This week in Paris is the first time since the US Open that world No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – are playing in the same event. And it’s only the fourth tournament in 2018 with all three participating – the first that isn’t a Grand Slam.
Barring injury or illness, in two weeks all three will also play in the ATP Finals in London.
Nadal has an impressive 45-4 record for the season, with two of those losses coming via retirement – in the quarter-finals of Australian Open against Marin Cilic with an upper right leg injury and after two sets of his US Open semi-final versus Juan Martin del Potro with tendinitis in his right knee. His other losses were to Novak Djokovic in a five-set Wimbledon semi-final classic and to Dominic Thiem in the Madrid quarter-finals.
The 32-year-old Spaniard has been out of action since Flushing Meadows with that knee tendinitis and said at the time he said he didn’t know if it would be better in one week or not be better in six months. But he insisted he knew how to deal with it.
When he steps on the court on Wednesday to face sometimes nemesis Fernando Verdasco it will have been 54 days since his last match. He still has a slight 35-point lead – 7480 to 7445 – over Djokovic in race for the year-end No. 1 ranking.
But Nadal is certainly disadvantaged by never having won (0/6) in Paris/Bercy or at the year-end championships (0/8) while Djokovic is 4/12 at the Rolex Paris Masters and 5/10 at the ATP Finals in London.
The 31-year-old Serb has an almost impeccable record since July – going 27-1 – including Wimbledon and US Open titles as well as Masters 1000 victories in Cincinnati and Shanghai. His only loss came against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
Federer is well behind Nadal in ATP race points – 5,660 points to 7,480 – and would pretty well have to run the table in Paris and London for any chance at winding up year-end No. 1 for a record-tying (Pete Sampras) sixth time.
The 37-year-old Swiss has titles at the Australian Open, Rotterdam, Stuttgart and Basel in 2018. His record is 32-7 since Rotterdam in February and includes two losses to Borna Coric (Halle final and Shanghai semi-final) as well as that mystifying 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(3) round-of-16 exit to John Millman at the US Open in the sauna that was Arthur Ashe Stadium on the night of September 3, 2018.
While he wasn’t terribly convincing in winning his hometown title in Basel 7-6(5), 6-4 over No. 93-ranked Marius Copil on Sunday – including sketchy performances in three-set wins over No. 35 Filip Krajinovic (first round) and No. 32 Gilles Simon (quarter-final) – he did notch career title No. 99. That puts him 10 behind Jimmy Connors for the career record. It was also significant because it was his first career victory not wearing Nike clothing. He had played four tournaments, starting at Wimbledon, dressed in Uniqlo attire before finally winning one on his fifth try.
There’s always a sense of season-ending fatigue at this time of year, but if the ATP 500s in Basel and Vienna last week are any indication, there’s still quality tennis remaining before the curtain finally comes on November 25 at the end of the Davis Cup final between Spain and France in Lille.
Elina Svitolina won the biggest title of her career on Sunday as she defeated Sloane Stephens 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the championship match at the WTA Finals in Singapore. She moved her ranking up three spots to No. 4 – one off her career best – and took home $2.36 million (US) in prize money.
It was a solid display from the 24-year-old Ukrainian in a topsy-turvy event that saw seeds one through four fail to reach the semi-finals while numbers five through eight reached the final four with No. 6 Svitolina winning it all over No. 5 Stephens.
There was lots of drama in the last edition of a five-year run in Singapore (it moves to Shenzhen, China, in 2019) – seven of 12 round robin matches went to three sets and both semi-finals and the final extended to the limit.
The entertainment value was there but there are questions about the current crop of WTA headliners and the absence of dominant players or a dominant player. Different players won each of the Grand Slams this year – Caroline Wozniacki (Australian Open), Simona Halep (Roland Garros), Angelique Kerber (Wimbledon) and Naomi Osaka (US Open) – but no one has really shown an ability to week-in and week-out be better than the opposition.
Maybe it’s just normal with a transition inevitably going to happen as Serena Williams gets closer to the end of her career – but there have been disappointments.
Garbine Muguruza, now 25, was an impressive winner of the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon last year. She looked like a possible charismatic and consistent champion but her ranking has fallen from No. 2 at the end of last year to its current No. 17. In 2018 she reached the semi-final of the French Open losing 6-1, 6-4 to eventual champion Simona Halep but went out in the second round at each of the other Grand Slams to unsung opponents – Su-Wei Hsieh in Australia, Alison van Uytvanck at Wimbledon and qualifier Karolina Muchova at the US Open.
This week Muguruza is playing the WTA Elite Trophy event in Zhuhai, China, with the group of players just below the top eight (minus the injured Halep) who were in Singapore.
There may be other players who are ready to step up and become a regular presence in the final rounds of big tournaments. First among them, along with Osaka, could be 20-year-old Belorussian Aryna Sabalenka. Now ranked No. 12, the 5-foot-11 right-hander began the year at No. 78 and her power game and feisty temperament have made her presence felt. She may have participated in the best match at the US Open – a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 loss to eventual champion Osaka in the round-of-16 – before going on to win the Premier 5 event in Wuhan, China, in late September.
