Paris Masters Preview: Stalking #1
The unexpected race for the top spot in the ATP World Tour rankings highlights this week’s action as the ATP makes its final regular stop for the 2016 season in Paris for the BNP Paribas Masters. Andy Murray continued his second half assault on world number one Novak Djokovic as he picked up the Eerste Bank Open title on Sunday in Vienna. That victory closed the gap between Murray and Djokovic to just 415 points. It’s an astounding turn of events when you consider Djokovic was up nearly 8,000 points over Murray after winning the french Open. That was only about five months ago.
Since then, it’s been the Andy Murray show on tour with the Scot dominating with a 44-3 mark and grabbing his third career Grand Slam win with the title at Wimbledon. Djokovic? He’s gone MIA due in part to injury and more so due to mental fatigue. The Serb was bounced in the third round at Wimbledon, where the injuries began to pop up. He did win the Rogers Cup during the summer, but then was bounced in the opening round of the Rio Olympics by a resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro. Djokovic’s mood continued to be questioned as he made one of the more odd runs to the U.S. Open final with retirements or withdrawals fueling three of his six wins.
In the final, he was outplayed by Stan Wawrinka and again the injury questions cropped up as he could not match the Swiss in a disheartening four set loss. It wasn’t long after that loss that Djokovic finally admitted to the world that he had lost his passion for the game and was having difficulty enjoying his time on court. So here he is now with some rest and recovery after losing in the semifinals at the Shanghai Masters to Roberto Bautista Agut with his #1 ranking on the line. The spot he has held for consecutively since July 2014. He is your top seed and three-time defending champion in Paris this week.
If he’s mentally focused for the week, this could be the spot for him to dig in. He’s 26-6 in Parus during his career, by far sporting one of the best records in the field this week. Murray is slotted as the second seed with a 17-9 mark, but has only made the final once here. That came last year when he lost to Djokovic. Prior to that, Murray had never advanced past the quarterfinals at this tournament. Rounding out the top four seeds this week are Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic. Wawrinka’s best effort in Paris also came last year with a semifinal run, while Raonic made the final in 2014.
The top eight seeds for the week are Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Raonic, Kei NIshikori, Dominic Thiem, Tomas Berdych and David Goffin. Berdych sports the next best record among the seeds in Paris for his career at 25-10 with one title in 2005. Other previous winners of this tournament in the seeded field include 11th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2008) and 15th seed David Ferrer (2012).
Paris traditionally has been a seeded paradise with seeds making up the entire quarterfinal field each of the last three seasons. You have to go back to 2012’s crazy BNP Paribas Masters to find the last time that a non-seed made some noise. That year, top seed Roger Federer withdrew from the tournament to rest fo the year-end Tour Finals. Novak Djokovic lost his first match as the second seed and it was qualifier Jerzy Janowicz who stunned the world with a run to the final before ultimately losing to fourth seed David Ferrer.
Since then, seeds have been dominant with Djokovic of course leading the way. Even more so, it’s been the top seeds who have secured the majority of the semifinal slots in this three year stretch with the 8th seed being the highest seed to make the semifinals. Last year, it was seeds one, two, four and eight in the semifinals. 2014 saw seeds one, five, six and seven and 2013 saw seeds one, two, three and five in the semifinals.
Despite that dominance, there has still been some room for an early upset in Paris. At least two seeds have dropped out in their first matches in Paris each of the last four years with at least three losing in three of the last four years. So let’s take a look at this week’s Seed Report to see who could be most prone to following that trend.
1. Novak Djokovic
At 26-6 and with three straight titles in Paris, you’d expect the top seed to be bullet proof early on. The time off for Djokovic should not have hurt him as I believe he needed it. He won’t necessarily have an easy time of it in his opener after a bye. He is set to face either Gilles Muller or Nicolas Almagro. Muller has been hot with a semifinal run this past week in Basel. He also played Djokovic extremely close in a 7-5, 7-6 (3) loss at the Rogers Cup this year. That won’t be an easy match if Muller is there and it also would not shock me if Djokovic struggled to get going. Keep an eye on that one.
