The men's tour is primed to have an excellent fall season -- and not a moment too soon. The success of the Laver Cup team competition, the restructuring of Davis Cup for 2019 and plans for a new ATP World Team Cup to launch the year in January are all applying pressure on the fall circuit to remain relevant. That's something the post-US Open tournaments leading to the ATP World Tour Finals haven't always managed to do convincingly.
"I do believe that next few months are going to be very interesting, in terms of what is happening in the game," Roger Federer recently told ESPN.com. "There's a bit of chaos now, but where there is chaos, there is potential." Administrators and tournament promoters are well aware of how important it is for tournaments to hold the public's interest, and they have a good head start on accomplishing that in the coming weeks thanks to some juicy storylines. Here are a few of them on the men's side. (Look out for the women's version on Wednesday.)
1. Novak Djokovic has his eyes on No. 1
Funny how a guy who wasn't even in the top 20 as recently as July could end up No. 1 at the end of the year. After bursting out of the cocoon of his slump to win successive majors at Wimbledon and the US Open, the now-No. 3-ranked Djokovic isn't just hoping to replace Rafael Nadal on the ATP throne, he's a good bet to do it.
Nadal, who's out with injury, leads Djokovic in the rankings, 8,760 to 6,445. It seems like a lot. But the real margin is much smaller because a lot of those points (1,100 to be precise) will be falling off the rolling 52-week ranking while Nadal is idle. Djokovic, who was out at this time last year, won't be losing any points for the rest of the year. He can only add.
The more telling points number is 1,035, which is Nadal's lead in the annual race (the other ranking system that begins in the beginning of the year). Djokovic could wipe almost all of that out if he wins in Shanghai. (The title is worth 1,000 points.) If he also takes a wild card into one of the smaller upcoming events, he could enter the Paris Masters leading Nadal in the race. Given the state of each man's fitness and Djokovic's proficiency on the hard courts (indoor and out) this time of year, he's clearly in the driver's seat.
2. How much will Federer play this fall?
Federer, still ranked No. 2, was excited about the Asian swing, but not entirely for tennis-related reasons. "I'm really looking forward to bringing my [twin] boys this year," he said. "Now they're old enough to appreciate the different cultures they have in Japan and China." Federer also had a lot of team- and morale-building planned with his new mega-sponsor, Uniqlo.
It's probably good that the all-time Grand Slam singles champ has those other projects, because the weeks ahead are daunting. Federer has almost nothing to gain rankings-wise, as last fall he won Shanghai and Basel. He also made the semifinals at the ATP World Tour Finals. Basically, he can go only down in points.
Federer has already fallen to No. 4, behind Juan Martin del Potro in the standings, a much better indicator of current form and where he might end up at year's end. If things really go sideways in the coming weeks, Federer could always take a wild card into the Paris Masters. "Paris will depend on how the others go," he said.
Juan Martin del Potro's comeback needs a crowning touch
The much-loved Argentinian hit his career-ranking of No. 3 in August, just weeks short of his 30th birthday. It was an impressive accomplishment for someone who nearly quit the game because of the lengthy interruptions and hardships posed by injuries and surgeries on both wrists. He missed 15 Grand Slam events in total -- over four years' worth of majors -- and was compromised for many more.
But Del Potro persevered and found the form and fitness that enabled him to upset Nadal and Federer in back-to-back matches at the age of 20 to win the 2009 US Open.
Since then, Del Potro has been to the semifinals or better at the majors four times. He's become a Davis Cup champion. He's won an ATP Masters 1000 and silver and bronze medals in Olympic singles competition. This year's US Open finalist, Del Potro is a reborn player looking to make a big statement. Might it come at the ATP World Tour Finals? He was a finalist there, just months after winning the US Open.
What will Kyrgios do in Shanghai this year?
At the Laver Cup, Nick Kyrgios declared that the fall tour in Asia made him feel lonely and depressed. "If somehow tennis was like this every week of the year, it would be so much more enjoyable," Kyrgios said of the team format. "I'm not going to lie to you. It's extremely tough for me personally, like, to fly to Asia. I don't really like, just like being somewhere just for myself and playing."
It wasn't exactly stop-the-presses news. We remember that in October 2016, Kyrgios was fined more than $54,000 for a variety of offenses and initially banned for eight weeks for "lack of best efforts" following his second-round loss to Mischa Zverev at the Shanghai Masters. Last year, at the same event, Kyrgios retired for no apparent reason after losing the first set in his first-round match against Steve Johnson, resulting in a $10,000 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct and the loss of $21,085 in prize money.
The tennis gods must have sense of humor, though. Knowing how much Kyrgios loves team play, they put two of his Team World teammates from Laver Cup (Frances Tiafoe and Kevin Anderson) in his path in Tokyo. But all eyes will surely be on Kyrgios in Shanghai.
Dominic Thiem might play the spoiler
It seems that every generation has a player or two who manages to fly under the radar no matter how accomplished or talented. Thiem is that guy. It seems like he's been around forever, yet he's just 25 and still making progress. Now he's in the midst of a career year.
Thiem is the heir apparent to Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal tagged him for the title this year, but the more relevant result might be Nadal's fifth-set tiebreaker win over Thiem at the US Open, on the kind of hard courts the fall segment features. Big, strong and with an enormous appetite for work, Thiem has already bagged the St. Petersburg title on hard courts this fall.