Events conspire to hurt Paris Masters

Events — including withdrawls of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and possibly Novak Djokovic — and bad decisions conspire to hurt Paris Masters, Richard Evans writes.

Rafael Nadal is injured. Roger Federer could not face playing three tournaments in a row. And now, Novak Djokovic is sick and may or may not have flown to Belgrade, Serbia, to see his father, who is in the hospital suffering from a back ailment.

It was obvious, from the moment the decision was made to close off the free week between the ATP Masters 1000 event here in Paris and the ATP World Tour Finals in London, that one or both tournaments would suffer. But circumstances have made it particularly hard on this well-supported event that is now run by Guy Forget, the former French Davis Cup captain and winner here.

The decision to play Paris and London back-to-back was made by former ATP CEO Adam Helfant, who cast the deciding vote as chairman of the ATP Board, which is made up of three tournament directors and three player representatives. It would be harsh to lay the blame solely at Helfant’s door because at least two of the player reps were in favor of it, but it was a decision doomed to failure from the moment it was made.

Federer, who is virtually obliged to play the Swiss Indoors in his hometown of Basel, was never going to commit himself to three consecutive weeks of tennis at this time of year and made the inevitable decision to pull out of Paris as soon as he reached Sunday’s final in Basel. Nadal has been a longtime casualty, and the last thing Forget needed was for Djokovic to fall ill after the Serb — now guaranteed to end the year as world No. 1 — arrived especially early last Wednesday so he could acclimatize properly after returning from Asia.

Djokovic failed to practice on Sunday and pulled out of his scheduled pre-tournament news conference Monday. Then, rumors started circulating about an apparent dash to Belgrade to see his father. One way or the other, he is unlikely to be in prime condition to meet the winner of Tuesday’s first-round clash between Sam Querrey and Fernando Verdasco. (Like the other top 16 seeds, Djokovic received a first-round bye in Paris.)

All that potentially could leave Andy Murray as the remaining member of the top four who have dominated the ATP Masters Series — and, of course, the Grand Slams — for the past four years. No one outside the elite quartet won a Masters 1000 event last year and none have this year. At the moment, three have been won by Federer, three by Djokovic and two by Nadal. Murray has been in two finals and now stands to benefit from his rivals’ problems — if his mind is seriously on the job.

Murray is in a difficult situation. He wants to do well here and, as he said Monday, “it doesn’t really make sense to come and save energy.” But, conversely, he added, “Because of what happened last year (pulling out with a groin strain after playing just one match), not being able to finish in London as I would have liked, it’s a very important tournament for me this year. I want to make sure I’m 110 percent fit for that event.”

Translation: If Murray were to feel a twinge in his early matches here, he would be off through the Channel Tunnel on Eurostar before you could blink.

A tournament of this stature, which has built a fine reputation since coming onto the calendar in 1986, deserves better. By taking away the week’s breathing space before the ATP World Tour Finals, the tour made one of its worst decisions and is now having to live with the consequences. No wonder this Paris Masters event is thinking of moving to February.

Meanwhile, interest centers on the remaining two places that are still up for grabs for London. French favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic are best placed in eighth and ninth positions (No. 9 will qualify in the absence of Nadal). But another Frenchman, Richard Gasquet, is No. 10 and in good form.

If John Isner were to win the tournament, the American would have a shot from his current position of 14th, but that is asking a lot of a man who seems to have lost confidence. The slowness of the indoor court here also would seem to work against the big server. In all, there are nine players still vying for those two coveted spots amongst the top eight. Their task would appear to have been made easier because of injuries and the absurdity of the scheduling. But matches still have to be won — which is why Tsonga and Tipsarevic are looking good with those extra points in the bank.