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The Race for No. 1: Previewing and predicting the Paris Masters

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Will Novak Djokovic hang onto his No. 1 ranking in Paris? (AP)

No Federer, no Nadal, no problem. This year’s BNP Paribas Masters in Paris features a compelling alternative, one that it hasn’t often had in recent years: a tightening race for the year-end No. 1 ranking. For that we can thank Novak Djokovic, who dominated the first half of the season, and Andy Murray, who has been almost as good over the second half. Now, with two tournaments to go, they’re separated by just 415 points. It’s so close, in fact, that Murray can claim the top spot for the first time in his career if he wins Paris and Djokovic loses before the final.

Think of the next few weeks as the ATP’s version of the U.S. presidential election—without the unmitigated horror.

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First Quarter

One person who sounds energized by the No. 1 race is Djokovic himself. So far in Paris he has shelved his recent talk of career reassessment and focused on how he’s looking forward to engaging Murray in the battle. After a few weeks away, he should feel physically refreshed as well.

As always at Masters 1000s, Djokovic will face solid competition in nearly every round, but there’s no one in his quarter who stands out as especially frightening. He’ll begin against either Gilles Muller or Nicolas Almagro; the first seed he could face is Grigor Dimitrov, and his quarterfinal opponent will likely be either David Goffin or Marin Cilic, who won a title in Basel over the weekend. Those are players that could challenge Djokovic on a bad day, but they’re also ones that a re-motivated No. 1, and a three-time defending champion, should handle.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

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Second Quarter

What can we expect from the top two seeds in this section, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem? At this stage of the season, it’s anybody’s guess. Wawrinka is terminally inconsistent and Thiem plays too much, and neither of those things seem likely to change any time soon. Since winning the U.S. Open, Wawrinka has lost to players ranked 27th, 32nd and 72nd, while Thiem has gone out early at his last three events—you might call it “staggering to the finish line.”

Last year Wawrinka reached the semis in Paris, and his draw makes that a distinct possibility again. He’ll start against 69th-ranked Illya Marchenko, and the first seed he could face is 34-year-old David Ferrer. The two seeds on the other side are Thiem and Richard Gasquet. Can Gasquet, who reached the quarters here last year and won a title this month in Antwerp, use the home-court support to his advantage?

First-round match to watch: John Isner vs. Mischa Zverev

The veteran Zverev, seemingly feeding off his younger brother’s success, has had a career run this fall.

Semifinalist: Gasquet

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Third Quarter

Here we have the “someday, maybe” section, in which Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, those always-possible future Grand Slam champions, are the top two seeds. Their causes might be helped if they won a Masters 1000 first. It’s possible, though hardly probable, that Paris could be the place. Two years ago Raonic reached the final here, and Nishikori the semifinals, and they’re now both ranked in the Top 5. Of the two, Nishikori is the more in-form player; while he was reaching the final in Basel last week, Raonic was losing in the first round to 91st-ranked Ricardis Berankis.

Also here: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 

The Frenchman was the runner-up in Vienna this past week, and he won the title in Paris way back in 2008. But he hasn’t been past the third round there since 2012.

Semifinalist: Tsonga

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Fourth Quarter

If Djokovic is coming in rested, Murray is coming in well-tested. He won the title in Vienna on Sunday, and is 14-0 in tour matches since the U.S. Open. Last week he found ways to win with something less than his best. But Murray has never won in Paris; last year he made his first final there before losing to Djokovic. His march toward a rematch will begin on Wednesday against Fernando Verdasco, but he might find his biggest bump in the road in the next round, against fast-rising Frenchman Lucas Pouille. Murray made quick work of Pouille, 6-1, 6-3, in Shanghai a few weeks ago, but playing him in Paris should be a tougher proposition.

Also here: Tomas Berdych 

The Czech is out of the Top 10 for the first time since 2010.

Semifinalist: Murray

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Semifinals: Djokovic d. Gasquet; Murray d. Tsonga

Final: Djokovic d. Murray

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