2. Andy Murray
Murray knows the task at hand this week. Having made the final against Djokovic last year, he needs to at least match the Serb to keep pace in the race for #1. Realistically, his best shot to catch Djokovic could come at the Tour Finals. Still, he’ll want to put pressure on Djokovic to perform with another run this week. He opens against Fernando Verdasco who advanced to round two via the retirement of Robin Haase. That was just the Spaniard’s second first round win in his last seven tournaments. Murray is 11-1 versus the lefty.
3. Stan Wawrinka
The Swiss third seed cast aside his demons in Basel last week to break a four year losing skid of dropping out in the opening round. He made it to the quarterfinals before falling flat 2-6, 7-5, 1-6 to qualifier Mischa Zverev. That’s a bit alarming again for Wawrinka who time and time again has not been consistent in non Grand Slams. He’s 13-11 all-time at this tournament. He’s lost his first match in Paris three times in eleven years, but not once since John Isner beat him in 2011.
He opens with Jan-Lennard Struff who crushed Illy Marchenko 6-1, 6-1 in round one. The two have never met. The German has been decent on this surface recently with a Challenger title early in October and a quarterfinal run in Antwerp. The best thing for Wawrinka could be that Struff is 0-3 in his career vs. Top 10 players. That includes a pair of losses this season to Federer on grass in Halle and Tsonga in round one at the French Open. Given Wawrinka’s up and down “Non Slam” Stan form though, I wouldn’t chalk this up as an easy win for the Swiss. Struff has upset potential.
4. Milos Raonic
Raonic is 6-4 in four trips to Paris with most of those wins coming in his semifinal run last year. He has lost in the opening round once and in the third round twice. His form is not great with first-up loss to Ricardas Berankis in Basel last week. Since injuring his ankle in Beijing in September, he’s just 1-2. Fate pits him against one of the more in-form players in Pablo Carreno Busta who brushed aside Fabio Fognini in straight sets on Monday. PCB won the Kremlin Cup indoors a few weeks back and should be better rested after running out of gas in Basel last week in round two against Marin Cilic.
The plus for Raonic? He beat PCB 6-4, 6-4 in Beijing, the match where he hurt his ankle. He also owns a straight sets win against the Spaniard at Wimbledon during the summer. That arguably was a more confident and comfortable Raonic however, so this one could be tight. If the Raonic who played last week in Basel comes to Paris, it’s another one and done possibility.
5. Kei Nishikori
Nishikori will need to shake off a disappointing loss to Cilic in the Basel final as he heads to Paris. Nishikori is 7-4 in his career in Paris with a semifinal showing in 2014 as his best finish. Last year, he dropped out in round three due to injury. His only first-up loss in Paris came during his debut here in 2011 against Sergiy Stakhovsky. He has been made to work the distance in his opener the last two years however and will have either Viktor Troicki or Adrian Mannarino to contend with in round two. He is 5-1 against Troicki, but has not faced Mannarino. I think he’ll have adequate turnaround time from the Basel final, so as long as he doesn’t fall victim to the Championship Hangover, he should get past the opening round.
6. Dominic Thiem
Thiem is 2-2 in two trips to Paris with exits in his second match each year. This year, he arrives on the back end of the one of most over scheduled seasons in memory. He’s still been able to step up with good performances here and there, like the Moselle Open final in September. However, he’s looked worse for the wear since then at just 2-3 since then with a mostly dreadful loss to Troicki last week in Vienna. The draw doesn’t look like it will do him any favors with either Philipp Kohlschreiber or Jack Sock as his first opponent.
