November 9, 2011

Sneaking In

It's a strange set of circumstances looming over the Paris draw this week. With three openings at the year-end finals still in play, athletes on the bubble are campaigning to secure their spot. But at the same time, question marks loom over some of the favorites -- so the door ironically could swing wide open for those last to enter the field.

Novak Djokovic has been locked down for London for months, but he's been showing chinks in his armor the last few months. Injury forced him to retire from the final in Cincinnati and his singles rubber at the Davis Cup semis. He was clearly not in top form last week when that lingering shoulder injury seemed to factor prominently in his loss to Kei Nishikori in Basel, only his second defeat in a fully-played match this year, and speculation ran rampant that he might not play in Paris.

Though he took the court earlier today -- and won -- he wouldn't have been the only one to rest up before making the trip to London. Andy Murray skipped Basel as he nursed a hamstring injury, and Rafael Nadal pulled out of the Bercy Masters to prep in a less strenuous environment. Only Roger Federer, reigning year-end champ, and David Ferrer have so far seemed to be in good shape.

So what does that mean for the players who will secure the remaining spots over the next few days? Tomas Berdych, who I'm frankly surprised is so closely in contention after failing to defend points at Miami or Wimbledon, needs just one more win. Unfortunately standing in his way will be fellow London hopeful Janko Tipsarevic who's played three finals since the U.S. Open -- he punches his ticket with a title in Paris, but a far more likely third round win over the Czech would still keep Berdych guessing.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga significantly improved his own chances this fall, claiming titles in Metz and Vienna. He's also a match away from returning to the Masters Cup for the first time since 2008. He might have to get past Nicolas Almagro to get there though -- the world #11 has three titles on the year, but has been relatively quiet off the clay. Like Tipsarevic, the Spaniard needs to win Paris to clinch the season extension -- something that looks less likely as he's just lost the first set to Andreas Seppi in his second round. But he could cause some damage to Tsonga's hopes if he pulls through.

Mardy Fish needs to make the quarters in order to qualify for his first ever year-end championship. It's been a long time coming, but I fear the hamstring injury that forced him to retire last week may hamper his performance in Paris. Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils round out the remaining hopefuls -- the Frenchmen have had something of a resurgence this season, but both need a little luck, even if either takes the Masters title.

All that said, any of the final entrants could take advantage of a weary and wounded favorite field. Of course Federer has been playing top-rate tennis this month and players like Djokovic and Nadal can never be counted out of contention. But with the long ATP season due to take its toll eventually, those making their last push this week could be able to find some holes in the usually impenetrable armors of the elite.

And perhaps one who just snuck in the door could sneak up on everyone and do some real damage in London.

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