Asia Tennis Travels: A fall season travel guide and 9 burning questions
About this series: Friday, September 19 marks the start of SI.com's month-long tour of tennis tournaments in the Far East -- we're calling it SI.com's Asia Tennis Travels -- where we'll be documenting and reporting on the state of tennis across the continent, from Hong Kong to Wuhan, to Beijing and Tokyo, culminating with the WTA Finals in Singapore. Check back each week for tournament results, exclusive interviews and a taste of the cultural side of Asia.
The ATP's complexion has completely changed since Nadal injured his right wrist (his non-dominant hand) in practice after Wimbledon. Last year Nadal went undefeated through the North American hard court season, winning in Montreal, Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open. This year the tour saw three different champions, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga winning Toronto, Roger Federer winning Cincinnati, and Marin Cilic shocking everyone by winning his first Slam title in New York. Now there's talk of a "regime change" with the ATP's Big Four seemingly vulnerable and a bevy of younger guys breaking through. But does that happen if Nadal's healthy and back on tour? He has a winning record against everyone in the Top 100. He is 117-40 against the current top 10 (with 29 of those losses just to Djokovic and Federer). He's 15-0 against the ATP's Next Gen stars of Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. He is the stopper of all stoppers. Still at No. 2, Nadal has already qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals in November. He is supposedly set to play an exhibition in Kazakhstan with Tsonga at the end of September and then come the final two ATP Masters 1000 events in Shanghai and Paris/Bercy. There's no knowing whether he'll green light the remainder of his season, but the good news is he was recently spotted practicing two-handed backhands. Toni Nadal hasn't ruled out the fall season either.
If Nadal returns to the tour it's a three-man race for the year-end No. 1 ranking, between No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Nadal and No. 3 Federer. While Djokovic still holds a seemingly monstrous lead by rankings points, it's important to remember he didn't lose a match after the U.S. Open last year, notching 24 consecutive wins and winning the China Open, Shanghai Masters, Paris Indoors and World Tour Finals. That's a load of points he's defending this fall. Looking at the Race to London rankings instead -- which measures the points accumulated only in the 2014 season -- Djokovic leads Federer by 1,130 points and Nadal by 1,505 points. If Federer could close that gap he could return to No. 1 for the first time since October 2012.
The two-time Slam champion and Chinese trailblazer announced her retirement on Friday, effective immediately. She'll hold a press conference over the weekend and the China Open in Beijing will hold a retirement ceremony for her. There was no one in the WTA locker room more well-liked and respected as Li and her impact on tennis will have lasting effects. But what happens to tennis in China without her star power and ability to deliver sponsors? We won't get definitive answers to that question over the next few weeks, but the WTA now finds itself in a potentially precarious position in China.
Serena has lost just once since Wimbledon and is currently riding a 12-match win streak after rolling to her 18th major title at the U.S. Open. Last season she ran the table after the U.S. Open, winning the China Open without losing a set and then winning the WTA Championships. Can she do it again? She's scheduled to play the Wuhan Open, China Opena and the WTA Finals in Singapore.
The Brit currently sits at No. 11 in the ATP Race to London and has taken wildcards into next week's inaugural Shenzhen Open and the China Open before heading to the Shanghai Masters. After losing the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, Murray said qualifying for London wasn't a major priority, but a good run through Asia would set him up well to play in front of a home crowd. If we take an even longer view, Murray needs to make a move up the rankings anyway to try and snag a top eight seed at the Australian Open.
The race to snag the final five spots at the WTA Finals heats up in Asia and the Bouchard, Ivanovic, and Wozniacki are the ones to watch. Li's immediate retirement puts the three into the final qualifying slots, but they'll have to fend off Angelique Kerber, Ekaterina Makarova and Dominika Cibulkova over the final stretch.
Lightning in a bottle or consistent threat? That's the question now surrounding Cilic, who became just the third man outside the Big Four to win a Slam since Marat Safin won the Australian Open in 2005. The 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro has yet to repeat his feat or win an ATP Masters 1000 because of trouble with injuries. And while the data set is small, 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka failed to make it past the quarterfinals of his three subsequent majors. The way Cilic won the in New York, winning 10 consecutive sets by playing some lights out, aggressive tennis, makes you believe he's got staying power. But remember this: Cilic has played 58 Masters events in his career and has yet to make the semifinals.
Sharapova made the semifinals or better at six of her nine tournaments through the French Open. Since then? She's made the semifinals just once in four tournaments. Her four losses since winning the French Open have all been in three sets -- to Kerber, Ivanovic, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Wozniacki -- a rare sight for a player who has raised her level so often when the matches get tight. Her game just hasn't been right since the tour left the clay season. But she'll get three bites at the apple in Wuhan, Beijing and the WTA Finals.
The former No. 1 is playing well above her ranking at No. 25 and has 375 points to defend for the rest of the season. No one wants to see her seeded outside the top 16 at the Australian Open.