If you like established stars making waves, the fall tennis season is generally not for you. However, 2017 continues to break that trend. While most of the American east coast is sound asleep, I will be waking up at 2:00 AM Sunday morning to watch three of the biggest names in the sport battle for some valuable late season real estate. By the time this is published, the matches will probably be over, but here are the possible impacts of each.
Sharapova hitting her way into form
Maria Sharapova’s return from a controversial doping suspension has had many stops and starts this year. Some of Sharapova’s tough road over the last year and a half has been self-inflicted, but she appears to have finally turned a corner.
The five time grand slam champion has followed up her round of 16 showing at the U.S. Open with the same result in Beijing. This week, she has blasted through cold and heavy conditions to reach her first final in more than two years.
The Tianjin Open is far from a major and the field reflects that. Even so, Sharapova has not dropped a set on her way to the final and is guaranteed to leave the event with some kind of trophy. Winning breeds winning. Seeing her name on a trophy should be a great confidence boost for Sharapova going forward.
Opposing Sharapova in the final will be Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarusian teenager was ranked outside the top 100 at the start of the week and is still a virtual unknown to many in and around the sport, myself included.
Facing Sharapova is obviously a tall order, but the former World No. 1 is still fairly early in her comeback. Every match is a test for Sharapova right now. Sabalenka has more of a chance than she normally would.
Both finalists in Tianjin have accomplished a great deal this week. Sabalenka is in her first career tour level final. Sharapova will be gunning for her 36th career title.
The 30-year-old Russian has been in the tennis news cycle quite a bit over the past handful of days. First, her results in China will get her ranking up to at least 66th in the world. With the season winding down, that ranking is plenty good enough to get Sharapova into January’s Australian Open without a wildcard. Everyone involved in the sport will be glad to see the seemingly never-ending Sharapova wildcard debate be a thing of the past.
Secondly, it was announced that Sharapova will play a tournament in her birth country for the first time in a decade next week. She has accepted a wildcard into the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. This is a major get for a tournament that does not have a top 10 player in the field.
If you read between the lines, this news is particularly ominous for Sharapova’s peers. At the start of her comeback, Sharapova’s body would rarely allow her to play back-to-back matches, forget about back-to-back weeks.
A decent result in Moscow could see Sharapova end the year ranked well inside the top 50. On a more basic level, she is now apparently healthy enough to finish the season playing tournaments for three consecutive weeks in two different countries.
We all know what Sharapova is capable of. She may not be among the top eight ranked players in the world who will contest the season ending WTA Finals in Singapore later this month, but those eight women are no doubt taking notice of her late-season surge.
Federer/Nadal volume 38 in Shanghai
If you are not convinced to wake up at 2 AM ET to watch the ladies do battle in Tianjin, sleep in until 4:30 AM ET. Then, get up to watch legends, rivals, and friends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal duke it out for the 38th time in their magnificent careers.
This time the final of the Shanghai Masters will serve as the backdrop. Like the Tianjin final, there is much more at stake than just ranking points and a trophy. It even goes deeper than another chapter in their legendary rivalry.
In a year where the vast majority of their stiffest competition have all fallen victim to serious injuries, the two men who have been at the top the longest have stayed healthy. Go figure.
In any sport, availability is the best ability. Staying healthy has allowed Federer and Nadal to dominate all year long and reclaim the top two ranking spots in the world. While Nadal has the inside track to ending the year atop the rankings, he has two common events with Federer remaining on his schedule. A Federer win in Shanghai would keep things interesting.
From the Nadal perspective, this match is massive from a mental standpoint, he holds an overall edge of 23-14 in the rivalry. However, the beloved Swiss man has won 4 in a row against Nadal for the first time ever. Uncertainty in the matchup may be starting to creep in for the lefty, He needs to dispel that notion. No matter what happens, the match in Shanghai is a huge tone setter for the rest of 2017 and beyond.