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Finally, after 11 months of crisscrossing the globe, the season-ending Barclay ATP World Tour Finals is about to start. Eleven months -- that's a ton of tennis. If you're Novak Djokovic, it means you've obsessively bounced the ball as you prepare to serve about 1.2 million times, give or take a hundred thousand. If you're Rafael Nadal, it means you've covered more ground than Chris Johnson and Cristiano Ronaldo combined. Now, with all but one week of the season in the rearview mirror, the top eight players will descend on the O2 Arena in London, answering a few questions along the way.
Who's the man impersonating Roger Federer?
Ah, yes, it's Novak Djokovic, who's been in a rich vein of form since the U.S. Open. It's not just that he's won three titles -- Beijing, Basel, and his first Masters Series 1000 title of the year, Paris -- but the way he's gone about it. In Basel, Djokovic defeated Roger Federer for the title. In Paris, he outclassed Nadal in the semifinals and gutted out an emotional roller coaster of a final against Frenchman Gael Monfils. At times, Djokovic has flashed the kind of point-ending talent that makes the game look too easy; at others, he's chocked. It's a tightrope that the Djoker always walks. That said, he'll be the favorite to win his second season-ending championships, and he'll have an outside shot of finishing the year at No. 2, ahead of Nadal, who's in his round-robin group. The key: Djokovic will have to win the title without dropping a match and Rafa wins one or none of his round-robin matches.
Is the No. 1 ranking up for grabs?
Yes, Nadal has a chance to end the year on top. You can check the ATP's site for the likely ways this can happen, though fair warning: You're mind will go into meltdown mode if you attempt to hash out all the permutations. Suffice to say, Rafa will have to pick up the level of his play. In Paris, Nadal, ever the tinkerer, changed his serving grip, but he didn't effectively use his southpaw hook to take control of points. Federer, meanwhile, hasn't looked like a world-beater for weeks, even joking that he's become a clay-court specialist.
Who's the dark horse?
With Rafa and Roger not at their best, it might pave the way for the tour's workhorse, Nikolay Davydenko. He's a grinder who must hate the blink-and-you'll-miss-it offseason. "I don't play tennis to spend money, but my wife is a big spender," he says. Dogged determination, a wife who needs a new pair of shoes -- it's a lethal combination that could help Davydenko upset jaded stars wishing the offseason was already here.
What about the home-crowd favorite?
This marks the first time the season-ending championships will take place in London. Will Andy Murray orchestrate the crowd to his advantage, much like he's tried to do at Wimbledon, or will playing in front of his fellow Brits prove to be too much pressure? Let's hope he's at least recovered from Paris, where he sleepwalked through his loss against Radek Stepanek.
What about the rest of the eight?
Andy Roddick, who hasn't played since hurting his knee in Shanghai in October, withdrew at the 11th hour. In his place will be Robin Soderling, the 2009 French Open finalist. Since the U.S. Open, the Sod has been consistent, not spectacular, but his big-swinging game could catch fire again. Fernando Verdasco has played a ton of matches since the U.S. Open, but he's only got one title to his name this year. Hard to think, among the world's elite players, that he'd win his second title in London. Verdasco's athletic, but hardly a big-game finisher. That leaves Juan Martin del Potro. He's gone 2-3 since winning the U.S. Open, but if Delpo has proven anything this year, it's that he has the punishing strokes and burning desire to win the sport's big titles.