The BNP Paribas Masters is held at the AccorHotels Arena, also known as the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, which sits on the eastern side of Paris. The city’s more famous tennis venue, Stade Roland Garros, sits on the western side, a little less than an hour’s drive away.

This seems geographically appropriate. The two venues, and the tournaments they host, represent opposite sides of the pro-game experience.

Opened in 1928 and named after a French aviator, Roland Garros is a tennis-only bastion of tradition. It’s an outdoor event played on red clay, and it comes with a conspicuous lack of artificial fanfare. At the French Open, there’s no music during changeovers, let alone a Kiss Cam.

Opened in 1984 and now named after “the world’s leading hotel operator,” Bercy represents tennis’s move toward the marketplace—U2 is playing there next week, the Foo Fighters the week after that. The Paris Masters is an indoor tournament that comes with perhaps the most conspicuously artificial fanfare of any event on tour. The players walk down a tunnel of blinking lights, through a haze of smoke, into a darkened arena, to what sounds like an emcee bellowing “Let’s get ready to rumble!” in French.

The Other Side of Paris

The Other Side of Paris


Yet Bercy has developed its own traditions over the years. There have been late-season surprises: David Nalbandian, Robin Soderling and David Ferrer each won a title here. There have been inspiring runs by the locals: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won in 2008, Gael Monfils twice reached the final, and Michael Llodra twice reached the semis. Most important, there has been, just like at Roland Garros, the long-suffering love of the  Parisian fans.

On Friday it was Richard Gasquet’s turn to get their hopes up before letting them down again; his three-set loss to Andy Murray guaranteed that there would be no Frenchmen in the semis this year. But that won’t stop the fans from getting their hopes up again. You can't call the French the world’s fairest tennis crowd, but there’s no doubting their love for the game. Only in Australia is tennis more central to a country’s sporting culture. After seeing a lot of empty seats during the Asian swing, it’s always nice to see them filled again in Paris.

Here are a few notes on what the fans in those seats have seen at Bercy so far this year.

Roger and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

So far this hasn’t been a week of surprises. That may be in part because of a recent scheduling tweak. In the past, the World Tour Finals followed immediately after the Paris Masters. Forced to choose, the top players prioritized the more prestigious and lucrative London event. Now that there’s a week between them, we’re seeing the big names stick around in Paris longer. As I write this, Murray and Ferrer are in the semis, and Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka are still alive.

The Other Side of Paris

The Other Side of Paris

The glaring exception, of course, was Roger Federer’s 7-6(3), 3-6, 7-6(5) loss to John Isner. This was obviously an upset: Federer came in with a 5-1 record against Isner, and had just played one of his best matches of 2015 to beat Nadal in Basel. Yet it was hardly a shock, even to Federer.

“I know it’s not going to be easy,” Federer said before facing Isner. “There are only so many opportunities. I’m aware of that. He goes through a lot of close matches. He’s used to that kind of stuff. We’re not used to that many tiebreakers and 7-6's in the third.

“It’s kind of a draw I don’t really like to see,” Federer admitted.

Was this a case of the prophecy fulfilling itself? The match played out much the way Federer dreaded it would. He went unbroken through three sets, but Isner, who hit 27 aces, was the better player in the tiebreakers.

“I thought he did very well today when he needed it,” Federer said. “The breakers, he served great. Those are the ones he needed. That was the difference.”

Federer wasn’t facing his favorite opponent, and he wasn’t playing his favorite event, either. He’s reached the final in Bercy just once, in 2011, when he beat Tsonga for the title. Federer’s priority over the years has been his home event in Basel, which takes place the previous week.

For Isner, it was a fitting cap to what, at 30 years old, may be his finest season. He subsequently lost his next match to David Ferrer, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-2. Still, Isner finished 2015 at No. 11, and he has been better and more resilient over the course of the full 11 months, in places outside the U.S., than he ever has in the past.

Andy and the Body Language Question

How much does body language, as well as actual (bad) language, mean on a tennis court? The often-slouched, often-ranting Murray could serve as a case study. On Friday he was up 4-1 in the first set against Richard Gasquet, and had a point to make it 5-1. When he lost that point, and subsequently that game, Murray began to slouch, and soon began to rant. He also, not coincidentally, began to rush and miss. He was quickly broken, and Gasquet was back in the set.


The Other Side of Paris

The Other Side of Paris

“Be good to yourself,” Murray once wrote in a notebook that he read on court; he knows, it seems, that he should try to stay positive. Other times, though, he has said that he doesn’t think his body language is the reason he loses the matches he loses.

Can both things be true? Murray obviously talked himself into being broken in the first set, but eventually he recovered and won that set and the match, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3. Murray, like Djokovic, is from the bend-but-don’t-break school of competition: A letdown, or a blowup, is almost inevitable from him at some point. If you’re coaching Murray, you must come to expect that a sarcastic thumbs-up, or worse, will be aimed in your direction. But you’re probably more concerned with how, after Murray has his breakdown, he goes about picking up the pieces again. Sooner or later, he usually does.

Speaking of breaking down, we may be hearing a lot more over the next month about how Murray is pushing himself too hard, and possibly endangering Great Britain’s chances in the Davis Cup final at the end of November. Today there was concern among the British press about the length of Murray’s match—2 hours, 38 minutes—and his stiff back. Those won’t be the last Murray-centered worries we’ll be reading about in the next few weeks.

Rafa and the Long Return

Nadal hasn’t had his best season by a long a shot, but he may have had his best fall since 2005. Normally, Rafa is spent or injured, by this point in the year; since ’05, he won just one title, in Tokyo in 2010, after the U.S. Open. But while he hasn’t won any events this fall, either, he has shown signs of improvement on his least favorite surface, indoor hard courts. Nadal reached the final in Beijing, the semis in Shanghai, the final in Basel, and as I write this, he was getting ready to play Wawrinka in the quarters in Bercy.

The Other Side of Paris

The Other Side of Paris


Yet it wasn’t until Thursday, in the next-to-last game of his three-set win over Kevin Anderson, that I caught a glimpse of what we might call Peak Rafa. Even when he has been winning this season, he has been doing it in up-and-down fashion; the victories have come, but the shotmaking magic hasn’t.

This time, after another long, up-and-down battle against Anderson—Nadal saved a match point with a difficult inside-out forehand in the second-set tiebreaker—the shotmaking magic reappeared. Up 4-2 in the third set, Rafa flicked a backhand pass up the line for a winner, and pulled another one crosscourt. He took full cuts, rather than tentative hacks, at his returns. He finished points with an inside-out forehand that looked like the inside-out forehand of old. Even his one miss, a forehand return that landed wide, was hit with well-timed abandon. These weren’t workmanlike shots; they were filled with the confidence of instinct. When Nadal’s last inside-out forehand went for a winner on match point, he looked up to the sky—or the roof, anyway—as if to say, “Finally, the tennis gods let me have my game back.”

Rafa’s game could go away again; he’s played a lot of tennis over the last two weeks, and by the time you read this, he may have lost to Wawrinka. But seeing a little of the magic of old, it made me wonder about the effects that age has had on Nadal. Maybe next year we’ll look back and realize that age didn’t lower his top level, so much as it simply slowed his return to it.

What are the chances that Rafa will be back at that top level next spring, when the tour returns to those old clay courts on the other side of Paris?