Finally, In Paris, Indoors

Paris Masters 1000, Semifinals

(3) Federer d. (5) Berdych, 6/4 6/3

(6) Tsonga d. Isner, 3/6 7/6 7/6

The question inevitably comes up at this point in the season as to why the Paris Indoors remains such a strange blot on Roger Federer’s unmatched record. Unlike, say, Sampras at Roland Garros, Federer is an outstanding indoor player, and he generally performs well in France, where he is as perennially popular as everywhere else. And yet until last year, he had never even passed the quarterfinals. Until today he had never progressed to the final. The complicated and highly technical answer is that it is just one of those things: so it goes. As tempting as a structural assessment is – what is the real issue here? – there is really little point, as antithetical as that is to the narrativising conceit of sports commentary. Occasionally he played badly, or David Nalbandian played beautifully. Early on, he rarely played at all, which really blew out the odds on him winning. In 2008 he withdrew from his quarterfinal with James Blake, which remains the only time he has ever withdrawn before a match (he has never retired during one). None of these reasons have much in common, barring the fact that they occurred late in the season, in Paris, indoors. Now, late in the sport’s most decorated career, he has a tremendous shot at it.

But why now? Some may point at Murray’s loss, Djokovic’s withdrawal and Nadal’s absence. But this trio had no hand in Federer’s previous failures at this venue. Others might say that nearing the end of a relatively dismal season, he was due for a big result. It’s a neat idea, but ‘due’ is the clue that it’s a dud. No one is due anything in tennis, especially those who’ve won nearly everything. What Federer has achieved, he has earned, and he earned his spot in the Bercy final with a coruscating display of honed ball striking over a helpless Tomas Berdych. He closed the match by breaking to love. Perfect moments, so they say, have a clean design.

Federer will play Tsonga in the final, and his favouritism is overwhelming. True, having spent much of the week griping about the speed of the court and fluffiness of the balls, Tsonga scraped through his semifinal in coarse style, fending off three match points against that renowned slow court specialist John Isner. The Frenchman didn’t play well, and now he’s tired. Federer played well, and looks fresh. Of course, he was fresh at Wimbledon, and look how that turned out. The same went for Montreal. And Tsonga already owns a Paris Masters shield.

Last year, of course, Federer fell to Gael Monfils in three tight sets after holding five match points, the apotheosis of a habit he was rather taken with at the time. He has lately combined it with blowing a two set lead, a potent cocktail of heartbreak for his fans. The good news is that a two set lead will probably get it done tomorrow. It generally proves decisive in the best-of-three set format. The ATP markets the nine Masters 1000 events as the premiere tournaments on its calendar, and used to back that claim up with five set finals. Some of these finals proved to be classics, spectacles worthy of a Major. We were approaching a point at which even the general public might start tuning in to watch. Think of Rome 2006, one of the matches of the decade. There was no telling where it would end up, except that it ended up with Tommy Robredo winning Hamburg the following week. That outcome was summarily deemed too appalling to risk repeating, a crime against man and god, and so five set finals were no more. Christmas was also cancelled, I recall. Regardless, the Masters 1000 events have mostly retained their cachet, and the fact that only top players win them suggests that the airy dream of their elevated status is justified by how they actually play out. Making attendance mandatory helps.

Federer has become the first man to reach the final at all of them. If he manages to win that final he will gain a lot of things, not least of which will be satisfaction at a masterful week, and valuable momentum as he begins his title defence in London. He will also guarantee that next year, for the first time in years, he won’t have to endure the question of why he’s never won Bercy. He once remarked that this was the best part of finally winning the French Open in 2009, the fact that he’d never have to be asked about it again.

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