October 1, 2014

Last Minute Push

As the 2014 tennis season starts to wind down, the stakes at every tournament get a little bit higher. With less than half of the sixteen spots at the year-end tournaments already claimed, a couple stalwarts and a few first-timers are vying for the remaining entries. And each week could have a big impact on their chances.

Four ladies have already booked their tickets to Singapore -- world #1 Serena Williams, French Open champ Maria Sharapova, Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, and WTA Finals newbie Simona Halep have all qualified, leaving four more openings. And if their performances in Beijing this week are any indication, no one's particularly eager to fill them -- Eugenie Bouchard, who came in second to Kvitova again in Wuhan, lost in straight sets to Sabine Lisicki while 2011 champ Aga Radwanska, looking for her fifth post-season appearance, fell to Roberta Vinci on Tuesday. Even U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki has faltered since, losing the final in Tokyo and getting upset by unseeded Sam Stosur in her China Open opener.

So while these ladies' hopes will be put on hold a little longer, some others can take the opportunity to make a stand now. Ana Ivanovic, who took out the top two seeds to claim the trophy in Japan, is on the verge of securing a return to the Tour Championships for the first time since 2008. She's already had two easy wins in Beijing, and though she faces an always-tough Sabine Lisicki next, she has a solid 2-1 record against the German this year. A title run here would clinch her place in Singapore, but even if she falls a bit short this week, a nice showing could give her the confidence she needs to finally re-establish herself among the sport's elite. Ekaterina Makarova is a little more of a long shot, but after reaching the third round she's now in tenth place on the leaderboard. The Russian, who qualified for the year-end's in doubles last year, hasn't come close before on the singles' circuit, but with her first Major semifinal in the books, she could just make an eleventh hour argument in her favor.

There are a few more slots still open in the men's championships, and they admittedly have a couple extra weeks time to wrap up their season. But perennial powerhouses like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and even Rafael Nadal, back in action this week in Beijing, have already banked the points they need to play in London. Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, who'd begun the year with a bang, has been a little more quiet lately, and his straight set defeat in Tokyo by wildcard Tatsuma Ito kept him on the fence a little longer. He'll be waiting on the sidelines along with David Ferrer who, at #7 on the leaderboard, is still in the running, but did himself a disservice with an opening round loss to compatriot Marcel Granollers at the same event.

And again their struggles keep others' hopes alive. U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic and runner-up Kei Nishikori remain in the running -- the Croat only played one Davis Cup match since his historic win but opens his Beijing campaign against Joao Sousa on Thursday, and Nishikori, who rebounded nicely from his New York loss with a title in Kuala Lumpur, has so far kept his momentum going in his homeland's Rakuten Open. But while these guys are just hoping to hold onto their place in the rankings, long time contender Andy Murray is just looking to make a comeback. Ranked all the way down at #10 in the world, the two-time Major winner, shockingly, only won his first title of the year last week in Shenzhen and still stands behind Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic in the race to London. He squeaked through his Beijing first round, dropping the opening set to big-serving Jerzy Janowicz, but he's going to need to make a big push now if he wants to overtake the leaders and reach his sixth ATP Tour Final.

Sure, you may think with the Grand Slams all wrapped up there's not much left to watch on the tennis courts in 2014. But clearly there's still a lot on the line on both Tours, for the top players most of all. And with just a few weeks left before wrapping up their years, you can bet these guys will turn up their games and try to end their seasons with their best performances yet.

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