From January to mid-September, tennis is all about the Grand Slams. But as soon as the U.S. Open wraps up, the men's players divide into two camps.
Most of us -- especially journeymen like myself -- do our best to finish the season strong and elevate our rankings heading into next season. (More on this in a bit.) But the best men's players shift their priorities to qualifying for the Masters Cup in Shanghai. That's where the top eight square off for an exorbitant amount of ATP ranking points, money and the title of world champion.
The race is extremely tight this year, and only Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have secured their places in the season-ending championship. Ivan Ljubicic, Andy Roddick, Nikolay Davydenko, James Blake, TommyRobredo and last year's champion, David Nalbandian, hold the remaining spots. Hot on their tails are Marcos Baghdatis, Mario Ancic, Tommy Haas, Fernando Gonzalez and Tomas Berdych.
There are only three more weeks for players to bolster their positions, and this week's event in Madrid will go a long way in determining the Masters Cup field. The third through sixth spots will probably go to the hottest four players in the game right now.
Roddick completely turned his game around after an awful start to 2006, culminating in a run to the U.S. Open final. Ljubicic, Davydenko and Blake all won tournaments last week and look to continue their momentum in Spain. Blake is on a 10-match winning streak, having won the Bangkok Open and the Stockholm Open. Ljubicic and Davydenko are enjoying their most successful years on tour, with recent wins in Vienna and Moscow, respectively.
The fall season is played mostly indoors and favors more aggressive players. Case in point is Ljubicic, who dominated last fall. The Croatian won two events and reached the finals of the Masters events in Madrid and Paris before running out of energy in the semifinals of the Masters Cup. He recovered in time to lead Croatia to its first-ever Davis Cup championship later in the fall. His potent serve and attacking game benefit from the absence of variables such as wind and sun.
It's an exciting race, but truth be told, I have much more experience in how a journeyman and the bulk of the tour players handle the last few months of the season. Most of us are trying to position ourselves for the following year. We want to earn enough points to elevate or maintain our ranking so we can set our schedules for the upcoming season.
Similar to the way that golfers grind late in their seasons to earn or retain their tour cards and playing privileges on the PGA Tour, tennis players want to ensure that they can continue to play in the ATP-level events. That usually means maintaining a ranking within the top 100.
For someone like me, even though the Grand Slams are a distant memory and the Masters Cup is a pipe dream, the fall is still a very important part of the year. Every match holds tremendous value, and the pressure is immense. Often players who are waffling on the tennis rankings' version of the Mendoza line will play late into November and early December in order to secure the ranking points they crave.
Last year, while most ATP players were basking in the sun on secluded islands, knee-deep in margaritas, I was toiling away in an obscure challenger event in Orlando. That particular tournament was held at a local park, and the courts had more cracks in them than a Manhattan side street. I knew I had to make it to at least the semifinals to secure my place in the Australian Open. While generally I thoroughly enjoy playing tennis, my quarterfinal match felt something like a cross between motion sickness and the chest-waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I felt a mixture of relief and nausea after winning a tight three-setter.
I eventually lost in the semifinals and spent the ensuing three-hour drive to Miami on the phone with a friend who had a complete understanding of the ranking system. We tried to estimate where my ranking would end up when the rankings were released the following Monday morning.
When that didn't lend enough clarity, I called ATP media guru Greg Sharko at his home on a Saturday night and he patiently crunched the numbers for me. (Sharko is a legend, by the way.) This isn't exactly the most relaxing and enjoyable way to start a shortened offseason.
But the home stretch of the ATP season is different for everybody. Players from different cultures with different capabilities are all competing for their piece of the prize. Even if you're not staring down Federer or Nadal for the year-ending title, it's a crucial time in a player's career.
Polish trainer Walt (Hurricane) Landers passed away last weekend due to complications from a recently diagnosed brain tumor. Landers had a passion for the game and traveled and worked with some of the greatest tennis players of this generation. His clients included Pete Sampras, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Roddick and Haas. Landers was also a marathon runner and spoke almost as quickly as he ran.
I worked with him briefly during Wimbledon in 1998. I will always remember him as the best massage therapist I have ever worked with. Tennis lost one of its great characters. We will miss him.
Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He is currently ranked No. 72 and is recovering from back surgery after his 11th year on tour.