November 3, 2014

All Set...?

The regular season ATP schedule wrapped up this weekend at the Paris Masters, with Novak Djokovic successfully reclaiming his title and the last few spots for the year-ending championships finally being decided. And while some of the theatrics involved in clamoring for those places and selecting alternates may have made more headlines than the on-court action in Bercy, we still got a glimpse of some of the surprises we could be in store for at the O2. And even those players who've had their tickets to London booked for weeks or months could be in for more than they expect.

Djokovic, of course, gave himself a bit more cushion in his attempt to end the year at #1 for a third time. In his first event as a father, he didn't drop a set all week and beat three fellow London qualifiers in the late rounds to capture his sixth trophy of the year. More impressively he got revenge against Kei Nishikori, the man who stunned him in New York a few months back, and stopped Andy Murray's autumn resurgence cold with a straight set win in the quarters. But Roger Federer's hopes for his own return to the top ranking were put on hold a bit -- after picking up his sixth title in Basel, he was in good shape to close the gap between himself and Nole. But after a close opening match against Jeremy Chardy in Paris, he notched his first ever loss to Milos Raonic, largely helping the Canadian into his post-season debut as well and falling slightly behind in the standings.

In a slightly more tenuous position is London's third seed Stan Wawrinka who shot into the spotlight with his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. While he slowed down quite a bit after that, his performances recently have been downright disappointing -- he lost to triple-digit ranked Tatsuma Ito in Tokyo and world #84 Mikhail Kukushkin in his homeland of Basel. While he did manage a win over rising star Dominic Thiem to open this week, he subsequently lost for a third time this year to South Africa's Kevin Anderson. The six-foot-eight collegiate star, who had a very slim chance of qualifying for London himself, then took it to Tomas Berdych, on the bubble this week too, forcing the Czech through three tight sets before finally succumbing. Both Berdych and Wawrinka will have to raise their game if they want to see much success at the World Tour Finals.

Andy Murray certainly has been bringing his A-game recently -- ranked as low as #12 in the world right after the U.S. Open, the two-time Grand Slam winner really turned things around in the fall. He claimed titles in Shenzhen and Vienna and put on one of the best shows of the year to take the Valencia title a week ago. He may have lost in the quarters in Paris, but he's shown he still has what it takes to make a winning return in London. Kei Nishikori too, qualifying for his O2 debut, has certainly rebounded well after his New York disappointment -- he picked up titles in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo and came back from a set down against eventual alternate David Ferrer to make the semis this week. He may still be getting used to the rarefied air of the sport's elite, but something tells me he won't be intimidated when he takes the court in London.

Joining Kei in the year-end newbie category is Milos Raonic, who followed up his win over Federer with his third top-ten victory of the season, beating Tomas Berdych in the semis. While he couldn't put up much of a fight against Djokovic when the title was on the line, his performance in Paris ended a streak of surprising losses in October. If he can keep up the momentum, he could cause a couple more surprises in London. And U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, the fourth first-timer at the World Tour Finals, may not have played in Paris, but he's coming off his fourth title of the year in Moscow and a season during which he's scored five top-ten wins of his own. With victories over the likes of Federer, Murray, Berdych and close calls against Nole, he certainly can't be counted out in the post-season.

Of course there will be favorites in London, and experience certainly favors those who've been there before. But if results in Paris -- and for the entire year, for that matter -- are any indication, it sure looks like nothing is certain. So we should get ready for what's going to be a big season-ending battle -- one where, this year perhaps more than others, anything can happen.

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