by Pete Bodo
Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will clash in the final regular-season tournament match of the year tomorrow in the Palais Omnisports in Bercy, to end the Paris Masters 1000. I don't think anyone is grousing about the ticket, or ruing the fact that Federer is "only" the No. 4 player in the world, and Tsonga clearly is no Novak Djokovic.
In fact, if you didn't know better, you'd think the ATP is doing its best to imitate the WTA in the way it just keeps rolling along, oblivious to the indifference of this player; the injuries hobbling that one; or the complaints of still another one who would like to have three months off to put up his feet—when he's not off chasing easy exo money or hosting his very own charity event (something a player needs to do to establish his bone fides as a star these days).
Credit the Paris Indoors tournament itself for that. It has a glowing tradition and occupies a prominent place on the Parisian fall sporting and social calendar. You can also thank the ATP for cooking up the Masters Series component of the 11-month, 60-tournament schedule. But most of all, thank the players who are beginning to break down that ancient, immovable wall that has always separated the top three or four players from the rest of the pack. Note that Bercy will feature just one of the top four tomorrow, and the lowest-ranked one at that.
Granted, his name is Federer and we all know how much that counts for. But still. . .
I think the dissidents of September (a group that includes two Andys) may want to rethink their complaints about the length of the season after this one is over. The game may be catching up with their discontents and passing them by. I don't know just how well the promoters of the fall events this year did, financially, or the degree to which each one felt that he was were hurt by the quality (or lack thereof) of his field. But the fan and media interest that I've seen since the end of the U.S. Open has been significant and encouraging. To slightly alter that famous anti-war slogan from the sixties, "What if they gave a tournament and Novak Djokovic didn't come?" Well, they did, and I'm not sure it make a whole heck of a lot of difference.
In fact, let's look at what stars did—or didn't—do this fall:
No. 1 Novak Djokovic: Laid low by a back injury that forced him to retire from his Davis Cup clash with Juan Martin del Potro the week after Djokovic's successful quest at the U.S. Open, the Serbian star didn't show his face on the tour again until the end of October. He lost in the semis of Basel, then withdrew after winning two matches in Paris. He never went to Asia, and played a grand total of six matches since mid-September.
No. 2 Rafael Nadal: He won two Davis Cup matches the weekend after he lost the final of the U.S. Open to Djokovic. Nadal made the final in Tokyo a few weeks later (l. to Murray) and won just one match at the Shanghai Masters before he was bounced out by Florian Mayer. He hasn't played since.
No. 3 Andy Murray: After another Grand Slam season during which Murray could do no better than play the perpetual bridesmaid or tough out, Murray went on an autumn tear and won three events in Asia, including the Shanghai Masters. He won 17 matches in a row (including two Davis Cup gimmes against Hungary) afer bowing to Nadal in the semis of the U.S. Open—a skein that ended just a day ago in Paris (l. to Berdych).
No. 4 Roger Federer: He won two Davis Cup matches (vs. Australia) the week after he suffered a dispiriting loss to Djokovic in the U.S. Open semis. But then he dropped off the radar—until his hometown tournament in Basel a little over a week ago. He won that, and is riding an eight-match winning streak into the Paris finals. Watch out for this guy.
No. 15 Andy Roddick: Okay, so you wonder why he's in this company. Well, he's an indisputable star (and drawing card) and, more important, has been one of the most voluble critics of the current ATP tournament system. After a disappointing U.S. Open, Roddick played two Asian events, Beijing (l. in first round to Kevin Anderson) and Shanghai (l. in quarters to Ferrer). He played Basel (l. to Federer, round 3) and Paris (l. to Murray, third round).
All tolled, it hardly can be said that the top players extended themselves, or were forced to promise more than they could deliver in the post-U.S. Open period. Nor have most of them gained ground, either in the rankings or the credibility department, with the exception of Murray. The tour was lucky that Murray was around to do the heavy lifting on behalf of the top four, but how much did it really matter? I don't know if he has the star power to make or break a series of events. It's hard to imagine that, had Murray played less, the fall season would have been much less interesting, or successful.
The takeaway, in my mind, is that we're getting to the point where the top players don't have to play every week to keep the tour in good stead. The Berdychs and Tsongas and Monfils' and Simons and Troickis may be up to pulling the load. Maybe the crowded calendar is less of a problem than the pressure put upon the top players, as expressed in the commitment rules. Perhaps they don't really need to have those rules at all. Chances are that among the top stars in this ultra-competitive era there will always been someone like Murray in 2011, a player who sees the advantages of playing through the fall, or one who just feels good at those tournaments (an attitude that often grows out of early success at a given event or in a specific environment).
So at the end of the day, how much did the tour really miss Djokovic, or Nadal, this fall? Not very much, I'd say. And Federer's late season surge has certainly made the long season seem, well, worthwhile—even if he did decide to forgo the Asian circuit that may make any clash he has in store with Murray that much more interesting.
Stay on your toes, Novak and Rafa and Andy—Roger is rolling these days, and should he carry his momentum into the ATP World Tour Finals, the entire tone and tenor of 2011 will be altered, perhaps in the very last day of tournament play. If the fall tournaments of 2011 suggest anything, it might be that old maxim: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.