Some years, we're lucky enough to get an ATP championships (now called the ATP World Tour Finals) that determines the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking.
For a while this fall, it looked as if we might get another of those years, what with Roger Federer ranked No. 1 but trailing No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the "race" standings (ranking points accumulated since Jan. 1, the sum of which determines the year-end No. 1 -- and ultimately mirrors the rolling 52-week ranking).
But when Federer lost the Basel final few weeks ago, he saw the futility of the chase and pulled out of last week's event in Paris in order to focus his training and attention on the World Tour Finals; it guaranteed that Djokovic will end the year on top, come hail, high water or Jerzy Janowicz.
Because Federer faced such a tall order, points-wise, this development isn't quite the buzz kill it may seem. But it also means that all the questions asked at the WTF will be secondary ones. So let's look at some of them, in order of magnitude, starting with the least significant:
5. Will hotheaded Leander Paes get the last laugh on his bitter enemies, fellow Indians and doubles qualifiers Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna? Paes and partner Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic triumphed over Bhupathi-Bopanna 10-5 in the match tiebreaker in Shanghai in the only meeting this year between these two WTF qualifiers.
Bhupathi and Bopanna, who refused to partner with the brilliant but controversial Paes for the Olympic Games, must be thinking that revenge is a dish best served cold. But both teams will have to pull off major upsets in order to meet in the final. Paes-Stepanek are in the same Group A as the top-ranked and three-time champion Bryan brothers (Mike and Bob). The cream of Group B, where Bhupathi and Bopanna are drawn, is the team of Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor.
4. Can anyone stop David Ferrer? On Sunday, Ferrer sloughed off the dubious distinction of being the player with the most match wins in Masters 1000 events without having won a title. His 124th career Masters match earned him the trophy at the Paris Masters.
But here's what else: Ferrer also won the title of the Valencia ATP 500 last week and he leads the ATP Tour with seven titles in this, the 30-year-old's career year. And Ferrer's win in Paris nosed him out ahead of Djokovic for most tour wins in 2012 (Ferrer is 72-14). Can it be that Ferrer will overcome a history of not quite getting it done at major events, after so many near-miss semis and quarters?
3. Is Juan Martin del Potro ready to reclaim the status he enjoyed at the end of 2009? Delpo is the only player outside the big four to have won a major (that 2009 U.S. Open, in which he blasted Federer off the court). Yet his comeback after an injury and surgery plagued his 2010 campaign and he appeared to level off last summer, leaving him well short of the form and force he showed in 2009.
Now, coming off a big, potentially trend-reversing win over Federer in Basel, Delpo might be ready to take that final step into the territory he occupied in 2009. Big five, anyone?
2. Is Andy Murray really hell-bent on sabotaging himself at the end of this otherwise glorious year? Note that in his past three matches, Murray lost after holding match point -- most recently in Paris, against overnight sensation Jerzy Janowicz.
The only time Murray has played inspired tennis at the WTF was in 2010, when he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semis, 7-6 (6) in the third set. In other years, it often seemed that Murray's heart wasn't really in it -- which is odd, given how fully engaged he is every year for Wimbledon. A win at this WTF would certainly send Murray out on an incredible high -- and perhaps spell trouble for Novak Djokovic.
1. Can Djokovic quell the insurgency of Roger Federer? Sure, the No. 1 from Serbia has been in every Grand Slam final this year. (Nadal was the only other player who was even in two.) And until Ferrer's run in Paris, he led the tour in wins. But he also fell short of his two self-declared goals, winning at Roland Garros and the Olympic Games.
Djokovic may be top-ranked, but the outstanding characteristic of his résumé in 2012 is not brilliance but consistency. That's how he took back his No. 1 ranking from Federer this week, but a loss in London -- particularly one to Federer -- will raise doubts about his dominion over the ATP game.
Federer has won this event a mind-blowing six times (by contrast, his great rival Nadal has never triumphed in London). He can't reclaim No. 1 even if he does win, but at 31 what does he care about the day-to-day stuff? If Federer wins, it will add to a glorious legacy at the expense of Djokovic -- and leave the year-end No. 1 with plenty of questions to answer come 2013.