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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Oct 15, 2008

10/15/2008 1:38:00 PM

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Oct 15, 2008

Madrid, Madrid. You never let us down. Besides never failing to showcase monster tennis (something in the water?), it also comes at such a decisive time of the season that it not only poses big questions, it can definitively answer them as well. And this year is absolutely no different.

1. Will Rafael Nadal officially lock up Year End #1?

After a dream season that included a frightening French Open run, an all-time classic Wimbledon championship final and a gold medal in Beijing (and maybe a Davis Cup trophy for his country, but, ya know, save that one for later...), the Year End #1 seems like a no brainer. And it is, if Rafa makes it to the quarters here. He took care of one of the guys standing in his way, the ever-tricky Ernests Gulbis. It was a three set nailbiter, mostly because it was obvious to all what was on the line. The only other spoilers now are Richard Gasquet and perhaps either David Ferrer or Stanislas Wawrinka. Rafa's never lost to Richard or Stanislas, but while he leads David 6-3 in their H2H, David's troubled Rafa on hard court. David may also have something of his own to prove in Spain. And Rafa clearly still has nerves. But Nadal's focused. So much so that he wouldn't answer any questions about Davis Cup this week. He's on a mission. And could he accomplish it anyplace sweeter than in Spain?

2. What about the guy who's held the Year End top spot the last 4 years?

Roger Federer is tired. So very very tired. My guess is he's most tired of answering questions about how tired he is. But he's also the first to bring it up lately. He seemed to have pulled a Garbo and signed off for the year. But he's returned a mere three weeks later rested (but "still very tried") and looking simply to compete. It can't be easy seeing Nadal, a guy he's kept squarely under his thumb the only way he knew how (not by beating him consistently, which he's never been able to do, but by soundly drubbing everyone else and gobbling up those points), snatch his crown. Even harder on the ole ego though, seeing someone he has less of a bromance with leap over him in the rankings as well...

3. Will Novak Djokovic wrestle #2 from his heated (hated?) Swiss rival?

Novak can't "fake" his desire to move up in the rankings. 
Maybe it was Fed being among the first to complain about Novak's starring role as the ATP's very own Calamity Jane (after defeating Novak in Davis Cup in '06, Fed said "I don't trust his injuries. I think he's a joke, you know, when it comes down to his injuries."). Maybe it was telling Nole's family to be quiet earlier this year in Monte Carlo (or the resultant hearty applause from the crowd). Maybe he just suffers from what I call "Andy Roddick disease." But Novak wants Fed's blood. Or to at least give him a good spanking, Serbia-style. And if he couldn't do it in Monte Carlo or in New York, he can do it by similarly gobbling up as many points as he can over the next few weeks. A deep run in Madrid certainly helps his cause, considering he has absolutely nothing to defend after his semifinal here last year. Who was that guy that took him out..?

4. The defending champion, what's his name? Is he going to stand in any of these guys' way? Or just his own?

David Nalbandian can coast into Madrid with a piping hot title under his belt. And he laid waste to the field last year, taking out Nadal, Djokovic and Federer back to back to back. (He famously followed up those wins by taking Fed and Nadal out again en route to claiming the Paris title.) Sadly, he's been coasting on fumes ever since. He made a strong showing at a couple of clay court events in the beginning of the year and made the quarters of Indian Wells. After that, crickets. He better hope lightning strikes twice in Madrid or he'll be watching Shanghai on TV. Speaking of...

5. Who's Shanghai bound? And who's going to end up a bitter bitter bridesmaid?

Rafa, Roger, Novak and Andy Murray have already qualified. Nikolay Davydenko's nearly a sure thing (though he'll still be bitter bitter after his loss today to hirsute Robby Ginepri), but after that it gets bloody. Andy Roddick's sitting the prettiest, with David Ferrer right behind him (just what Ferrer needed, more motivation...). But a title in Madrid spits up 100 points, which separates #8 Juan Martin Del Potro (who hopes his toe injury will heal enough to let him play this week and stay in the hunt) from #25 Radek Stepanek (who hopes Nicole Vaidisova doesn't get jealous when he calls the model ballgirls over for the towel after each and every point). Which makes this tournament pretty darn tasty. 

Sadly, James Blake won't be benefiting from the points or the models, a three set loser to Gilles Simon. Who do you think has the best shot to go deep? And who do you think is going to make the biggest statement this week? Again, Blake doesn't count...