With Serena getting to be more of a question mark – is there someone coming up who can seize the mantle, show the grit and step up in the big moments to establish herself as the one to beat?
It’s always best to have a superior player to challenge other players and set a standard for her peers. In recent times there have been players with names such as Keys, Kvitova, Bencic, Ostapenko, Stephens, Bouchard, Pliskova and others who might have had what it took to be a cut above over the long term. But none of them have separated themselves.
There’s an opportunity in 2019 for someone to lay claim to being clearly the best player in women’s tennis – but it certainly feels like it’s not going to happen that soon.
Following a draw Tuesday morning at International Tennis Federation headquarters in London, it has been determined that Canada will travel to Slovakia February 1-2 for the qualifying round of 2019 Davis Cup competition.
The Slovaks defeated Belarus 3-1 last weekend playing on an indoor clay court in Bratislava and it will likely be a similar set-up for the tie versus Canada.
Martin Klizan, 29 and ranked No. 45, will lead the hosts in singles with other possibilities being No. 82 Lukas Lacko, No. 93 Josef Kovalik, No. 189 Andrei Martin and No. 275 Norbert Gombos.
The Davis Cup rankings can be misleading but currently Canada is No. 17 while Slovakia is No. 29.
Canada is playing away this time because in 1997 it hosted the Slovaks in Montreal when a team lead by Daniel Nestor and Sébastien Lareau in singles was beaten 3-1 by Slovakia with Karol Kucera and Dominik Hrbaty as its singles players.
Klizan may be familiar to Canadians because he defeated the now retired Philip Bester of Vancouver in the final of the 2006 French Open junior boys event.
Captain Frank Dancevic’s Canadian team could be made up of Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Vasek Pospisil and Felix Auger-Aliassime, and will be competing without the now-retired Daniel Nestor for one of the rare occasions since 1992.
Canada’s four top players are pretty well at the end of the road for 2018.
Milos Raonic’s year will be over after this week’s BNP Paribas Masters tournament in Paris.
As for Denis Shapovaolv following his 6-4, 7-6(3) loss to Richard Gasquet in Paris on Monday, he will finish 2018 at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Italy, next week. He’s playing in the 21-and-under event for the second time and will be the second seed behind 20-year Stefanos Tsitsipas. The 19-year-old Shapovalov, who has been lacklustre of late, will be playing his eighth consecutive week away from home. He has looked jaded recently but hopefully playing among his peers at Next Gen will serve to energize him at the $1.725 million event.
It appears that Vasek Pospisil’s season is over after he had to retire (lower back) after one set of his second-round qualifying match at the Rolex Paris Masters against No. 56-ranked Benoit Paire. Pospisil started 2018 No. 108 and is currently ranked No. 75.
Felix Auger-Aliassime has one tournament left in his year. Now ranked No. 109, the 18-year-old from Montreal will play the $100,000 Challenger event in Mouilleron Le Captif, France, next week. The top seed is Paire.
It appears Auger-Aliassime, who still has nine points to defend from a year ago, will have to at least reach the semi-finals or maybe even the final to have a chance to get his ranking up to about No. 100 and be guaranteed a main draw spot for the 2019 Australian Open.
As for Canada’s No. 1-ranked woman, Genie Bouchard, she’s entered in the $150,000 Oracle Challenger Series event in Houston the week of November 12-18. The tournament is being held at the George R. Brown Tennis Complex at Rice University.
Bouchard, 24, currently ranks No. 88.
The $60,000 Telvin Challenger taking place this week at Tennis Canada’s Aviva Centre on the indoor courts is a great opportunity for players to take first steps or make strides on the women’s pro tour. There are five Canadians in the main draw headlined by No. 185 Bianca Andreescu, 18, of Mississauga, Ont., and No. 217 Katherine Sebov, 19, of Toronto, winner of the $60,000 National Bank Challenger in Saguenay, Que., last week.
Andreescu, if her back, which forced her to withdraw from her semi-final in Saguenay on Saturday, is better will play No. 362 Mari Osaka of Japan on Wednesday. Osaka, 22, is the sister of US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
Sebov faces No. 587 Natalia Siedliska of Germany, 22, in the first round. Should Sebov and Andreescu advance they will be matched against each other in the second round.
The top seed at the event is No. 106 Kateryna Koslova of Ukraine while No. 134 Conny Perrin, 27, of Switzerland is the second seed.
Disappointing because of her absence is current No. 186 Rebecca Marino. The 27-year-old from Vancouver is rehabbing a herniated disk in her back, an injury that she should be recovered from in time to fully prepare for the 2019 season.
Entrance to the Tevlin Challenger is free at the Aviva Centre, with weekday matches starting at 10 a.m. and extending into the late afternoon.
During the US Open cameraman Mauricio Paiz and yours truly ventured into Manhattan and asked passersby on Fifth Avenue about a certain tennis event going on at the time. As luck would have it, we had a moment of serendipity – coming upon a player who had actually reached the third round of the event in singles.