James Pham is on the ground in Bangkok. He’ll be writing about the Thailand Open this week for The Changeover.
Welcome to the part of the tennis calendar known as the Asian Swing, a heaven or hell, exquisitely frustrating few weeks sandwiched between the US Open and the year-end championships.
On the men’s side, some of the game’s top 15 players are in a mad scramble to pick up the needed points to qualify for the World Tour Finals in London. Practically to the last week, geeky pundits crunch numbers to quantify the various permutations of wins and losses that might just catapult a player into that last remaining spot, usually with a single win or two deciding who makes the cut. For serious tennis fans, it’s almost worse than Election Night with all the drama of Floridian hanging chads.
With only a few weeks left to qualify, a total of 2,500 points are up for grabs in Asia alone. This week, less than 1,000 points separate No. 13 John Isner from No. 8 Stan Wawrinka, with Roger Federer in an almost inconceivable position of perhaps not even making the Last 8, at No. 7 a mere 130 points ahead of compatriot Wawrinka. (Although a few players scored some wiggle room when Andy Murray announced he was going for back surgery and may be out for the rest of the season).
The ATP site even has pseudo-encouraging blurbs next to players’ names in contention. “Best results have come on clay,” seems almost mean next to Nicolas Almagro’s No. 14 spot, considering there are no more clay court tournaments this year, as does “Made lone appearance in 2007,” by Richard Gasquet somehow encapsulating his career of mainly forgettable results in just five words. “35 y.o. bidding for first visit,” is one slot below “Hoping to make first appearance,” for Tommy Haas and Milos Raonic, respectively, in a generation overlap of two players who are still very much needing to prove themselves on the big stage.
Aside from the big names, though, lots of top 100 players are looking to capitalize on the understandable weariness that has caught up to the top players following the year’s final Grand Slam.
With this perfect storm of desperation, exhaustion, injuries, and opportunism, you never know who’s going to turn up in tiny 250 level tournaments in places like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. You might have Roger and Andy (Roddick) squaring off in the finals (like at the Thailand Open 2004, the then-No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world) or Roger and Andy Redux (Murray this time) the following year, with Murray reaching his first-ever final. Or you might equally have finals between Dmitry Tursunov and Benjamin Becker (Thailand Open 2007) or Mikhail Youzhny and Andrey Golubev (Malaysian Open 2010). It really is a crapshoot.
Add to that, the last minute withdrawals of big name players that happen with alarming regularity this time of year. Nadal has pulled out of the Thailand Open three times, one year the Hotel InterContinental sadly posting a photo of a monogrammed bathrobe that alas never got the chance to envelop the Muscles from Mallorca. This year is no different, with Andy Murray pulling out of the Thailand Open, and Serena Williams (fatigue) and Maria Sharapova (shoulder) out of the Pan Pacific Open. All these factors are what makes this time of year so beautifully frustrating. You just never know who’s going to step up and take advantage of the situation.
This week I’m covering the Thailand Open. And although my heart broke a little when Andy Murray announced his withdrawal, I’m still looking forward to seeing Berdych, Raonic, Gasquet and Tomic this week (Ferrer, Wawrinka and the ever-hopeful Almagro are scheduled to play in Kuala Lumpur).
Drawn semis: Berdych v. Simon (coming off a win in Metz over Tsonga) and Raonic v. Gasquet (he of “ze socks“)
Early matches to watch for: Berdych v. Rosol (Czech Off, Quarters), Simon v. Tomic (Counterpuncher Contest, Round 2), F. Lopez v. Raonic (Netrushing like it’s 1999, Quarters)
While the action is set to get underway, I’ll leave you with reasons why the Thailand Open is awesome:
- Held in the relatively intimate setting of the Impact Arena, there’s no such thing as a bad seat.
- In addition to Center Court, there’s also a Court 1 where the bleacher seats are literally a few feet from the court.
- Thai food. A food court with Siamese glass noodles, Hainese chicken and rice or Biryani chicken, all for less than $2. If you’re not into Thai food, there’s also sushi and German sausages available. No dry, overpriced deli sandwiches need apply.
- Players walk the grounds. Bangkok is cheap, so qualifiers tend to hang around to practice with main draw players or to simply check out the tennis. The transport vans are right beside the ticket booth so it’s not uncommon to see Lukas Rosol, towering over the Thais, making his way through the crowds. (Teaser: I was alone in the transport van yesterday when the doors opened and Mahesh Bhupati and Robert Lindstedt poured in followed by Santiago Giraldo and Lukas Rosol. I had to bite my lip to not squeal like a school girl. Bhupati and Lindstedt spent the time debating whether to chip low or return straight at the net guy in their next match while Rosol played with his phone and Giraldo talked to me about his schedule for the next few weeks, having to qualify for Bangkok after just missing out on direct entry. More behind-the-scenes with the players later in the week.)
- You never know who you’ll get to see. While I will never, ever forgive myself for not going to those pair of finals featuring Federer even though I was living less than an hour’s flight from Bangkok at the time, I was there in 2008 when Djokovic beat Berdych and Tsonga beat Monfils to set up the final.
- There’s a cheap shuttle bus to the Mo Chit sky train station, also the home of the 15,000 stalls of the weekend Chatuchak Market. Matches on the final weekend start at 1:00 p.m., so it’s entirely possible to spend your mornings shopping before heading over for the matches. Yes, please!
When James Pham isn’t aiming swing volleys directly at opponents, he’s editing a magazine in Saigon, Vietnam and traveling the world as a writer and photographer. He spent his youth ushering tournaments around the Washington D.C. area (and perhaps even skipped school to do so, but don’t tell his mom!) and remembers when the WTA Tour was sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes and you had to screw your wooden racquet into its frame after play. He blogs about his on- and off-court adventures at www.flyicarusfly.com