No defending champion, in Andy Murray, no four-time champion, in Novak Djokovic, and no world No2, the resurgent former Paris champion, in Roger Federer—all injured. And that was not all.
2014 finalist Milos Raonic, two-time finalist Gael Monfils, plus big names such as Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Tomas Berdych, all closed down their seasons with injury. Indeed 13 men in the top 50 played no part in the draw.
But working in the tournament’s favour were two very significant factors.
World No1 Rafael Nadal, who withdrew from Basel last week to ensure his fitness for Paris, was present and correct and planning to seal the year-end No1 with his opening victory. He did just that to cap an extraordinary comeback season. Now he had his first Paris Bercy title in his sights, plus a stab at his first World Tour Finals title.
Second, the door had been thrown wide open for several fresh names to earn a place among the elite eight at London next week. The race really was on for the likes of 2008 Paris champion, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Kevin Anderson and Pablo Carreno Busta. But all lost in their first matches, dashing the hopes of the first two immediately.
Still alive were Lucas Pouille and Roberto Bautista Agut—but they lost before the quarters: They too would end their seasons in Paris.
That left one of tennis’s most popular players, Juan Martin del Potro, whose own injury-blighted career had produced many come-backs. 2017 was his latest, a 20-4 run that took in his first Major semi-final in over four years at the US Open, and on to the Shanghai semis, the Stockholm title, and the Basel final. Now, all at once, he was in contention for this first World Tour Finals since 2013.
David Goffin, who had been pressing his claim in the No7 position for weeks, finally did confirm London—though courtesy of other players’ results rather than his own. The exhausted Belgian lost out to veteran Julien Benneteau—though the Frenchman’s progress was becoming one of the feel-good stories of the tournament. This was, Benneteau had already announced, his last appearance at his home Masters.
In retrospect, while Goffin brought another premature loss for the Paris tournament, it may become a blessing in disguise for the Belgian—bringing a chance to rest and recuperate as he faces the biggest challenge of what has been his best year so far.
The 26-year-old has compiled his first 50+ match wins in a season despite missing the entire grass season after a freak accident at the French Open that injured his ankle.
This autumn, and back to fitness, he won titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo, made the semis in Basel, and a semi run in Paris would have completed the qualification job. In the event, it was Pouille’s loss that made the vital difference.
So one place left in London, and del Potro would face off against one of only three other men who could deny him. Victory over John Isner in the quarters would be enough.
However, the Argentine, along with so many others at this stage of the punishing tennis calendar, was showing signs of wear and tear. His back had played up in Basel, his hip was hurting in Paris, and he made no secret about feeling dog tired.
The towering Isner, who was the losing finalist in Paris last year, also had knee strapping, but he was playing with refreshing attack and a freedom. He owns perhaps the best serve in tennis, but has too seldom used it as a platform to attack from the front of the court. In Paris, however, he was proving to be a revelation, serve-and-volleying his way through tough opposition and in long three-setters: Diego Schwartzman and Grigor Dimitrov went first, and del Potro would go the same way, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4.
And so ended the Argentine’s bid. He afterwards went on to insist to the media that he did not intend to make the trip to London as an alternate, either.
Del Potro may still be ranked high enough to do so—Isner and fellow American Jack Sock need to win the Paris title to grab the last place, otherwise it will be Carreno Busta who goes as No8.
But one last factor, one last blow to the Paris tournament, came before the quarter-finals began, a blow that may also play a part in the London line-up. Nadal withdraw from the draw before taking on qualifier Filip Krajinovic.
The Spaniard’s knee, which was taped for the final in Shanghai against Federer, was again taped for his third-round match in Paris against Pablo Cuevas, and it had become, he said, too big a problem to take any further part in Paris.
“I have to pull out. Of course, it’s a very hard decision for me—pulling out from any event is tough, but especially from here, from Paris. It’s the most important city in my career, without a doubt.”
Back in June, the Spaniard won his 10th French Open title on the clay of Roland Garros, but the indoor Masters in the French capital escapes his grasp once again. More significantly, what impact will this have on his chances at the World Tour Finals?
“It’s not the right day to talk about London. Only thing I’m going to say, I’m going to do my treatment, do my best to be playing in London, but I cannot talk about that now because it’s a day that is tough enough for me to pull out from here.”
Should he be forced to pull out, of course, that leaves one more place to fill: del Potro take note.
A word, however, for the unexpected players who may yet play their part in that London finale.
The 25-year-old Serb Krajinovic will contest his first Masters semi-final after Nadal’s withdrawal, and his first semi of any colour since 2010. He has enjoyed huge success on the Challenger circuit, going 5-0 in finals since winning in Heilbronn in Germany in May—where he came through qualifying to win eight matches for the title. Now the fate of Isner is in his hands.
Sock’s fate, similarly, is in the hands of unseeded Fernando Verdasco, whose form this week has been outstanding in taking out the top-ranked #NextGen star Andrey Rublev, then Anderson, and finally Dominic Thiem to reach the quarters.
Uncertainty, then: It will remain the watchword for the final fortnight in a fascinating 2017 season.
Race to London:
1 Rafael Nadal 10,645
2 Roger Federer 9,005
3 Alexander Zverev 4,410
4 Dominic Thiem 3,815
5 Marin Cilic 3,805 [SF would take him to No4 in Race, title to No3]
6 Grigor Dimitrov 3,650
7 David Goffin 2,975
8 Pablo Carreno Busta 2,615
9 Juan Martin del Potro 2,595
10 John Isner 2,265 [2,905 with title]
11 Jack Sock 1,945 [2,765 with title]
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford