- Sandra Harwitt
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SHANGHAI, China -- In theory, the significance of the season-ending tournament might appear very different than the reality. To many, it would seem like the exclusive finale for the eight best players of the year should be a final fight for the year-end ranking.
But while playing to decide who will be top dog would add an exciting element to the mix, it turns out it's a rare scenario. In fact, as this year has shaped up, the reigning world No. 1 isn't even taking to the courts in Shanghai. Rafael Nadal, still bothered by tendinitis in both knees and hoping to play in the Davis Cup final against Argentina next week, is in recuperation mode at home in Spain.
"The only thing I can do these days is rest," Nadal said on his official Web site in the only statement he's put forth on his medical condition. "I am not supposed to do any sport at all until Saturday. Then on Monday I will go back to Barcelona, do some more tests and try to play and see if I have no pain. The doctor tells me that the body needs to do its work and regenerate."
In actuality, the last time the No. 1 world ranking was determined in conjunction with the playing of the Tennis Masters Cup was in 2003 when Andy Roddick, who reached the semifinals, clinched the season-ending tennis throne.
Since Roddick, the top ranking has been a foregone conclusion before one ball was struck at the year-end finale -- Roger Federer had it all sewn up from 2004-07, and Nadal has already laid claim to the No. 1 honors for 2008.
Though fans and media might take exception to this missing drama in the Masters Cup, the players believe critical conclusions can still be drawn.
"I think the last time this tournament was for the No. 1 ranking was in 2003 when I was No. 1," Roddick said. "So if it was that anticlimactic none of [the media] would be here right now. It is that much better when the No. 1 ranking is on the line, but I think in the tennis world you kind of look at this as a kind of a celebration of the people who have played well this year. And it's one last chance for them to get at each other before we all get nuts for the holidays."
Andy, who has journeyed to the No. 4 ranking this season and is competing in his first Tennis Masters Cup, concurs with Roddick's thinking that ranking position as an outgrowth of the season-ender is fairly irrelevant.
"I think for me the tournament is about that not everybody can compete in it and that's what makes it very prestigious," Murray said. "In the Slams you have 128 guys, but here you only have the eight top guys. Unfortunately, Nadal is not here, but he's had an unbelievable season and it's not surprising he's a bit tired. Anyway, I don't think [playing] for the No. 1 ranking makes the tournament any better."
Looking past the rankings, it's hard to deny that there's a bit of luster missing from any season-ending championships if the top player is unable to perform, at least in the eyes of the fans. And for many of the players, who completely understand that the injured Nadal is unable to play, it's a disappointment as well.
Federer, who relinquished the top ranking to Nadal in August after a four-year stint as the boss, joked about his thoughts on his Spanish nemesis not playing here but quickly acknowledged that for the game it would be better if he was competing.
"We're not dating so no," said a smiling Federer, when asked if he was missing Nadal. "It's not disappointing for me, but it's more disappointing for tennis and himself. I'm a tennis fan myself so, of course, I would've loved to see Rafa play here. But I didn't necessarily feel the need to play him again. We weren't going to be in the same group anyway, and we know how tough the groups are and that there's never any guarantee we'd get to play each other. I hope he gets fit again because I never like to see my rivals, or the best players, get injured because tennis needs those players."
The Nadal outgrowth, though, highlights the Davis Cup prominence in a way that it's not always viewed. All too often there's the judgment that players find Davis Cup a nuisance on the tennis calendar, and some players have avoided stepping up to represent their country.
But guys like Nadal and Roddick have made the team competition a hallmark of their careers. Nadal helped lead Spain to the Davis Cup title over the U.S. at Seville, Spain, in 2004, and Roddick plugged away for seven years before delivering the U.S.'s first Davis Cup crown since 1995. And now Nadal has made this year's Davis Cup final to be held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, his priority.
Taking his penchant for team competition into account, Roddick didn't fault Nadal for choosing to focus on Davis Cup rather than the Tennis Masters Cup.
"I don't think you can pigeonhole Davis Cup as the only thing that is too long to cram into the schedule, because I think that's kind of tennis in general, unfortunately," Roddick said. "You know, Rafa, he would be coming here, having the No. 1 ranking all sealed up, so he would be coming to beat these guys brains in again. He's also responsible to his teammates and his country. I think it's the right decision and it's his decision to make. No one can sit here and tell him how his body feels or what's more important to him. It's something he's just going to feel. And Rafa's earned every right to pick and choose what he wants to play."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
The Masters Cup's allure is undeniable, but without top dog Rafael Nadal in the mix, does the year-end event lose its luster?