He didn’t survive to see the fruits of his labor, but it may turn out that Etienne de Villiers, the dreaded ex-ATP chief who re-arranged the schedule a couple years ago, was on the right track with the European fall season all along. You start slow, with a couple weeks of 500-level events, where the top guys are free to collect the appearance fee of their choice. You follow that by getting everyone together for the Paris Masters. You take a week off for hype. And you end the season in London with the closest thing tennis has to a playoff, the World Tour Final. Unlike the old, more crowded fall lineup, this version has brought the world’s four best players to Paris in good form. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer all reached finals on Sunday, and from what I can tell Rafael Nadal hasn’t made any noise about the overlong schedule in the last few minutes. Plus the quality of play last week in Basel was excellent, as it should be during the indoor season.
This would all be miraculous and cause for applause if not for one inconvenient fact: The existence of the Asian swing that immediately preceded these European tournaments. Murray and Federer are in fine form today in part because they bailed on the trip across the Pacific. What can you do? Nix an entire Continent? The global reach of tennis remains its blessing and its curse.
For the moment, we'll keep our attention on Paris, which has become the biggest beneficiary of the new schedule. While the tournament hasn’t escaped the pullout bug in 2009—Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, and Juan Carlos Ferrero are MIA—it hasn’t been devastated the way it has in recent years, either. In the past, the big names who did show up seemed to play under a dark cloud of obligation, and they rarely held the trophy at the end. Last year’s finalists were Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and David Nalbandian. They played a nice match, but you get the feeling we can do better this time around. Now if only the organizers would scrap that green court and return to the lounge-blue glory of the old days, we’d have everything just the way it should be.
Over the years, Federer has been Exhibit A when it comes to those devastating withdrawals. He didn’t play here from 2004 to 2006, and his career record at the event is 7-5, by far his worst at a Masters tournament. But this time he’s coming off a long rest and a strong week of tennis in Basel. While it ended in disappointment—Federer wasn’t sharp when he needed to be against a very sharp Djokovic—it also shouldn’t leave him too drained to start this week. There’s also a new motivation: For the first time in years, the No. 1 ranking, which Federer currently owns, hasn’t been locked up for the season.
The rest of this quarter reads like a who’s-who of the semi-dangerous but hardly terrifying second-tier: Julien Benneteau, Stan Wawrinka, Gael Monfils, Marin Cilic, Fernando Verdasco. Of them, I’d say Monfils on his home court, and Cilic on an indoor court, could do the most damage. But despite Tsonga’s win last year, the French don’t traditionally play their best in France.
Like Federer, Murray is coming off a strong week, having won the title in that cool new stadium in Valencia (come on, Paris, you can't have an uglier court than Valencia, can you?). Watching him beat Mikhail Youzhny in the final with his usual blend of thoughtful slices and running forehand passes, I began to think of Murray as a guy who has absolutely everything—except for the one thing you need to dominate today, a dictating forehand. His game is an elaborate edifice built to hide this very basic fact. Still, he has proven that the edifice alone is enough to get him through a week at a Masters event.
Murray will start by dealing with a guy who has the opposite problem, James Blake, he of the go-for-broke dictating forehand and not too much else. It could be a competitive match; somehow these two have only played twice, and never on hard courts. But the biggest name and biggest question mark in this section, is Juan Martin del Potro. He has finally returned after two months with a U.S. Open hangover and a wrist problem. In his path may be Marat Safin, who is playing his final event, and then Fernando Gonzalez. Only time will tell if del Potro is ready to come back full-bore, or if he’s going to cash in his considerable chips from '09 and play for next season.
Two of this fall’s top performers, Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic, are slotted to play in the quarters here. The question is how much Djokovic will have left for this tournament after saving match points in the semis against Radek Stepanek and holding off Federer in three over the weekend. He played an impressively determined, persistent, and intelligent match to come back and win the final after losing the second set. Watching, I wondered: Does Djokovic struggle in the latter stages of Slams—he’s lost a lot of semis over the years—because of the emotion he expends in each match? One week feels like the right amount of time for him to keep it together; by the time two weeks are up, he can seem punched out.
Will he be punched out this week? While I'd love to see him soldier on—few players are as entertaining as Djokovic when they're at their best—I’d have to guess yes. That might leave this section open for Davydenko, who won this tournament three years ago and reached the semis in 2008. He’ll need to survive the winner of Karlovic and a rested and indoor-ready Robin Soderling. But it’s not like Davydenko should be tired, either. He played four matches last week in Valencia, which is kind of like a week off for him.
Nadal comes in with the most rest of the top seeds. This is a mixed blessing for the Spaniard, who often needs to sweat his his way to his best form. He may need to have it early, because his former nemesis, Tomas Berdych, who won in Paris in 2005, might be waiting for him in the third round. The winner there could get Tsonga in the quarters, though the defending champion had to quit with an injury last week. If he’s not physically ready, that would really open up the top of this quarter, maybe even for his buddy Gilles Simon, who is way beyond due to follow up on his late-season success of 2008. There are no more chances after this one. As much as you might like to watch Simon play, and as dangerous as has he might be indoors, don’t count on him. I’ve been trying it for 12 months and it hasn’t worked once.
Semifinals: Murray d. Federer; Davydenko d. Nadal
Final: Davydenko d. Murray
As if this weren't enough, Tennis.com will also be debuting a new feature this week, a podcast featuring Tennis Magazine's James Martin, Peter Bodo, and myself. Saying things has never been my specialty, but I'm giving it a shot.
Enjoy the tournament and give me your predictions here. I'll be back Wednesday or Thursday with some thoughts on the early rounds.