Rafael Nadal does the maths, eyeing top spot with victory at ATP World Tour finals

The last time we saw Rafael Nadal in London he cut a rather sad figure, vainly trying to prove the fitness of his knees at a Hurlingham Club garden party ahead of Wimbledon.

Yesterday he was back in the capital at an uncustomary time of year, suited and booted and preparing himself for the Barclays ATP World Tour finals, which start tomorrow at the O2 Arena.

After missing Wimbledon he was not to return until August and it is somewhat surprising that he still has a mathematical chance of regaining the season-ending world No 1 spot.

To do so he would have to win his first title in six months, ending a barren patch that stretches back to the Italian Open in early May.

No passengers here: Fernando Verdasco, Juan Martin Del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Soderling look the perfect gentlemen as they line up in front of a London bus

No passengers here: Fernando Verdasco, Juan Martin Del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Nikolay Davydenko and Robin Soderling look the perfect gentlemen as they line up in front of a London bus

‘If I win this tournament then it wouldn’t matter to me if I’m the world No 10,’ said the genial Spaniard, whose recent form nonetheless indicates that he will not manage it.
But then as Roger Federer put it, this is the most ‘balanced and open’ field in the eight-man season’s climax that he can remember since first qualifying for this event in its various guises in 2002. Nothing can be ruled out.

One eminently possible scenario is that either Federer or Andy Murray, who are in the same group, will have to beat the other twice to lift what is the most prestigous trophy of the season outside the four Grand Slams.

This is the first year of five that it will be staged in London, recognition of such diverse factors as Murray’s likely participation and the fact that when the contract was signed, pre-credit crunch, the City’s streets were paved with gold.

You trust that the event will run more smoothly than yesterday’s chaotic launch at a hotel on the South Bank, from where the players are taking water taxis downstream to the venue.

Rafael Nadal of Spain

Target: Nadal has vowed to reclaim the No 1 berth

The proceedings began with a bizarre address from ATP Tour chief executive Adam Helfant, the purpose of which was to admit that, to the amazement of absolutely nobody, there was nothing he or anyone else could do about Andre Agassi’s crystal meth revelations as the player was long retired.

Equally predictable was the failure of the ATP Tour to get the players to pose for photos in front of a landmark such as the nearby Houses of Parliament, falling back instead on the feeble cliche of a London bus, parked in the hotel courtyard.

In an ensuing media scrum Federer had to fend off questions about his fellow razor endorsee Thierry Henry, saying that more technology should be used and that ‘the system and the umpire was at fault’ for the Frenchman’s handball which led to William Gallas’ goal that prevented Ireland from qualifying for the World Cup.

Things can only get better, and they doubtless will when the action starts tomorrow and Murray tackles Juan Martin Del Potro in front of a packed house, while the world’s top doubles teams also strut their stuff.

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The Argentinian has recovered from a recent stomach strain and the 22-year-old Scot was cagey about his chances.

‘If I beat him then I am not certain to qualify and even if I was to lose then there are still two more matches to play,’ said Murray, who made the semi-finals when this event was played in Shanghai last year.

After an exhausting defeat of Federer the previous night he was beaten by Nikolay Davydenko, the world No 7, whose outsider status here shows the sheer quality of the small field.

This unique tournament has an interesting dynamic in that the world’s top players, who generally give each other a wide berth, have to mix in.

‘You spend a bit more time together and you have to practise together and do photos together so it’s a bit different from normal,’ reflected Murray.

At teatime he was having his first hit at the O2 on the stadium court, which was only laid yesterday, his partner being his contemporary and long-time rival Novak Djokovic.

The Serb is the one player coming in who can claim to be in prime form, having won last week’s Paris Masters as part of a fine run since the US Open.

But late season results are a notoriously unreliable guide as some players are saving themselves for the finale, or just plain exhausted and dying for the truncated off-season.

Murray has been focusing on this event and has as good a chance as anyone while Federer is similarly fresh. None of the eight players should be discounted, and Sweden’s

Robin Soderling, a late replacement for the injured Andy Roddick, could turn out to be the man who emerges from left field.

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