The world's tennis elite head to the season finale event
After the U.S. Open every year, tennis begins a twilight period on the fast, indoor courts. With no Grand Slams remaining, most top players are either mentally or physically unavailable for tournaments. It's a time when players like David Nalbandian and Tatiana Golovin can sweep events and boost their rankings.
The season-ending finales are, in a way, tennis's last stand against the apathy that pervades player psyches following the rush of the summer hard-court swing. The top eight players each from the gender-separated tours qualify to compete based on their performance for the year.
The Men: Shanghai, China; $4.2 million
Roger Federer (#1) – Despite sweeping another three Grand Slams this year, the world's acknowledged top male player has suffered significant setbacks. The veneer of invincibility has been somewhat chipped, as Federer suffered uncharacteristic losses to lesser players, most recently back-to-back losses to early rival David Nalbandian.
Rafael Nadal (#2) – Another year, another French Open title, such is the pattern for Nadal. And yet another pattern seems to be a drastic drop in quality of play after Wimbledon, probably due to his playing style and the fatigue it causes. The last minute finals appearance/title in Paris may help give the three-time major champion some confidence, though.
Novak Djokovic (#3) – The 20-year-old took the tennis world by storm with a Grand Slam final and five titles, showing ball-striking ability second to none but Federer. He took some time to rest in the last two months, but has performed well when he has played.
Nikolay Davydenko (#4) – At the center of a match-fixing scandal, Davydenko must have some other big issues on his mind right now. The amount of distraction mounted by the controversy has obviously taken its toll on the Russian, who has had serious problems with his serve recently.
Andy Roddick (#5) – Whether or not the American will actually play is questionable, considering the Davis Cup final immediately follows the tournament. Playing and losing his sole tournament match since the U.S. Open has not exactly helped matters.
David Ferrer (#6) – The 25-year-old Spaniard emerged from the shadows of his second-tier rankings this year with a combination of athleticism and counterpunching ability. He's not much of a threat to win the title, given the number of superior talents in the field, but could pick up a win or two.
Fernando Gonzalez (#7) – Ever since he made the Australian Open final in January, his game seems to have disappeared. After that first tournament of his year, all results have been vastly mediocre, with just a few sporadic exceptions.
Richard Gasquet (#8) – Every year, Gasquet plays brilliantly for a patch, only to get blown off the court in his next few tournaments. This year, he staged a mighty comeback against Roddick in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, only to inexplicably retire in the second round at the U.S. Open soon after. What he will be able to do is questionable, but maybe it's a good thing he's been playing badly for the last few weeks.
The Women: Madrid, Spain; $3 million
Justine Henin (#1) – The defending champion heads to Madrid with plenty of confidence, having won a tour-leading nine of 13 events played this year. She's already wrapped up the year-end top ranking with a peerless 58-4 record and is riding on a 20-match win streak.
Jelena Jankovic (#2) – It's been a strange year for the Serbian superstar, as she made a comfortable home in the pinnacle of the sport, the world's top three. Yet her failure to bring home a Grand Slam trophy leaves questions of mental strength lingering - first round exits at her last two tournaments suggest that fatigue is setting in after already playing 94 matches this season.
Svetlana Kuznetsova (#3) – Since getting waxed by Henin at the U.S. Open final, Kuznetsova has had a quiet indoor season. Two semifinals and a quarterfinal are fair, but not spectacular considering the number of top players who bothered to show up.
Ana Ivanovic (#4) – The 19-year-old Serbian made her Grand Slam final debut and cracked the top five this year with a fierce forehand that dominated matches and a smile that stole hearts. Her results for the last month, though, have been disappointing. She comes in having won only one match in her last two tournaments.
Serena Williams (#5) – In a repeat of year 2005, the Williams sisters made a winning return to the tour, claiming the Australian Open and Wimbledon between them. With sister Venus out with an injury despite qualifying for the championships, Williams will look to her formidable serve to improve on her middling indoor season results.
Anna Chakvetadze (#6) – Highly touted as the next Martina Hingis (who retired for the second time this week after testing positive for cocaine), Chakvetadze entered the top 5 this year on the strength of four titles and 57 matches won. Chakvetadze's clever playing style may be refreshing, but she hasn't won back-to-back matches at a tournament since September.
Daniela Hantchova (#7) – This was the kind of year Hantuchova has waited for since her first title and top 10 finish all the way back in 2002. For four long years, Hantuchova's ranking drifted in the teens and 20s as she failed to capture a single title. It's been a long road, but the 24-year-old fought her way back to the game's elite and won two tournaments, the second of them just last week.
Maria Sharapova (#8) – After a stellar 2006 year, Sharapova was expected to become the dominant player on the tour. Though the year started out well, Sharapova's ranking quickly went south with repeated early losses in the second half of the season. In Madrid, Sharapova will have to confront an ugly question: are these recent results the product of low confidence and shoulder injury woes, or has her weakness – being unable to do much but smash the ball – been exposed?
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