For one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Paris must have had a decidedly â€˜offâ€™ day when it designed the cityâ€™s biggest indoor sports arena, the Palais Omnisports in the Bercy district.
With an unlovely exterior reminiscent of an industrial flood defence and a cavernous interior that sounds like an aircraft hangar, it is 12 km and a million miles away from the green-and-terracotta traditions of Roland Garros.
And yet it is here, inside this concrete and grass pyramid in the middle of a damp and dull November, that the most prestigious tennis competition since the US Open has unfolded.
And not content with being the focus of the race for the final three places at the World Tour Finals, the Paris Masters boasts the best starting line-up since New York.
Despite injury worries surrounding no fewer than four of the seedsâ€”Djokovic, Murray, Fish and Janko Tipsarevicâ€”all of them reported for duty and all of them have reached the last 16. Indeed, only three seeds have fallen ahead of their designated third-round spots.
So although two of Franceâ€™s home favourites were amongst those losing seedsâ€”both Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon put up poor performances in failing to keep their WTFs hopes aliveâ€”the Paris crowds have been treated to a feast of match-ups from 10.30 in the morning until 10.30 at night.
If there is one fly in the ointment, however, it comes back to this most unusual of venues. While the main arena is vastâ€”and it can, at the end of the week, be expanded by 2,000 seats to 14,500â€”the second show court has the look and feel of an underground car-park: echoing, bleak and with seats for only 600.
Yet here is where one of the key matches of the week found itself, the Round 3 encounter between Tomas Berdych and Tipsarevic. Berdych had only to win to guarantee his place in London; Tipsarevic had to win and then advance to the final to give himself any chance.
And it was the Serb took the advantage in both the first and second sets before the Czech, serving much the better of the two men, came from 2-4 down in the second to take the match 7-5, 6-4.
Not only did that confirm Berdychâ€™s own place in the WTFs but, in stopping Tipsarevic, it also guaranteed that Fish and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga qualified.
However, along with Nicolas Almagroâ€”who slipped behind Tipsarevic courtesy of an opening-round lossâ€”Tipsarevic will join the London party as a reserve.
It was also on Paris-Bercyâ€™s second court that David Ferrer displayed just what great form he continues to find ahead of the WTFs. He beat 14th seed Alexandr Dolgopolov in an hour and a quarter for the loss of only five games to consolidate his place at No5 in the rankingsâ€”as high as heâ€™s been in almost four years.
For a man whose reputation has come largely from his performance on clay, Ferrer is now proving his credentials on hard courts with a vengeance. From his semi-final finish in the Australian Open at the start of the year to his results this autumnâ€”semis in Tokyo and Valencia and the final of the Shanghai Mastersâ€”Ferrer is a tougher opponent going into London than he was last year.
Also relegated to the basement was Fish who demolished Florian Mayer, 6-1, 6-2 in 56 minutes, in front of a meagre crowd.
The likable American, who turns 30 next month, proved his prowess on hard courts this summer by winning in Atlanta, reaching the finals in Los Angeles and the Montreal Masters, and then the semis in Cincinnati and Tokyo.
However, when he pulled out of Basel last week with a hamstring injury after one game, it looked as though the fates were against his year-long ambition to reach the WTFs. Fortunately, he has recovered and, based on the speed and style of his win here, he is back in great form. His will bring not only a fresh face but a fresh style of play to the quick courts of the O2.
The third man confirmed for London is one of the two men left in Paris to wave the Tricolore. The expressive game of Tsonga has blossomed since early summer after more a period in the doldrums. Since cutting loose from his coach, he has reached the final at Queenâ€™s, overturned a two-set deficit to beat Federer at Wimbledon and, in a valuable indoor run this autumn, won the titles in Metz and Vienna.
Make no mistake: Tsonga is playing as well and as confidently as ever to reach the WTFs for the first time since 2008.
The top three seeds, however, have been proving their mettle on Parisâ€™s centre stage. Djokovic answered any questions about his fitness by beating first Ivan Dodig and then a resistant Viktor Troicki in three sets and almost two hours. If pundits doubted his commitment to the Paris fight, that match should silence them.
Roger Federer, fresh off a fifth title in the Basel 500, quickly adjusted to the different court surface to pull apart Franceâ€™s rising talent, Adrian Mannarino, in 55 minutesâ€”and that included a five-minute stoppage to repair Mannarinoâ€™s scraped hand. Federer dropped just four points on serve.
The Swiss has never got beyond the semis at this event: It is the only current Masters he has failed to win. He next faces another home favourite, Richard Gasquet, and both men will be mindful that Federer conceded a set and a break advantage in the Rome Masters to lose their last match.
Finally, the form man of the moment, Murray, has carried on where he left off in the Far East. Dismissing any suggestion of the lingering muscle pull that hit him ahead of Basel, he stretched his winning run to 17.
Murrayâ€™s only loss since winning the Cincinnati Masters in August came in the semi-finals of the US Openâ€”thatâ€™s 27 wins from 28 matches, a total of four titles from five tournaments.
In his third-round match in Paris, he made Andy Roddick look ordinary, winning 6-2, 6-2 in barely an hour. He next plays Berdych, an interesting marker for the form of both men ahead of London.
Looking at Murrayâ€™s tennis this autumnâ€”including his performances so far in Bercyâ€™s cavernous arenaâ€”his is the form that all the others will have to match.
Mardy Fish retired in his third-round match against Juan Monaco with a recurrence of his leg strain. The American’s place in London is nevertheless guaranteed.
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