Tennis' Silly Season enters full swing as Shanghai Masters looms

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It's always a hoot to watch the ATP and WTA try to drum up attention for the Silly Season, because only the hardcore fans are paying even the slightest attention. Everyone else plays by a simple rule: You can't fully embrace a sport if it never goes away. Don't believe any nonsense about a "break" in this sport, for it amounts to about 10 minutes between the Davis Cup final and the Australian Open.

The men's tour got particularly silly last week, insulting an entire continent in the process. Listen, if you're going to perform in Asia -- a vastly important market when it comes to sponsorship and the game's future -- at least bring your A game. Give the fans a full-fledged event. Instead, we found Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Gael Monfils on center stage in Tokyo, while Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych played Beijing.

The crowds in Japan were plentiful and energetic, with some fine tennis to match, but organizers of the China Open were less amused. I tuned into the Djokovic-John Isner match (on Tennis Channel) to see a startlingly empty stadium, making those early-afternoon U.S. Open crowds look like Woodstock. Men's professional tennis is virtually non-existent in China (as opposed to the flourishing women's game), and this event didn't exactly trigger a revolution.

Still, the Silly Season is looking a bit more promising than usual this year, for two reasons: a test of Caroline Wozniacki's No. 1 ranking and a possible meeting between Nadal and Roger Federer.

This week's Shanghai event is the real thing, featuring all of the top players except Juan Martin del Potro, who remains short of top fitness after such a long layoff. You want a loaded half of a draw? Federer has Djokovic, Berdych, Roddick, Monfils, Isner and Robin Soderling on his side. Nadal's looks somewhat breezier, but it does include Murray, Nikolay Davydenko, Stan Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

We didn't get Federer-Nadal at Wimbledon. Agonizingly close at the U.S. Open, we were denied the privilege there, as well. Why not Shanghai?

The plain fact about the women's year-end tournament, beginning Oct. 26 in Doha, Qatar, is that is lacks four essential components: Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova. Wozniacki, recently crowned No. 1 for the sorriest of reasons -- she just outlasted everyone else, avoiding major injury -- has never beaten any of those players. But the eight-woman field still holds some intrigue, featuring the likes of Kim Clijsters, Sam Stosur, Elena Dementieva, Vera Zvonareva and Francesca Schiavone. If Wozniacki wins that event, she'll add an element of credibility to the discussion surrounding her ascent to the top.

Serena Williams: There hasn't been any real Serena news in weeks. It's news if she actually shows up somewhere. For her to sign up for an event, then bail out -- it's happened three times since her summertime foot injury -- is simply commonplace. I really believe Serena likes it that way. She wants to get back on the court, and her injury is clearly legitimate, but she has no problem stringing people along, only to disappoint them at crunch time. It has become her specialty.

Personally, I'm thrilled that Venus and Serena have ruled themselves out of the Fed Cup. They've been hanging around the perimeter of that event for months, always lending the promise of playing the final against Italy (Nov. 6-7 in San Diego), when they should have acknowledged the inspired play of Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Liezel Huber and just ruled out the event altogether.

Make no mistake, that U.S. team is going to get routed by Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta and the rest of the Italian team. But in an event this big, you're either in or you're out. You don't watch some lesser, hard-working players hammer out a well-deserved win, then saunter in for the title matches, especially when neither Williams sister has played Fed Cup since 2007.

You'd like to see more conviction from team captain Mary Joe Fernandez, but with so much pressure coming from the hierarchy of women's tennis, "Mary Joe has to keep reaching out to them," Mary Carillo told Inside Tennis. "Venus would say something to her like, 'I'm not ready to commit to committing.' Double-talk. What are you supposed to do with that? The sisters are going to take you for a ride, and you have to hold on."

Mattek-Sands came the closest to straight talk within the team a few weeks ago, when she said, "They kind of leave everyone hanging. Their decisions are always last-minute. Obviously, we want the best team, they're good friends, and I like them a lot. But it's tough because me and Mel and Liezel got us to this point. They've been my solid teammates. I liked the team we had."

And now they will have it, perhaps adding Coco Vandeweghe, the hottest young American player at the moment. That's a team that won't lack for spirit.

Roddick-Monfils, Tokyo semifinal: This 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 loss was another depressing result for Roddick. He couldn't come close to matching Monfils' defensive skills, he couldn't muster any kind of attack, and Monfils even out-served him when it mattered. The first-set tiebreaker slipped away when Roddick netted a backhand volley, and he blew a 5-2 lead in the third-set breaker, as well as a match point at 6-5.

Monfils coolly aced himself out of that crisis, and when he earned his own match point at 7-6, he made astounding, back-to-back retrievals of a punishing inside-out forehand and a cross-court forehand volley to clinch the match. Hanging his head (a lamentable trademark) as too many Monfils shots blew past him, Roddick didn't look like a player capable of making a stirring return to the game's elite.

Nadal-Viktor Troicki, Tokyo semifinal: You know Nadal feels physically sound when he makes such a committed run this late in the year. He fought like a madman to pull out this match, and he needed a bit of a choke job -- Troicki netting a forehand approach -- when the Serb failed to convert his second match point.

Troicki's inspired three-set performance was yet another example of the depth of the men's tour. The man played out of his mind, with some serious power. It really looked as if Nadal was going down. But with that third-set tiebreaker even at 7-7, Nadal jumped on a second serve and just snapped a backhand down-the-line winner. With a match point of his own, Nadal watched Troicki go for broke and come up empty on a down-the-line forehand that went wide. It was 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, Nadal, in the best match of the week on either tour.

Nadal-Monfils, Tokyo final: With his customary elegance and speed, Monfils got this far by playing fairly conventional tennis. He chose the biggest occasion to, once again, lose his mind.

Picture this snapshot: Nadal is lining up an overhead smash, the ball about three feet above his racket as the photo is taken. Monfils is inside the service line at the top of a splayed-leg leap -- as if desperately trying to avoid a rattlesnake -- with his back to the net. It was a critical juncture (Nadal serving at 3-4) of the second set, and this was Monfils' approach to returning an overhead: charging the net at full speed, then launching a reckless pirouette while taking a blind, no-chance cut at the ball. Fascinating. Nadal couldn't help but smile. Sometimes there's nothing funnier than the truly bizarre.

It got even worse, for tennis fundamentalists, in the next game. Serving at 4-4 and 0-15, Monfils inexplicably tried a feathery baseline drop shot and it sank pitifully into the net. Odd as it was in essence, it was even more strange given the fact that Nadal, the fastest man in sneakers, would have raced into position to return the shot, even if it had been struck perfectly. Then came the topper. At 15-all in the final game, Monfils lined up a running, two-hand backhand approach -- right in front of him, no mystery -- and essentially fanned. He barely ticked the ball and it fell to earth at his feet. I'm not sure who was more amazed, Nadal or the British commentators who found themselves at a loss for words.

• And finally, there was a priceless announcement from the ATP. Everyone's aware of the widespread outcry for a longer break in winter, a condensed Davis Cup, something to shorten the schedule. According to ATP president Adam Helfant, there are indeed proposals to cut two or three weeks off the schedule, but "not one event will be scrapped in our plan to create a more meaningful off-season."

No, it doesn't make any sense to me, either. I guess that's another way of saying, "No dice, everybody. We'd rather count the money."