October 21, 2012

Closing Arguments

The field for the ladies' year-end championships is set already, but with a few weeks left for the men, some of the sport's top players are making their final push to qualify. And a couple made quite a case for themselves this week.

Andreas Seppi may not be in contention for one of the eight spots in London, but after the year he's had already it might not be long before he is in that conversation. The twenty-eight year old took a set from Roger Federer in Doha and beat John Isner in Rome. He won a title in Belgrade -- the second of his career -- but perhaps his biggest accomplishment came at Roland Garros. Ranked #25 at the time and already having endured two five-set matches to make the fourth round, he took a two-set-to-one lead on top-seeded Novak Djokovic, before finally succumbing.

And this week in Moscow he brought exactly that kind of game. He lost just a handful of games in his first three matches, facing his biggest challenge in his opener against Igor Sijsling. Against Malek Jaziri in the semis Seppi needed just eighty minutes to get the win and reach his fourth final of the year. Meanwhile Thomaz Bellucci, trying to claw his way back up the rankings, went almost two-and-a-half hours on Saturday against big-serving Ivo Karlovic. The effort didn't seem to affect him in today's final -- at first. The Brazilian fired off eight aces to take the first set from Seppi, but his service game started to struggle in the second. The second-seeded Italian took advantage to force a tiebreak and, eventually, a deciding set in which he really raised his game. Dropping just four points on serve, Seppi kept his opponent off his game and finally closed out the win.

A little further east in Vienna Juan Martin Del Potro was doing his part to make his first year-end final since 2009. The tall Argentine started the year by re-cracking the top ten after a quarterfinal run in Australia. He followed it up with a final in Rotterdam and a title in Marseille. He made a couple other Major quarters, but the highlight of his season might have been a Bronze medal at the London Olympics, a feat he achieved after a heart-wrenching loss to Roger Federer in the semis. Now back at #8 in the world -- his highest ranking since dropping U.S. Open points in 2010 -- he is poised to make a real stab at the elite again.

There was a little bit of luck on DelPo's side this week in Austria -- seeded Benoit Paire and Robin Haas both lost their first round matches, and hugely volatile Jurgen Melzer bowed out in his opener a round later. DelPo was nevertheless tested in his campaign -- in a three-hour, three-tiebreak, sixty-two ace, no-break match against qualifier Daniel Brands, it took everything in him to notch even one win. Two rounds later he was challenged again, this time by tricky Gilles Muller who put together another ace-fest -- this time with a relative piddling thirty-three -- but again prevailed to reach his second final in Vienna. On the bottom half of the draw, though, qualifier Grega Zemlja was establishing himself as quite the giant killer. He'd taken out Xavier Malisse, recently resurgent Tommy Haas and world #9 Janko Tipsarevic on the way to his first ever championship match, each in a three-set match. But his run finally ended Sunday afternoon -- the Slovenian kept things close to start, but eventually DelPo's experience won out. Winning over eighty percent of his first serves and allowing just one break conversion, the top seed made good and marked his most prolific year since winning the U.S. Open.

In the meantime a couple other World Tour Final hopefuls were working their way through the draw in Stockholm. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ended last year on quite a high note, winning a couple titles after the U.S. Open and making the finals in Paris and London. He's won a few trophies this year too, but only posted one match against a top-ten player all season. Tomas Berdych, on the other hand, has put together a more impressive 5-11 record against the sport's elite, including a stunning victory over Roger Federer in New York. Just last week he put together a straight-set win over Tsonga in the Shanghai quarters -- the match was close though, sixteen aces, eighty-plus percent of first serves won, just one break. In Sweden Tsonga was out for revenge, but it would all be for naught.

The two top seeds in Stockholm worked their way through the draw with little drama. Tsonga didn't drop a set until the semis when Marcos Baghdatis pushed him to a decider before the Cypriot retired. Berdych faced a couple more seeds on his route and only lost serve once -- against world #11 Nicolas Almagro in the semis he didn't allow one break opportunity and converted three of his own. The Czech fell into a deficit in the final, losing the first set to Tsonga in just their fourth career meeting and then getting down a break too. But he rallied to take the second and kept things close in the decider. He had a couple chances to break for the title, and though Tsonga was able to save two match points, he ultimately double-faulted away the game and the match. The win put Berdych a little closer to securing his third straight trip to London, and kept Tsonga on the sidelines for just a little while longer.

Clearly not all of these winners will make the trip to London, and only a couple might have any legitimate shot at winning there. But their triumphs this week certainly do a lot to prove just how strong they really are and, if they can keep it up as the season winds down, there's no telling just how many more wins they have left in them.

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