Roger Federer takes a step closer to mastering Paris
The Paris Masters always finds itself holding in its hands the fortunes of some of the best players of the world.
This is the last tournament of the year before the World Tour Finals and, as usual, it got underway with the top eight men still to be decided.
There are three places still up for grabs in London. Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Andy Roddick are favourites for positions six and eight, and all three did themselves a huge favour by winning their first matches. However, there are still another three men in the race who have an outside chance of qualification.
Mikhail Youzhny’s name disappeared from the frame when he was forced to retire against Ernests Gulbis, but Fernando Verdasco and Jurgen Melzer kept their hopes alive with wins. The former, who had to rally from a set and a break down to beat Arnaud Clement, needs to break his poor run of form and reach at least the semi-finals this week. The latter must do even better and win his first Masters title -and even then, his ranking will be dependent on other players in the draw.
This tournament, though, features four of the five definites for London. Rafael Nadal withdrew with a shoulder injury at the weekend, but Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling are all in competition, and all were expected to take time to acclimatise to the fastest and slickest courts of the Masters series.
Certainly defending champion Djokovic faltered briefly and had to defend eight break points in his opening match against Juan Monaco. With all but one of the eight saved, he eventually cruised to a straightforward win.
Djokovic enjoys this indoor phase of the season. He won in Beijing, reached the semis in Shanghai and the final in Basel. He is, though, lined up to face a sequence of men who will also revel in these indoor fast courts: Berdych in the quarters and then Roddick or Soderling in the semis. However, their opponents -respectively Nikolay Davdenko, Gulbis and Stan Wawrinka -will all pose the three big servers major problems.
The top half of the draw contains the two men still fighting for a London place. Verdasco has already survived one stiff test and next faces the charismatic and athletic Gael Monfils. The unpredictable Frenchman will benefit from the undiluted support of the vociferous and demanding home crowd. Only he and Michael Llodra remain of the original eight French players.
Monfils loves this event, all the more so since almost beating Djokovic to the title last year. He has reached the finals of two events in the last month, in Tokyo and Montpellier, and won the latter. He could well deprive Verdasco of his second consecutive year in the WTFs.
In the same quarter is Murray, who faced one of the toughest second-round opponents in Paris, David Nalbandian. The Argentine won in Paris in 2007, beating both Federer and Nadal on the way. Despite playing little this year due to injury, he has already demonstrated his special brand of sparkling tennis this summer with a win in Washington.
His match against Murray was, as expected, one of the best of the tournament thus far, pitting two great returners of the game against one another in a three-set battle.
It took almost two hours to separate them, and there were just three points between them, but Murray managed to recover from a first-set loss to take the match. The only worry for the Scot now is that he required on-court treatment for a right wrist injury, and he will need to find some better serving against the big-hitting Marin Cilic in the next round than the 53% he managed against Nalbandian.
The top quarter of the draw poses a fascinating third-round match between two London hopefuls, Melzer and Ferrer. The Spaniard has all but qualified, but for Melzer, the door to London is barely ajar, particular as his likely opponent, should he beat Ferrer, is top seed Federer.
The Paris Masters has not been kind to Federer in the past. It is the only Masters where he has failed to reach the final -in fact he has never got beyond the quarter-finals. Last year, he made a shock opening-round exit to Julien Benneteau and the year before he was forced to pull out with a back injury.
But this year has all the hallmarks of a different result. The last couple of months have seen a resurgent Federer: the final of the Toronto Masters, followed by the Cincinnati Masters title, then a semi-final place at the USO, the finals of Shanghai, and wins in Stockholm and Basel. In short, he is on a 13-1 winning streak since New York.
He should, in theory, be a little jaded and leg-weary. He arrived in Paris with only time for an hour or two’s practice on Paris’s fast centre court. He even forewarned that the conditions were far from easy. To make matters worse, he was drawn against the uber-talent once dubbed ‘baby Federer’, Richard Gasquet.
The match did not disappoint, providing tennis that blended quality stroke-making with thrilling flair. Federer and Gasquet both play best in attack and they both held their ground within the baseline to hit with remarkable pace and accuracy. Rallies were short, crisp, and stylish, and were won with aces, drop shots, angled drives and sharp backhand passes.
Federer, though, played all those shots just a little better than Gasquet, and with superior balance and speed. In short, he was in that enviable place: the zone.
He won in straight sets, conceding not a break point, in little more than an hour. He said afterwards that the conditions were difficult and needed all his concentration. Gasquet must be counting his lucky stars that Federer had not found things easy.
As it is, should Federer continue to play some of his most accomplished and relaxed tennis of the year, he could well claim the elusive Parisian title at last.