Extended Play.

After a long and winding season, the ATP World Tour Finals once again beckons the elite eight of men’s tennis. Or perhaps we should call them the “extended eight” since last week’s quarterfinalists at the Paris Masters will once again collide with each other starting tomorrow under the lights of the O2 Arena in London.

Unlike the recent WTA Championships that had only one plot, in that case, could anyone stop Serena Williams, (the answer was no) next week in London offers several storylines. The most pressing is who will finish the year at No. 1. For the first time since 2009, the top ranking is up for grabs at the tour finals.

Rafael Nadal, the current man on top of the rankings, only has to win two round robin matches to secure his place. But Novak Djokovic, the former No. 1, thanks to his current 17-match win streak still could snatch the crown back depending on his and Nadal’s results on the blue courts.

Yet despite Djokovic and Nadal being the obvious favorites to meet in the finals, the week’s headlines may once again belong to Roger Federer. After a touch and go season that saw him win only one title and fail to reach the finals of any majors, Federer secured his spot for London thanks to several wins at his home event in Basel and then at the Paris Masters in the last two weeks. His quarterfinal win against Juan Martin Del Potro and his three set-effort against eventual Paris champion Djokovic proved that Federer, now playing with more fervor of late, could prove the event’s wildcard.

Along with usual attendees Del Potro, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych, the field also includes a newcomer in Stanislas Wawrinka and France’s Richard Gasquet who last appeared at the event in 2007.

With all the players likely feeling a bit tired after their appearances in Paris last week and the round robin format of London, this year’s finale doesn’t offer an overwhelming favorite. Certain matchups favor one player over another, and with “Group B”, that features Djokovic, Del Potro, Federer, and Gasquet, having already been dubbed the “group of death”, Nadal could be viewed as having a slight advantage for the title despite the fact that, despite all of his accomplishments, Nadal has yet to win the tour finals in his career.

No matter who wins London, next week ultimately will be a referendum on Federer’s current and future prospects. Having earned only two wins against top 10 players in 2013, Federer certainly needs to prove he can be back in the mix for the biggest titles next year. A good showing in London this week, even if he doesn’t reach the finals, will help. A poor showing in the round robin will only raise more doubts as to how much longer the world’s most famous tennis player has left in the game.

Next year, there will be a week between the Paris Masters and the ATP Tour Finals. That will be a welcomed breather not only for the players, but also for the fans and those coordinating the event to help them build even more buzz. Until then, everyone will have to catch as much zzz’s as they can before the final push to the end of a busy and eventful 2013 season.

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