November 11, 2010

Nothing to Lose

I realize that most of my posts lately have been centered around last ditch efforts by the men to qualify for their year-end championships in London, but since the field was locked in earlier today, it's probably time to focus on a few others.

Last year's champ at the ATP finals, Nikolay Davydenko hasn't played a lot this year, and he's won even less. Though he precariously holds on to his #11 ranking, that will quickly change when he sheds the points he won here in 2009 -- after beating both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer during his Doha title run, he's only compiled a 23-18 record on the year and hasn't even played someone in the top ten since January.

But though his hopes of title defense are long gone, he's certainly not giving up on the year. In Paris he pounded a tough Thomaz Bellucci in less than an hour, losing only three service points in the second set, and earlier today he rebounded after finding himself behind first-time London qualifier Tomas Berdych and won the match with a bagel in the third set. The win got him back into the quarters of the tournament he won in 2006 -- his first Masters title -- and reminded us of the talent that I sure hope we get to see more of next year.

Montpellier titleist Gael Monfils has shown sporadic bursts of that same talent, often concerned more with entertaining or just plain showing off for the crowd than with actually winning a match. Still he's spent most of the last two years among the top twenty men in the world, and is inching ever closer to that final eight.

He missed it again this year, but he sure is playing like he still has a chance. After squeaking by Benjamin Becker in his Paris opener -- the qualifier led by two breaks in the first set -- he downed London hopeful Fernando Verdasco while he was trailing by a set and a break. The runner-up in 2009 will have a hard time repeating that run, but if he comes close we might start to take the jokester a little more seriously.

But the man really giving his all in Paris this week is a different hometown hero whose name hasn't ever entered the London discussion. World #34 Michael Llodra is just a shade off his career high ranking and is probably best known for crashing into a ballgirl last year at Wimbledon. And though he has five titles to his name -- two, in fact, this year -- at thirty years of age he's probably past his tennis prime.

But this week he played a solid first round against Potito Starace and actually out-aced John Isner in the second round. Earlier today he survived a tight tiebreak in the first set before rolling through the second against defending champion Novak Djokovic. It was his third win against a top ten player this year, but probably his most impressive, and helped him to what's easily his best performance at a Masters event. While it's too late to dream of making a London push, Llodra has certainly given the French Davis Cup coach a reason to reconsider his options for that final.

It's not unusual to see players put up their best performances when all the pressure is off -- when you have nothing on the line, it's a lot easier to go for broke. And though plenty of big hitters still remain in the Paris field, making it difficult to dub any of these guys a trophy favorite quite yet, they sure have given us all something to think about -- and a couple of people something to fear.

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