Professional tennis takes a backseat to the mainstream sports world in the fall. As far as most Americans are concerned, the ATP season effectively ends after the U.S. Open.
But there's still plenty of action on the fall schedule, which really heats up in October as players jockey to qualify for the final event on the calendar: the Masters Cup in China.
I've always found competing in the fall to be the "business" part of the year. The four Grand Slams are behind us, and with them go a lot of the excitement and passion. And by the time the fall rolls around, nine months after starting the year in Australia, most players are operating at a physical and emotional deficit.
But that being said, this time of year is a great opportunity for pros to pick up valuable ATP points and holiday cash -- there are a ton of big tournaments crammed into the last two months of the calendar year. For players, it's a perfect time to remind ourselves that this is a business, and we must do whatever we have to do to prepare properly and give ourselves the best chance to end the year on a positive note and build momentum for the upcoming season.
Different players have different forms of motivation during this time of year. Since I was generally a player who hovered around the No. 100 ranking in the world, it was always in the forefront of my mind that I needed to secure enough points to gain direct entry into the Australian Open in January.
Only 104 players make that cutoff, so I always used that as the incentive to train when my body was worn out, to get on another long plane ride when I would have much preferred to hang out with my friends and watch football all weekend.
Many top players can secure huge financial guarantees to just show up and participate in fall events, especially some in remote locations. When you look at draws and see Lleyton Hewitt in Mumbai, India; Andy Roddick in Lyon, France; and James Blake in Tokyo, don't think it is solely because of their love of the game.
Still, the main theme in the fall schedule is the buildup toward the year-end Masters Cup event. The top eight players get to compete in the biggest tournament outside of the four majors, and it's as prestigious as it is lucrative. Generally, the first few spots are already locked down, and this year is no exception.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko and Roddick can all safely call their travel agents and book their tickets to Shanghai. But the final three spots are up for grabs with players like Blake, David Ferrer, Fernando Gonzalez, Carlos Moya, Tommy Haas, Ivan Ljubicic and Tomas Berdych hot on their tails.
Ljubicic and Berdych are very comfortable on the quicker indoor surfaces, so I would look for them, along with Blake and Haas, to fight it out for the remaining spots. They'll get their chance at the two remaining Masters Series events: Madrid, Spain (Oct. 13-21) and Paris (Oct. 27-Nov. 4). The elite eight then battle it out at the Masters Cup in Shanghai from Nov. 11-18. Not surprisingly, Federer has won three of the past four titles.
Once a champion is crowned, there's more excitement to close out the year. The Davis Cup final takes place the weekend of Nov. 30, and as I predicted back in February, the U.S. will be the favorite when its takes on Russia on home soil in Portland, Ore. I've said all year that the American team, led by Roddick, Blake and the Bryan twins, will hoist the trophy, and I look forward to cheering them on.
Events all over the world and tons (of money and respect) at stake. If you think the tennis calendar ends in Queens, you're going to miss the fun.