Nine of this season's 11 IAAF World Indoor Tour titles will be up for grabs when the six-meeting series concludes with the PSD Bank Meeting in Dusseldorf on Wednesday (20) night, but none will be as eagerly anticipated and as closely watched as the battle for the men's 1500m when Samuel Tefera returns to the track just four days after his sensational world record-breaking run in Birmingham.
The Ethiopian teenager shocked the world when he prevailed in a tactical race to win the world indoor title one year ago, but when he returned to the same Arena Birmingham track last Saturday, few expected the 19-year-old to take down a record set in 1997 - more than two years before he was born - by the all-time great Hicham El Guerrouj. But he did, clocking 3:31.04 to clip 0.14 from the Moroccan’s mark with a convincing victory over pre-meet favourite Yomif Kejelcha.
Here in Dusseldorf, Tefera will be running for another fast time as well as series honours. He trails Kenyan Bethwell Birgen by one point in the standings with 23; so long as he finishes ahead of the Kenyan, he'll take home the US$20,000 prize bonus and a wildcard entry for the IAAF World Indoor Championships Nanjing 2020.
The field also includes all three of Norway's Ingebrigtsen brothers, Filip, Hendrik and Jakob, setting up an intriguing head-to-head with the latter, another teenager, who famously cruised to the European 1500 and 5000m titles last August. The 18-year-old has raced once this season, clocking a 3:36.21 national record eight days ago. Given the largely solo nature of that run, it's clear he can run faster.
A must win for Maslak to collect second tour title
That battle is part of a packed programme that will bring the fourth edition of the IAAF World Indoor Tour to a conclusion in front of another capacity crowd and live stream (from 18:15 CET) beamed to nearly every territory on the planet.
The men's 400m, which pits three-time world indoor champion Pavel Maslak, the winner in Karlsruhe and Torun, against Nathan Strother, the winner in Boston, Madrid and Birmingham, offers up a similar scenario. Strother has amassed the maximum 30 points while Maslak has 20, meaning the Czech must win to secure World Indoor Tour honours for the second time. Tour tie-break rules give the edge to the athlete with the best performance in a tour meeting. Maslak will start with that advantage.
Swoboda on cruise control
That’s not the case in the women’s 60m where Pole Ewa Swoboda, a co-world leader at 7.08, has collected three victories in as many World Indoor Tour fixtures to secure the series title before she even sets her blocks on Wednesday. Now, she'll be looking to extend her 2019 unbeaten streak to six. Once again, she'll need to fight back Dafne Schippers and double world silver medallist Marie Jose Ta Lou.
Likewise, Jarrett Eaton has already clinched the tour title in the 60m hurdles, but the 2018 world indoor silver medallist will nonetheless have a fierce fight on his hands as he tries to keep his momentum alive before he heads back to the USA for the weekend’s national championships.
Four days ago in Birmingham, Eaton was propelled to victory by a 7.51 season's best, the third fastest performance in the world this year. But Olympic silver medallist Orlando Ortega has gone 0.02 faster, and holds a 6-2 advantage lifetime over the American. World indoor champion Andrew Pozzi is also in the field, hoping to rebound well enough from early season injury to impress British team selectors ahead of the European Championships.
Head-to-head-to-head in the women’s 800m
Meanwhile, the women's 800m is a toss-up, with Ethiopian Habitam Alemu (10 pts) and Britons Shelayna Oskan-Clarke (10) and Lynsey Sharp (7) all still alive in the title chase. With a 1:59.49 season's best, Alemu has run more than a second-and-a-half faster than the British pair this year, and will start as the woman to beat. To ensure a tactical battle, organisers decided to not employ a pacemaker for this race.
The women's pole vault title will come down to the wire as well. Anzhelika Sidorova and Katerina Stefanidi are tied for the lead with 20 points apiece, with Canadian record holder Alysha Newman next with 18. But Sidorova, who cleared a world-leading 4.91m in the Madrid leg, enters the competition with the tie-break advantage, meaning Stefanidi needs to beat Sidorova outright to win the title.
In the women's triple jump, world indoor champion Yulimar Rojas has a 17-10 lead over Particia Mamona, meaning the Venezuelan can finish as low as fourth - a major catastrophe by her lofty standards - and still take home the top prize. Rojas has shown solid form, too, reaching 14.92m in Madrid, 48cm better than Mamona's 2019 best.
Similarly in the women' shot put, Christina Schwanitz will be difficult to beat. The German starts with 17 points; like Rojas, she can finish fourth and still emerge the series winner. A finish that modest is not likely, though; on Sunday Schwanitz reached a world-leading 19.54m at her national championships. Hungary's Anita Marton, the world indoor champion, and Belarusian Aliona Dubitskaya, the 2018 European bronze medallist, are also in the field.
Tobe ready to take the winner’s bow
With an unassailable lead in the standings, Japan's rising high jump star Naoto Tobe returns to action with the tour title already secured. Thus the lone item on his to do list is to improve on the 2.35m national record he set in Karlsruhe 16 days ago. Meanwhile, local eyes will focus on Mateusz Przybylko, the European champion outdoors, who'll be looking to improve on his 2.26m season's best with the European Indoor Championships now less than two weeks away.
Bingtian approaching Asian record
The strongest event off of the scoring program is the men's 60m, with China's Su Bingtian heading the field just as he’s approaching top form. The 29-year-old stormed to a world-leading 6.47 victory in Birmingham on Sunday, the third fastest time of his career. Su won here last year in 6.43, the second of three Asian records he set in 2018. The third came at the World Indoor Championships when he finished second in 6.42, a performance that elevated him to No5 on the all-time world list.
He'll be difficult to beat. The closest on paper this year are Arthur Cisse of Ivory Coast and USA's Michael Rodgers, at 6.53 and 6.54, respectively.
A wide-open men's 800m features Australian rising star Joe Deng, who won in Birmingham with a 1:47.27 Oceania indoor record. The 20-year-old set the Area outdoor record in Monaco last year, clocking 1:44.21.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF