Men's Look Forward: Paris
Time's up. This is it. Anyone who wants to make the Masters Cup, it's win now or forever hold your peace. Well, hold it till next January, anyway.
Of course, even players who won't be going to Shanghai, or who have already clinched, have reason to try to do well here. Yevgeny Kafelnikov wants to go out in good style -- maybe even finally win a Masters series title. A lot of Frenchmen want to show what they can do. Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt want to improve their standings in the contest for the year-end #1. Young players like Paul-Henri Mathieu want to show that their results at lesser events were no fluke. Plus, this is the last big chance to affect the Australian Open seedings: Anyone who is Top 30 at the end of Paris should be seeded at the Australian Open.
There are a few gaps at the top of the field, of course, notably Pete Sampras. But the event is strong enough the #16 seed is Guillermo Canas, who last week was ranked #17. The net effect is that Jose Acasuso, ranked #40 last week, is in qualifying, as are #46 Davide Sanguinetti, #47 Jonas Bjorkman, and #48 Guillermo Coria. There are unseeded Top 20 players here: David Nalbandian and Fernando Gonzalez (Alex Corretja isn't playing). Even the wildcards are a tough bunch: Nicolas Escude, who won Rotterdam this year; Fabrice Santoro, who made the Madrid semifinal; Paul-Henri Matheiu, with two indoor titles in the past month.
The top sixteen seeds all get first round byes. So let's march down the draw in order, looking at the seeds and who they would face. Not surprisingly, there are some very good matches on the menu.
#1 Lleyton Hewitt will open against either Jarkko Nieminen or a qualifier. Given the way Hewitt has been playing lately, that could be a very interesting matchup. Nieminen brings a lot of the same tools to the court as Hewitt (he depends more on speed than power), and he's left-handed. Hewitt will have the edge, of course -- but this might actually be closer than some of Hewitt's matches against the power players.
#14 Yevgeny Kafelnikov is last year's finalist, and indoor surfaces have been his best overall in his career. His motivation should be very high -- he'd like to rescue his year, and finally win a Masters Series, and he'd like to end his career on a high note. Unfortunately, most of those motivations have applied at recent events like Madrid and Moscow, and they didn't propel him to much of anything. The good news is, he'll open against the winner of a match between Magnus Norman and Nicolas Lapentti. Norman at last seems to have found fragments of his old form, but he never liked indoors anyway. Lapentti is a bit better in these circumstances -- but it's a match Kafelnikov ought to be able to win. In theory, anyway.
#9 Tommy Haas is in a rather Kafelnikov-like situation, though his ranking is higher: He wants to get back on track. He's barely clinging to the Top Ten after being Top Four for most of the year. He'd like to pull things back together. The good news is, he'll play either Michel Kratochvil or a qualifier -- and Kratochvil has been in a slump, and was sick last week; he didn't think he would make Paris qualifying. He won't have to, as it turns out -- but he still needs to get well fast.
#8 Roger Federer is the first player who looks like he should be comfortable in his draw: He'll face either Stefan Koubek or Xavier Malisse -- probably the latter, given Koubek's liking for slow surfaces. This one will depend a lot on who really turns up in form -- but Federer right now seems to be both better and more consistent.
#4 Juan Carlos Ferrero is the first seed who looks like he could be in trouble no matter how good his form is. He will open against either Paradorn "Most Improved Player" Srichaphan or Jan-Michael "I Serve Bigger Than You Do" Gambill. Given the way Srichaphan has been playing lately, he might win this thing if he doesn't drop dead of exhaustion along the way.
#16 Guillermo Canas has only been back for a couple of weeks. His form is still shaky -- not the way you want to be playing when your first opponent is Marcelo Rios (or a qualifier). The flip side is, Rios had a pretty busy indoor week at Stockholm. How will he react to back-to-back indoor events?
#12 Andy Roddick is still learning to play indoors. Fortunately for him, the same is true of his potential second-round opponents, Juan Ignacio Chela and Ivan Ljubicic. Ljubicic has a serve that almost matches Roddick's, and he may be better off the ground, but this surface may give him footwork problems. He already pulled out of the Basel doubles with an ankle sprain. Chela is more used to clay, and he doesn't have the big serve; ordinarily he'd seem less of a threat. But he's quite steady -- not good news for Roddick.
#5 Jiri Novak is at an all-time high, and he's looking for his first Masters Cup, and he made the Madrid final. But he also pulled out of the Madrid final with a muscle pull. We've not heard how well he's recovered. If it's still bothering him, then he might face trouble when he goes against shotmaking Andrei Pavel (or a qualifier).
#6 Tim Henman is another guy on the Masters Cup bubble, and he's been distracted lately. He'll face one of the lowest-ranked players in the draw. Which sounds good, until you realize that that lowest-ranked guy is Gustavo Kuerten (or a qualifier). Kuerten is in only because of withdrawals higher up -- but he's still Guga. And he actually has points to defend here -- his only real points after the U. S. Open last year. Strong motivation for both players. Henman has the indoor skills, Kuerten the mental toughness. That should be a great one to watch.
It hardly matter to #11 Albert Costa who he faces in the second round; it's trouble either way -- either Felix Mantilla, who can play clay tennis very effectively, or Nicolas Escude, who needed a wildcard but who likes this surface a lot. (On form, it looks like Escude should come through.) Tough choices for a guy who is clinging to the Masters Cup by luck and his fingernails.
#15 Sjeng Schalken's ranking is slipping, and he'll face a tough, speedy opponent -- either Arnaud Clement or Rainer Schuettler. (This being France, the odds are probably on Clement.) It doesn't help that indoors may be Clement's best surface.
#3 Marat Safin can be counted to face two opponents in most matches: The guy on the other side of the net, and the guy on his own side. And, in this case, both will be very tough opponents. Safin's performances lately have been pretty weak; he lost to Vladimir Voltchkov at Saint Petersburg. And this week, he'll face either the top unseeded player (David Nalbandian, who hadn't much liked his indoor season until this week but who just won Basel) or a guy very much like Voltchkov: Instead of the Vladiator of Belarus, he would cross swords with the Beast of Belarus, Max Mirnyi.
#7 Sebastien Grosjean is the defending champion, and he's finally starting to play like it. Is it too late? His 2002 is ending rather like his 2001, with a big title late in the year -- but it isn't enough; he's out of the Masters Cup. And his draw at Paris is tough. His second round opponent will be either Younes El Aynaoui or Paul-Henri Mathieu. It's a good test for Mathieu: This will be his first Masters Series since his spectacular indoor results.
#10 Carlos Moya is another guy who is on the Masters Cup bubble, and he is another guy who will be challenged; he'll face either Fernando Gonzalez or James Blake. Gonzalez showed at Basel that he's finally learning to play indoors. Blake is more used to the surface, and more rested, but he can't match Gonzalez's power. Can speed and steadiness make up the difference? And can he use them to top Moya?
For Thomas Johansson, it's last call. His only real hope for the Masters Cup is to pass Albert Costa -- and a very feeble hope it is. That's even if he didn't have to face Fabrice Santoro (or Tommy Robredo) in the second round. In ordinary times, Johansson would have a good shot at either guy indoors. These aren't ordinary times. He still isn't in his proper form, as he showed at Stockholm where he lost to, yes, Robredo.
#2 Andre Agassi is looking to overtake Lleyton Hewitt, or at least close the gap. His draw should help; he will open against Gaston Gaudio (who much prefers clay, even though he did beat Agassi on hardcourts once) or a qualifier.
If the seeds were to hold, the Round of Sixteen would look like this:
(1) Hewitt vs. (14) Kafelnikov
(9) Haas vs. (8) Federer
(4) Ferrero vs. (16) Canas
(12) Roddick vs. (5) Novak
(6) Henman vs. (11) Costa
(15) Schalken vs. (3) Safin
(7) Grosjean vs. (10) Moya
(13) Johansson vs. (2) Agassi
If you look at indoor histories, the draw might seen biased against Agassi, who has Johansson, Henman, and Safin on his side, compared to Kafelnikov and Federer on Hewitt's. The injury to Novak would seem to help Hewitt, too. But given Safin's and Johansson's slumps, and Henman's distractions, it might just be that Hewitt has it harder.
If anyone really cares about the entry rankings this week, the big news of course involved defending champion Grosjean and defending finalist Kafelnikov; the former could easily drop out of the Top 15 and the latter out of the Top 20. Tommy Haas also has semifinalist points to defend. And Andreas Vinciguerra had perhaps his best ever result when he made the semifinal here; he's really going to take a hit.
But the big news is, of course, the Race. This really has two parts: The Hewitt-Agassi Race for #1, and the Everyone Else race for Shanghai.
Agassi and Hewitt haven't quite guaranteed themselves the top two spots at year-end -- but they've made it just about certain. Right now, Hewitt leads Agassi by 43 Race points. A key figure in this context is 50: That's how many points the winner of the Masters Cup gets for winning the final. So if Agassi is within 50 points of Hewitt following Paris (or vice versa), then Agassi has control of his destiny: Win the Cup and it doesn't matter what Hewitt does. But if Hewitt's lead is more than 50 points, then Hewitt doesn't have to beat Agassi to assure his spot.
What this means is that Hewitt really wants to win one more match than Agassi -- any such result will push him over the 50 point mark. If, on the other hand, Agassi can win even one more match than Hewitt, he'll go into the Masters Cup in a near-tie with the Australian. If he can reach the semifinal and Hewitt loses in the opening round, or if Agassi reaches the final and Hewitt falls in the quarterfinal, or if Agassi wins Paris and Hewitt loses in the semifinal, Agassi will take over the Race lead.
Further down, the Race continues for the final six spots at Shanghai. Or, rather, the final five spots plus the Grand Slam wildcard. The candidates for the latter are Albert Costa and Thomas Johansson (Pete Sampras could theoretically still get in, if Costa makes #7 and Johansson loses early, but even on the ATP, that seems too unlikely to consider). There are still two ways Costa could get in: By moving up to #7 in the Race, or by being ahead of Johansson. The former is tough but possible; a semifinal at Paris might do it, and a final certainly should. But what are Costa's odds on that? Johansson's task is even tougher: Unless Costa makes it up to #7 (in which case he need only overtake Sampras), Johansson must overtake Costa. That's a 63 point gap. In other words, Johansson must make at least the Paris final.
We'd say the odds of Costa going to Shanghai, and Johansson not going, are about 9:1.
The matter of the other five players is far less clear; while we know that Marat Safin and Juan Carlos Ferrero are in, we have no idea of the order in which the players will be seeded -- and there are still spots open. Right now, Tim Henman is #7, with 428 Race points by our reckoning. That means eight players are within theoretical reach of that spot. The biggest challenger is Carlos Moya, seven points back, which means that he will come out ahead of Henman if he wins one more match than the Englishman. Next on the list are Albert Costa, 35 points back; Tommy Haas, 39 points back; and Andy Roddick, 44 points back; a semifinal could put them in if Henman loses first round and Moya doesn't do anything. Anyone else -- David Nalbandian, who is within 80 points as a result of his Basel win; Pete Sampras, who isn't playing and isn't going anywhere; Guillermo Canas, 98 points back, and Thomas Johansson, 98 points back, has to win the thing and hope no one else passes Henman.
Theoretically, only four players have clinched (we assume an ATP announcement shortly): Hewitt, Agassi, Safin, and Ferrero. In practice, Jiri Novak looks safe also, and we'd say Roger Federer is in pretty good shape though certainly not guaranteed. Henman is definitely under threat, Moya has a real chance, and we could still see a surprise from Haas or Roddick.