With tennis’ Asian Swing getting underway, Asian ATP fans are primed to enjoy three weeks of non-stop action spread across China, Malaysia and Japan. For the first time, China plays host to tournaments all three weeks, including the inaugural Shenzhen Open, featuring marquee players, the likes of Ferrer, Murray, Gasquet and Robredo.
Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times, Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover and James Pham of the Shenzhen Open discuss what to look out for during the Asian Swing.
Asian Swing: Great opportunity to pick up points or a sideshow before the World Tour Finals?
Rothenberg: Both, it all depends on your approach. For players who need to make a move, like Andy Murray, it can be a great opportunity. For those who are exhausted or otherwise content with their seasons, they can sometimes take it less seriously. But most handle it professionally–the incentives for points and money don’t hurt either.
Gibbs: I agree with Ben here — it’s both. I definitely think for some players who have played a full year and are ranked about where they want to be ranked, that the Asian swing is a bit of an afterthought, and it’s hard to blame them. The season is very long, and this isn’t in the immediate lead-up to any of the majors. However, there are also a lot of points and prize money on the table in the Asian Swing at some fantastic tournaments, so every year there are a plethora of great matches and drama, especially when the chases for the World Tour Finals or WTA Championships are tight.
In advance of the Asian Swing, it looks like Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Wawrinka have qualified for the World Tour Finals. Less than 800 points separate the next seven players. Who do you expect to come through to the Final 8? Do you foresee any surprises in the final lineup?
Rothenberg: If I had to guess, I’d say the top 8 at the end are Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka, Nadal, Cilic, Ferrer, Berdych, and Raonic.
Gibbs: I have absolutely no clue this year, and that is awesome. Right now if I had to guess I’d bet on Cilic, Nishikori, Murray, and Raonic. However, I think there will be one more spot since I have doubts that we’ll see Rafa before 2015 — in that case, Berdych would get in. No matter what, it’s going to be a fun race. I think Ferrer missing out will be the big disappointment/surprise.
Pham: With so many points up for grabs, I do think it’ll be one of those years when the WTF roster won’t be finalized until the very last minute. I love reading articles that breakdown every single possibility. And while some players may be ho-hum about it, having been there before, this year is a great opportunity for some first-timers like Cilic, Nishikori, Dmitrov and Raonic (who was an alternate last year). That has got to be added pressure to finish the year strong.
Andy Murray accepted a late wildcard into the Shenzhen Open, a brand new tournament replacing the Thailand Open. He cleaned up on the Asian Swing in 2011, winning Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, but failed to make it out of round robin play at the WTFs. How much of a balancing act is it to try and qualify but then have enough gas left over to perform well in London?
Rothenberg: I think more of the energy conservation comes into play later in the fall once the schedule moves to Europe, around Basel/Valencia and Bercy. Playing a heavy Asia schedule shouldn’t have a residual effect a month later unless something unusual happens.
Gibbs: It’s a very big balancing act, but the entire tennis season is. For my money, I expect Murray to have a great end of the season this year.
Pham: I think this part of the year is tennis’ answer to the Thunder Dome. Many men enter, one man leaves. Who’s got the juice, both mentally and physically, to end up on top after a grueling year of basically non-stop play? Every now and then you’ll get a Davydenko – Del Potro final (2009), but for the last four years, it’s been Federer (twice) and Djokovic (twice) who’ve walked away with the goods. That doesn’t stop me from rooting for the “second line” guys, though.
Because Asia is so different from where players spend the rest of the year, with different food, languages and culture, does it make winning in Asia that much more difficult?
Rothenberg: With few Asians on tour, Asia essentially serves as a sort of neutral location. I’m sure there are players who adapt better and worse to the various Asian cultures, but with the exception of Nishikori I don’t think anyone really has it any easier than anybody else over there.
Gibbs: I’m sure that for some players it does, but I think that season fatigue is a bigger issue than location.
Pham: Looking at the results over the last five years of all five Asian tournaments, there are no surprising names amongst the winners’ circles. If the big guys are there, they tend to win. Period. That said, for everyone else, being towards the end of the year and in a relatively different environment, I’ve noticed that players tend to take more time to get out and explore the city. Last year in Bangkok, I saw players all over the public transport system and the talk in the transportation van tended to skew towards massages and street food!
With the success of Nishikori and Peng (and what’s with calling all the Chinese players by their full names?) at the US Open, would you say the prospects for Asian tennis look more promising than American tennis?
Rothenberg: That’s an interesting comparison I’ve never heard before. Nishikori is a better candidate to win a Slam on the men’s side in the next few years than America has, but by all other categories I think the Americans are in a stronger position, especially in terms of depth. I hope players like Nara, Zhang, Kumkhum, and some of the Chinese cavalry can continue to make strides…until she has a few more great tournaments, I’m hesitant to read too much into Peng’s form based off of just one (great) tournament. We’ll see how she is able to carry it forward.
Gibbs: Right now? Absolutely (except for that girl named Serena). Nishikori definitely has a more promising future than any of the American males right now. I’d probably still take the up-and-coming crop of American women over the rising Asian stars, but there’s a lot of talent in both camps.
With the game increasingly more physical, meaning players are breaking out later than ever before, does that put the average Asian player at a greater disadvantage?
Rothenberg: Not really, no. If anything, the sport is shifting more and more towards all-around players, which Asia has been able to produce many of. The types of games that have come out of Asia have been very diverse — for example, Li, Peng, Nara, and Zheng Jie all play very different styles — so I don’t think Asia is in any worse shape now than it ever was.
Gibbs: Oh, I don’t think so, not at all. I think that different players have different strengths, and right now an all-around game and strong levels of fitness are the most important things in the game today. That certainly does not exclude Asian players.
You never really know what’s going to happen at the 250-level tournaments. You could get Sousa d. Benneteau (Malaysian Open 2013) or you could get Raonic d. Berdych (Thailand Open 2013) or Federer d. Murray (Thailand Open 2005). What do you love most / least about 250 tourneys?
Rothenberg: 250 tournaments are great for bringing world class tennis to markets that don’t otherwise get a chance to see the sport up close, and in meaningful matches. Obviously the quality of competition can vary wildly (compare, for example, the star-studded Halle draw with the weakness of somewhere like Newport), but it’s almost always great tennis on the World Tour-level. 250s also can be great for facilitating matches between guys of similar rankings who might not otherwise see each other in draws. A match between two guys in the 30s can be just as compelling as a match between two guys in the top 10. In terms of what’s bad about them, the early rounds of 250s can lack intensity — the stakes just aren’t as high for most of the higher-ranked players as elsewhere on the tour, which can lead to some fairly flat starts to matches.
Pham: I love getting up close and personal. Oftentimes seats (especially on the secondary courts) are right up against the court. It’s a chance to see the grittier side of tennis, the day-in and day-out battles of the middle-ranked players where a win can mean so much. The atmosphere is usually more laid back, meaning you could very likely bump into players just wandering the grounds.
Gibbs: Like you said, the possibility. Younger players have a chance to shine, the “journeymen” usually have a better chance at an upset or a deep run, and the crowds are great. I’m a fan.
Wawrinka is in for the ATP WTFs. Although the cut will be higher this year than any other year, it won’t be above 4500 points, and Stan has about 4800 in the bag.
Cilic will also be in as a GS winner – he won’t finish outside the top 20. He could conceivably finish outside the top 8, but he’ll be in for the USO win.
So basically 6 players are chasing 3 spots. Murray has the toughest row to hoe: he’s over 300 points off the 8 spot, and 180 points behind Dimitrov, who’s in 10th place.
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