might have a better chance of making a dent in Valencia, though. The twenty-four year old American only won a single match between last year's U.S. Open and February this year, and when an elbow injury kept him from defending many of the points he racked up last summer, he tumbled out of the sport's elite. He's bided his time on the Challengers' tour since September and played his first pro match earlier today against also recovering Ernests Gulbis. With ten aces, a ninety-plus win percentage on his first serve, and a solid return game, he might be back in the form he needs to climb up the rankings again.

It's been a while since we got a chance to watch any of these guys play at all, and some of them haven't played well in ages. But early indications this week bode well for hopes they're still in the mix, and if they play to their potential, it could be an exciting end to the season.

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