Paris Masters 2011: Can Andy Murray make it four in a row?
British No1 Andy Murray, who has won 26 of his last 27 matches, is aiming to win his fourth straight title
With so many questions looking for answers at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris this week, it promises to be both a gripping conclusion to the men’s 1000 calendar and a fitting launch-pad to the tour’s climax at the World Tour Finals.
It is a tournament that has often suffered from the wear-and-tear of the year’s schedule.
Only one of the top four has managed to win this title: Novak Djokovic in 2009. In 2008, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were unable to play their quarter-finals due to injury. In 2009, Federer and Andy Murray lost in their first and second matches respectively, and last year, Nadal could not play.
This year poses even more questions about who will win than usual. First, Nadal has again pulled out ahead of the draw after a shock third-round loss in Shanghai. He plans to focus on preparations for London.
After missing the whole Asian swing with a back injury, Djokovic is now carrying a shoulder injury and lost in the semi-finals this week in Basel.
Andy Murray, after a clean sweep in Asia, had to withdraw from Basel with a gluteal muscle strain.
Federer played his first tournament this week since the US Open after withdrawing from the Shanghai Masters for rest and recuperation.
Even reigning Paris champion Robin Soderling cannot take part as he continues to battle glandular fever.
At least the top four have already qualified for the World Tour Finals, which means they are under less pressure for points in Paris. All seven of the contenders for the remaining berths to London have more at stake and all of them are in the Paris draw.
The top three men in the race are within touching distance of the O2“”Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish. However, with each of them falling early in last week’s 500 events in Basel and Valencia, they still have a minor question mark by their names until they get a win or two under their belts.
Fish, as the eighth man in the race, is the most vulnerable to a last-minute overtake by one of the chasing pack, particularly as he managed to play just one game in Basel before suffering a hamstring injury. He could even face one of his London rivals, Gilles Simon, in his second match. Like fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils, Simon needs to win his home title to qualify for London.
So what hopes do Federer and Murray have of winning their first Paris Masters? Can Djokovic overcome injury to win in Paris for a second time? And which of those remaining hopefuls for London will make the cut?
Quarter one: Novak Djokovic
There are rumours and counter-rumours about whether Djokovic will withdraw from Paris to rest the shoulder that gave him such trouble in the semi-finals in Basel. If there is any doubt over the injury, he will surely play safe and focus on London, just as Nadal has done.
If he does play, he will be asked some interesting questions along the way. His opener should not be too taxing””neither Ivan Dodig nor Fabio Fognini has done great things in recent months, give or take Dodig’s defeat of Nadal in Montreal.
The next round, however, is an interesting one. Kei Nishikori, the fast-rising Japanese star who ran rings around Djokovic in the final set in Basel, could be his third-round opponent. In the quarter-finals, there are significant challengers such as Nikolay Davydenko or two men with WTFs incentives: Tsonga and Nicolas Almagro.
The former, in particular, has a decent record against the world No1 and, with home-crowd support, a good year of results under his belt, and the Djokovic fitness question-mark, Tsonga could well advance.
Matches to watch out for: Almagro v Davydenko, Round 2; Djokovic v Nishikori, Round 3; Tsonga v Djokovic, QF.
Quarter two: David Ferrer
Ferrer has enjoyed an outstandingly consistent year that has extended into the autumn””and not just on clay. Since his rain-blighted match against Andy Roddick at the US Open, he has reached the semis in Tokyo and the final in Shanghai.
His loss, as defending champion, to Juan Monaco in Valencia this week was a surprise but Ferrer should not be written off””though a more pragmatic man than Ferrer might shrug his shoulders at the Paris draw and turn his attention to London. He was a finalist in 2007 and fell at the Round Robin stage last year. It would cap a successful year from the Spaniard to advance to the semi-final play-offs this time.
Ferrer’s first match may well be against fellow owner of the Valencia tournament, Juan-Carlos Ferrero, who he took two hours to beat in Shanghai.
His next match could also be challenging: Alexandr Dolgopolov trying to reassert his form after an autumn dip, Mikhail Youzhny or Philipp Kohlschreiber””both hugely talented when on form.
Although Juan Martin del Potro has withdrawn at the last minute with a shoulder injury, the quarter-final still promises Monfils or strong players such as Stan Wawrinka and Feliciano Lopez. The winner may well come from this bottom segment of the quarter.
Matches to watch out for: Ferrer v Ferrero, Round 1; Youzhny v Kohlschreiber, Round 1; Llodra v Lopez, Round 2.
Quarter three: Roger Federer
Playing his first Masters as world No4, Federer finds himself in the same half of the draw as the form man of the autumn and the new No3, Murray. First, though, he faces either the talented young Frenchman, Adrian Mannarino, or Dmitry Tursunov, who happens to have found enough old form in the last year to climb from around 200 in the rankings to a current 39.
In Round 3, the biggest danger comes from Kevin Anderson, currently enjoying his highest ever ranking of 30, though he fell to del Potro in the Vienna semis last week and to the same man in Valencia this week.
Richard Gasquet is an alternative opponent and the Frenchman beat Federer for only the second time at their last meeting in the Rome Masters.
The Swiss, riding high on this week’s Basel win, should advance to a quarter-final meeting with one of two men fighting for a place in London.
Fish has a fitness question mark over him after retiring from his first match in Basel: His first match is a tough one against either Florian Mayer or Radek Stepanek, both very dangerous at their best. Next is Juan Monaco, a finalist this week in Valencia, or London contender, Simon.
Although the Frenchman’s indoor season has slowed his 2011 progress, it’s worth remembering, if he comes through Fish to the quarters, that Simon gave Federer a real scare at the Australian Open at the start of the year and holds a 2-2 head-to-head against him.
Matches to watch out for: Stepanek v Mayer, Round 1; Monaco v Simon, Round 2; Federer v Anderson, Round 3.
Quarter four: Andy Murray
Murray has won 26 out of his last 27 matches, all of them on hard courts and some of those indoors. Looking back still further, his only losses bar one since the clay season have come at the hands of Nadal””in the semis of Wimbledon and the US Open””and he won his last three tournaments back-to-back.
Murray’s withdrawal from Basel last week may have been a blessing in disguise””some extra rest before an assault on Paris and then the WTFs. He certainly appears to be back to fitness, scheduled as he is for both doubles and singles.
His first opponent in Paris is likely to be this week’s Valencia winner, Marcel Granollers, though both French wild cards in his lower section have some hard-court form: Jeremy Chardy reached the semis in Moscow last month and Julien Benneteau won eight matches to reach the final in Winston-Salem just before the US Open.
Murray’s Round 3 opponent should be Roddick””though Milos Raonic, a semi-finalist in Stockholm last month and working back from hip surgery””cannot be underestimated.
The upper segment of the quarter is full of quality: Berdych will face either Marin Cilic or Fernando Verdasco in his first match””his key to London qualification. Next up may be fellow London contender, Janko Tipsarevic, if he has recovered from a hamstring injury.
Matches to watch out for: Cilic v Verdasco, Round 1; Cilic v Berdych, Round 2; Roddick v Raonic, Round 2.
Final: Murray v Tsonga