November 5, 2015

The Paris Preview

Anyone else notice something interesting about the third round matches in Paris? Maybe not unsurprisingly, every player who's qualified for the year-end championships was in action, contesting their right to a spot in the quarterfinals. And perhaps their performances gave us a little hint of what we might expect from them in Paris.

The Long Shots

Kei Nishikori started the year off strong, backing up his stellar 2014 season with titles in Memphis, Barcelona and Washington -- but he's struggled a bit recently, falling spectacularly in the first round of the U.S. Open and losing early again in Shanghai. Though he secured his spot at the ATP Championships at the start of the week, against Richard Gasquet in Paris today he was down a set before retiring with an abdominal strain -- hopefully he's just buying himself some time to rest before making the trip to London, but if the injury plagues him, there might be more trouble ahead.

And I realize it might be a little blasphemous to call Roger Federer a long shot for anything, but the six-time year-end champion has been a little spotty since the U.S. Open final. He notched a huge loss to Albert Ramos while trying to defend his Shanghai crown, but rebounded to pick up a seventh title in Basel. And this week after easily avenging his Melbourne loss to Andreas Seppi in his Paris opener, he fell today in three sets to John Isner. It's not his only loss to the American #1, but on such a big stage, might be his most surprising -- and it could give everyone else in the London field a little more hope of their own.

The Redeemers

Meanwhile a couple other players are putting together the kind of late-season run that might just bode well for their chances in London. David Ferrer was the last man to qualify for the World Tour Finals, but the one-time runner-up hasn't let that bother him. After sitting out at Wimbledon and losing early in New York, he's scored trophies in Kuala Lumpur and Vienna. Seemingly rejuvenated, he took out an always-tough Alexandr Dolgopolov in Paris, came back from a set down to a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov to score another today, and with a Isner earning the right to be his surprising next opponent, the veteran Spaniard could stay alive a bit longer. And that might be just the kind of momentum he's looking for as he finishes prepping for London.

Tomas Berdych is also getting momentum back on his side -- though he put together a couple decent runs to start the year, he really seemed to struggle to close the deal. But he got his game back after the U.S. Open, rebounding from a shocking opening round loss in St. Petersburg to claim titles in Shenzhen and Stockholm during the fall -- somewhat surprisingly his first trophies of the season. He's gotten right back to work in Paris, battling past tricky Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin before handling former finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier today. And while he's got a tough road ahead of him, he might have gotten the confidence he needs to fight through tougher challenges down the road.

Stan Wawrinka, meanwhile, will look to scrounge up the strength that brought him his surprise second Grand Slam title earlier this year. While he's been far from a disappointment -- he did reach the semis in New York and earn a title last month in Tokyo, albeit without beating a top-thirty player -- he's also shown some vulnerabilities, needing five sets against world #177 Thiemo de Bakker in Davis Cup play and losing his homeland's opener in Switzerland last week. He's looked good so far in Paris though, getting past solid players like Bernard Tomic and Viktor Troicki in his early matches, and will look to avenge his Shanghai loss to Rafael Nadal on Friday. All that's good practice for his return to London -- after all, he'll want to make up for that razor-thin loss to Roger Federer in last year's semis and maybe this time last a couple matches longer.

Of course the player most in need of redemption is one of the most decorated in the field. It's not news that Rafael Nadal has has a slightly less-than-spectacular season, but he might just be starting to turn things around -- after almost dropping out of the top ten for much of the summer, the former world #1 has pulled himself back together the last few weeks. He made he way to the finals of both Beijing and Basel, and picked up his first wins over top ten players since May on his way to the Shanghai semis. The seventh seed in Paris, he's one of the longer shots this week, but drubbed former nemesis Lukas Rosol in his opener and then rallied against a talented Kevin Anderson to earn a spot in the quarters. From so far back in the pack it'll be hard for him to translate recent success into his first title in London, but if anyone's able to rise to the challenge, it's certainly him.

The Favorites

It's a little strange to say, but it feels like Andy Murray has very quietly risen to #2 in the world without a lot of fanfare -- while he has picked up a couple Masters titles, beating Novak Djokovic in Canada and Rafael Nadal in Spain, even reaching the final in Australia, he's been largely overshadowed by many of his colleagues. But this week he's been out to remind us just what he's capable of -- after an easy win over talented teen Borna Coric in his opener, he absolutely drubbed David Goffin on Thursday, losing just one game and winning all but two points on his first serve. It's been a while since he's done well in the post-season, skipping the championships in 2013 and falling in round robins last year. But it sure looks like this could be his year to sneak through that draw as well.

Of course the top seed will certainly have something to say about that. Novak Djokovic was running a three title win streak coming into Paris and, judging from his performance so far, he's well on track to tie Rafael Nadal's record twenty-seven Masters titles by the end of the week. He's already survived tests from tough opponents like Thomaz Bellucci and Gilles Simon and with only one loss before the final of any tournament this year, there's no reason to expect him to stop now. And unlike in the past when he's run out of steam in the middle of a match, or like his breakthrough 2011 season, where he didn't win a title after picking up the crown in New York, Nole is showing few signs of slowing down -- and with the hope of marking his most prolific year to date if he finishes with eleven trophies this season, he's got a little extra motivation to keep going strong.

Of course all these guys have made the trip to London before, some of them many, many times, and they've all had more than enough experience facing off against each other over the years. But the next few days will give them -- at least the ones still standing -- a good taste of what's they're in for next week. And while success in Paris won't necessarily translate into a title at the year-end championships, the fact that these guys are upping their games sure suggests we're going to see some amazing battles when we get there.

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