ATP's elite struggle into Tour Finals, while spoilers poised for a run
It's been a nutty week in Paris.
In the final ATP tournament before next week's season-ending World Tour Finals in London, the top dogs of the men's tour are dropping like flies. Roger Federer withdrew from the tournament after losing the Basel final to Juan Martin del Potro citing a desire to rest and prepare for the WTFs. Novak Djokovic, whose father was hospitalized, lost to Sam Querrey in the second round. Andy Murray lost Thursday to an inspired Jerzy Janowicz (best name in the game?). With Rafael Nadal's withdrawal due to knee injury, this is the first time since the 2006 Paris Masters that Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray didn't advance to the quarterfinals of an ATP Masters event. It also assures that there will be a non-Big Four Masters 1000 champ for the first time since Robin Soderling here in 2010. (And Paris' wonky results haven't been only about the Big Four. Del Potro's 10-match, two-title winning streak came to an end at the hands of Michael Llodra in the third round.)
So as we look ahead to the WTFs, how much can we read into these results? Not a whole lot, I'm afraid. Of the nine ATP Masters 1000 events, the Paris Indoors have generally been an afterthought for the Big Four. Both Federer and Nadal have no problem skipping it, Federer due to its place in the schedule right before the prestigious WTFs, and Nadal for the same reason (though I'm sure Paris-Bercy's quick indoor surface doesn't appeal to Rafa either). This year the organizers decided to move away from the slick courts and lay down the exact same surface that the ATP's top eight will play on in London at the O2 arena. Obviously that didn't get them very far in convincing players to stick around.
The Paris Indoors have a long history of being the only one of the nine Masters events at which players outside of the Top Four have a chance. Dating back to 2003, the event has been won by someone outside of the ATP elite every year but twice -- Federer last year and Djokovic in 2009. Tim Henman, Marat Safin, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Robin Soderling are just some of the names who have come out on top in Paris in that time-span. None of them ever went on to win the World Tour Finals a week later.
On the other side of the fence, the last nine WTFs saw only two men outside of the Federer-Djokovic duopoly win the title: Davydenko in 2009 and Nalbandian in 2005. And since Federer's rise to prominence in 2003, he is the only player to pull off the Paris Masters-World Tour Finals double-header, which he did last year.
That's not to say the revamped Big Three -- for the moment comprised of Federer, Djokovic and Murray with Nadal out -- have a lock on London. This year's WTF field is more open than it has been in years. Federer is coming off three tough beats, to Berdych in the U.S. Open quarters, Murray in the Shanghai semis and Del Potro in the Basel final. Though currently ranked No. 1, his withdrawal from Paris gave Djokovic the year-end No. 1 ranking.
As for Djokovic, the soon-to-be No. 1 was cruising along with back-to-back titles in Asia, including a heroic effort in the Shanghai final where he saved match points to come back to beat Murray from a set and a break down. But that momentum could be derailed after this week, with his mind understandably back in Serbia, worried over the health of his father, Srdjan.
Murray's loss to Janowicz in Paris continues a pattern in his recent string of losses: He's held match points only to come up short. It happened Thursday in Paris, it happened against Raonic in Tokyo and it happened against Djokovic in Shanghai.
Though Federer, Djokovic and Murray have all shown their fair share of quality tennis since New York, it's hard to ignore the question marks as they head into London. And they'll be teed up against a field that has surged through the fall. No. 5 David Ferrer, a semifinalist in London last year, is still in Paris and coming off a title run in Valencia last week. Berdych, also still in the Paris field, made the semis of Shanghai and won Stockholm a week later, beating Tsonga in the final. Then there's my odds-on dark horse pick for London, Del Potro, who despite the loss to Llodra today in Paris, should be riding a wave of confidence from beating Federer in Basel. The last time Del Potro qualified for the World Tour Finals he beat Federer to make the finals in 2009 where he lost to an in-form Nikolay Davydenko. The big guy is a monster on indoor hardcourts, running an 18-2 record for his season. The early loss in Paris gives him an opportunity to get to London and get the rest he needs after two straight weeks of play, and get acclimated to the O2.
Throw Jo-Wilfried Tsonga into that mix of contenders -- he made the quarters in Paris to clinch his spot -- and you not only have a quality field of contenders, but one that seems to be streaking at just the right moment. I've become accustomed to seeing the final eight limp into London to produce some lackluster matches at the World Tour Finals. That's not the case this year. In the battle of the ATP's Best vs. The Rest, this is setting up to be the closest competition I've seen in years at the year-end finals.