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What's at Stake: Nadal, Djokovic start their battle for No. 1 in Paris
Published Oct 29, 2018
Two players, two tournaments, one ranking: That’s what’s left of the 2018 ATP season as we prepare to enter its final month. The players are Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the tournaments are the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals, and the ranking is the year-end No. 1. With two weeks left, Nadal and Djokovic are in a virtual dead heat, separated by just 35 points.
On Monday, their two-week stretch run begins in Bercy. Who will get a leg up? Here’s a look ahead.
Nadal leads Djokovic by 35 points, but it feels as if the Spaniard is a long shot in their two-man race. That’s because he’ll be forced to defend quarterfinal points in Bercy, while Djokovic has nothing at all to defend the rest of the year. In 2017, Rafa tried to play in Paris despite a knee injury, before finally withdrawing in the quarterfinals. Does he wish now that he had never entered the event at all?
Unfortunately for Nadal, he also may be experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu. As in 2017, he comes to Paris with knee problems—or recent knee problems, anyway. This year he was forced to retire in the semifinals at the US Open and skip the Masters 1000 event in Shanghai, two tournaments that were won by Djokovic. How ready will Rafa be to resume the fight, at a tournament he has never won, and which he has only managed to play six times in his 15-year career? We’ll find out when he opens against either Fernando Verdasco or Jeremy Chardy.
Also here: Dominic Thiem. He leads Kei Nishikori by 325 points in the race for the No. 8 spot in London; that could become the No. 7 spot if the injured Juan Martin del Potro pulls out of the year-ender.
Player Of Interest: Jack Sock. The reckoning has come for the American, who won this title last year, and whose ranking will drop drastically if he makes an early exit. Sock will start against either Richard Gasquet or Denis Shapovalov.
First-round match to watch: Gasquet vs. Shapovalov
Alexander Zverev is the highest seed in this section, but the player with the most on the line is John Isner. The American trails Nishikori for what could be the final London spot by 155 points. More daunting is what he’s defending: While Isner was reaching the semis in Bercy last year, Nishikori was in absentia. The upside of that story, of course, is that Isner likes these courts. He made the final here in 2016, and the quarters in 2015. The first seed he could face this time is Kyle Edmund.
First-round match to watch: Karen Khachanov vs. Filip Krajinovic. The Serb is defending runner-up points after his trip to the final last year. On the plus side, he seems to be rounding into (very) late season form again; last week in Basel, Krajinovic pushed Roger Federer deep into a third set.
Federer and Kevin Anderson are the top seeds here, and they’re coming off titles in Basel and Vienna, respectively. Will they have much motivation left for Paris, considering that they’ve both clinched spots in London? Federer hasn’t played here since 2015; last year he won the title in Basel and withdrew.
Who would benefit most if Federer and Anderson aren’t at their sharpest or most motivated this week? That would be Nishikori. He’s coming off a final-round appearance in Vienna, he has no points to defend from last year, and he seems to be on a mission to make it to London, despite having missed a significant stretch of the season. Nishikori was a semifinalist in Paris in 2014; this time he’ll start against either Adrian Mannarino or Ugo Humbert.
First-round match to watch: Milos Raonic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. They’ve staged a few epics in the past.
Djokovic, suddenly, is sitting pretty. Since July, he has won two majors and two Masters 1000 events, and he has no points to defend in Paris—last year’s famine has turned to this year’s feast for the Serb. And unlike his rival Nadal, who has never won this tournament, Djokovic is a four-time champion with a 28-7 record in Paris. Who knows, he may even get a chance to exact a little revenge along the way this time. Djokovic could start against the player who knocked him out of the French Open, Marco Cecchinato; after that he could face the player who knocked him out of Toronto, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Also here: Marin Cilic, who is closing in on his fourth appearance at the season-ender in London.
Partnership to watch: No. 9 seed Grigor Dimitrov was spotted on court in Bercy with Andre Agassi.