Six and Two

Paris Masters, Days One and Two

Persistent readers of The Next Point may well have noted my enduring fondness for the European indoor season, although the I’d assert that any perversity in my regard owes not to the tournaments themselves, which are worthy even when dull, but because of the lights, which are sallow and flat even when they aren’t flashing or strobing. With the exception of Valencia, which owing to latitude and superior architecture can only simulate winter, these events feel soulful and gloomy. I love it. It’s a question of contrast.

As I write it is late morning in Melbourne, and the mercury has already bubbled up past 30C, which according to the unfailingly helpful lady trapped inside my iPhone equates to 86 degrees in the archaic and confusing scale that still sees use in Belize, the Cayman Islands and the United States of America. Spring has uncoiled, and it has leapt for the throat. Word is we’ll hit 35C before the change arrives. A pair of English tourists have just combusted outside. That’s Halloween in Australia. Meanwhile in Paris it isn’t Halloween yet, and Tomas Berdych has just wrenched a patchy first set tiebreaker from Andreas Seppi. As they sit down the stadium lights go dark and each man is luridly spot-lit, so that we can better watch him fiddle with his equipment and stare straight ahead. There is no question that this is all occurring on the far side of the world.

The frigid gloom of the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy can seem almost noirish in its allure. It always looks like the chill would find its way into your bones. It won’t be finding its way into Roger Federer’s bones, who of course pulled out following his loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the Basel final. He would undoubtedly have done the same had he won, given the relatively heroic length of the match, and the way the next few weeks are configured. It was surely the right decision, but it’s still a shame, since he was the defending champion in Paris. Hopefully even his detractors agree that no tournament is richer for having him miss it. Rafael Nadal has of course withdrawn from 2012 entirely, and you can bet that wherever he is, he’s sensibly avoiding real winter. There was talk, as there is most years, that Novak Djokovic would also miss the event. As recently as yesterday he was attending to matters in Belgrade, but’s he’s since ventured to France.

I suspect I’m not alone in disapproving of the removal of the gap week between the Paris Indoors and the World Tour Finals, even as I concede that the reason for the decision was understandable. The idea was to grant the top players an additional week off at the end of the year. But I can’t help but think there must have been a better way. Paris will inevitably suffer for it, and it suffers enough even in the best of years. It isn’t merely that Federer and Nadal aren’t there –Nadal would have been absent regardless – but also that other top players that have turned up will begin to weigh up the cost of participation as the week goes on.

To those who’ve already qualified, the truth is that London matters more than Paris. For Berdych and David Ferrer, who titled last week in Valencia, there is also a Davis Cup final looming after that. Meanwhile del Potro has just won back-to-back titles in Vienna and Basel, including the enervating final last Sunday. It’s hard to image he’ll push himself too sternly at Bercy, especially as he’s in Djokovic’s quarter and is already hauling around his share of late-season niggles. Andy Murray will be keen to perform well at the O2, especially given his mighty English summer campaign, and in light of last year, when he wore himself out in Asia and Paris and was compelled to leave the event early.

Meanwhile Djokovic has already secured the year end No.1 ranking, and to even reach the later rounds in Paris he’ll potentially have to survive Sam Querrey, Milos Raonic and John Isner, and then face Jo Wilfried Tsonga. He’ll be bruised and flak-happy come London.  Of all the top players, only Tsonga has a compelling reason to fight his heart out. He has won this event before, and is defending runner-up points from last year. He also hasn’t technically qualified for the tour finals, but that really should be a mere technicality, assuming he doesn’t lose in an early round, which he almost did. Removing the week’s break between Bercy and London only muddied a complicated situation. I’ll throw my negligible weight behind Guy Forget’s proposal to move the Paris Indoors to a reconfigured February, assuming that its Masters status is maintained.

The corollary to flagging interest among the elite is that lower-ranked players might finally have a legitimate chance at winning a Masters event, which hasn’t happened in a long time. The last player outside the top four to win a Masters was Robin Soderling here in Paris exactly two years ago. The last time both Federer and Nadal skipped Bercy was the year Nikolay Davydenko won it, in 2006. Berdych won it in 2005. Tim Henman won in 2003, David Nalbandian in 2007. It feels like we’re due for a ‘new’ champion, and Paris is traditionally the place for it to happen. My outside picks, as ever, were Philipp Kohlschreiber or Mikhail Youzhny, both of whom managed to lose in the first round, to Jerzy Janowicz and Marcel Granollers respectively. I didn’t see Youzhny’s loss, and therefore cannot say or even possibly imagine how it happened, although this won’t dissuade me from blaming his shamefully beardless face. He won Zagreb looking like a lumberjack. There’s a lesson there. The lesson is that he shouldn’t be losing to Granollers on an indoor hardcourt at all. Had Youzhny won, it would have been his 400th career victory. I don’t know if the ATP had a commemorative car prepared. If they did they’ll need to ship it out to Australia for January. As ever, my dark horse pick for the title was Florian Mayer. He has lost, too.

Grigor Dimitrov hasn’t lost yet, although in some ways he’s lucky to be there at all, since by reaching the quarterfinals in Basel last week he almost missed his chance to qualify this week. But qualify he did, and then managed soundly to beat Jurgen Melzer in the first round. Notwithstanding some trouble serving out the first set, and a developing obsession with tiebreaks, he is, to be honest, looking quite superb. Barry Cowan on Sky Sports warned us all not to get ahead of ourselves, and then proceeded to out-pace everyone in heaping praise on the young Bulgarian. Dimitrov won 7/6 6/2. Indeed, it feels like just about everyone who won today has done so by that score line. Janowicz managed it against Marin Cilic. Kei Nishikori did the same against Benoit Paire.

As I write Berdych has just finished off Seppi. After that dicey first set tiebreaker, he galloped away in the second, predictably allowing the Italian just two games. This was the cue for the lights to go haywire, since it is the belief of indoor tennis events that this makes everything more exciting. It’s part of the twee charm of these events, and I wouldn’t be without it. Meanwhile from outside my window comes the steady crackling of mad dogs and Englishmen bursting into flame under the noonday sun.

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