November 8, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Paris

When I went on vacation a week ago there were three spots left for the men's year-end championship. Today, they're all still available, and while no one has locked anything in, things do look a little different now.

Tomas Berdych still leads the field, but a first round loss in Basel allowed David Ferrer, who won in his hometown of Valencia, to jump a spot and narrow gap between them. Andy Roddick, a semifinalist in Switzerland, clung to eighth place, the last possible entry to London, while Fernando Verdasco, who's won only a single match since the U.S. Open, is only a few spots behind him. The barely five hundred points that separate these four guys -- and the one thousand that differentiate current #6 from #11 -- make this week's action in Paris all the more important.

The remaining contenders all received byes in the first round of the BNP Masters and so will begin their final campaigns in the next few days. And while no one's fate is certain, I feel like the momentum might have shifted a bit. Berdych, of course, started the year with a bang -- the winner here in 2005 had a stellar run to the Miami finals before making his Grand Slam championship match debut. But though he's at his highest career ranking, he has won barely a handful of matches since that All England Club feat. Facing an opening round against Florent Serra, a man who took him to three sets in Indian Wells, I fear for his immediate future.

Roddick's prospects, too, worry me a bit. Though he was solid in Switzerland, he might have some trouble against his first opponent in Paris -- Jarkko Nieminen has cut his ranking from triple digits in January to #39 in the world now. If he does survive that test, he could take on an even tougher opponent in Mikhail Youzhny, a finalist a few weeks back in St. Petersburg. Currently tenth in the race for London, the Russian could lock in his spot with a run to the finals, and though he withdrew from Valencia, the rest he got for his sore back might be just what the doctor ordered.

Ferrer might be able to harness the momentum from his win in Valencia to secure his own spot at the championships. The Spaniard takes on qualifier Fabio Fognini, who he's beaten in their last two meetings, in Paris, and as long as exhaustion doesn't set in, I like his chances. But he could face a big threat from Jurgen Melzer in his quarter of the BNP draw -- the repeat winner in Vienna needs to win the whole enchilada to earn his entreé to London, but it's not out of the question. Melzer did win their last meeting at Roland Garros just this year.

And while I would love to see Verdasco rally for a big win here -- he has a chance if he makes the semis -- the possibility of a third round meeting with Gael Monfils, who won the title in Montpellier just over a week ago, might not go the way I hope. All is not lost, though -- with a chance to redeem himself after a somewhat dismal performance in London last year, he has the motivation and the talent to make his second appearance at the championships.

There are only a few days left, though, so time is running out. And there is the possibility that we see a very unusual field fighting it out for the year-end trophy. But that's what makes the sport so exciting, and with a new year looming, there's no better way to end this one.

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