Sock is only 1-2 at this tournament all-time, but has been hot of late with a finals appearance in Stockholm before he crashed out in Basel last week. Kohlschreiber is 3-2 in this brief indoor swing the last few weeks and has a 6-7 record in Paris, where he usually plays hard even in losing. The German has beaten Thiem twice on clay with Thiem returning the favor this year on grass. Thiem may prefer Sock, whom he has beaten twice. The Austrian is looking to sew up his first ever spot for the Tour Finals, so perhaps that will be motivation. He’s in 8th, but truly in 7th as Rafael Nadal has shut it down for the year leaving his slot open in London. Berdych, Cilic and Goffin along with Thiem are all in the mix for the last two spots at the O2 Arena.
Either way though, this is going to be a tough get for Thiem and definitely sounds the upset alarm.
7. Tomas Berdych
The Czech is without a win since taking the Shenzhen Open title in September and that has put him in peril of missing out on the Tour Finals for the first time since 2009. He has dropped his opener in three straight tournaments and starts with Joao Sousa. Berdych is 2-0 vs. Sousa with one of those coming in Dubai early in the season this year. Saousa’s win in round one over Andreas Seppi was his first in Paris. If not now, then when for Berdych? This is a very winnable match, but his recent form doesn’t inspire.
8. David Goffin
Goffin is 2-2 in his career in Paris with last year’s third round run as his best. His form indoors has been mediocre the last few weeks with a poor loss to Diego Schwartzman in Antwerp and the being overpowered by Del Potro in his second match in Basel last week. He’s not terrible on this surface at 10-5 this season and 38-21 in his career. He looks to have drawn a fairly nice opener with either Nicolas Mahut or Mrtin Klizan as his foe. Klizan hasn’t won an ATP level match since July. Mahut looks tougher as he has some nice results indoors in his career and played Goffin to a tough three set loss at the Moselle Open in September. Goffin is now 2-1 vs. the Frenchman with Mahut’s only win coming on grass. That will be a tough battle, but I think the Belgian has the goods to get by either one in the end.
Other Seeds of Note
9. Marin Cilic
Cilic is in fine form after winning in Basel, but has to be looked at in this spot with Ivo Karlovic as a potential opponent. Cilic is just 6-7 in Paris with first-up losses in three of his last four trips. Karlovic opens with Dusan Lajovic in round one. Karlovic has split four career meetings against Cilic and owns two straight wins against him, one coming at the Rogers Cup this summer. The indoor conditions will make that a likely serve fest if it is the match-up and Karlovic certainly can spring the upset.
13. Lucas Pouille
Pouille could see Spaniard Feliciano Lopez for the second straight week. Lopez opens against qualifier Pierre Hueges-Herbert. Lopez took down Pouille in three last week in Vienna. Lopez is 10-12 in Paris for his career with PHH 1-3 in main draw action overall at this event. Pouille lost his opener last year in France to another Frenchman in Jeremy Chardy. PHH or Lopez could provide a stern test here and he might actually prefer another crack at Lopez over PHH who has the qualifying run to boost his confidence. It’s difficult to beat the same player twice in successive tournaments and the familiarity may help ease some nerves for Pouille if it is Lopez. In either case, Pouille will have to battle to get through.
15. David Ferrer
Ferrer looked to have gained some nice form after grinding out three wins last week in Vienna en route to the semifinals. An injury to his left leg derailed that run and forced him out of the tournament. Even if he can go this week, he may not be longed for more than a match. He gets the winner of an opening round clash between John Isner and an unexpectedly hot Mischa Zverev. Zverev may not have much in the tank after a long week in quaifying and then a semifinal run to boot in Basel last week. Isner got his first wins since the U.S. Open in Basel last week before bowing out to Murray in the quarterfinals. Ferrer owns Isner at 7-1 overall, but that lone win came at this tournament in 2011. Ferrer paid him back though with a win in Paris last year and a straight sets defeat at the Australian Open. That version of Ferrer may not be seen this week though as a leg injury would severely hamper him and help turn this potential match into an Isner-esque serve-a-thon. Monitor Ferrer’s status as he could opt out.
16. Pablo Cuevas
Injured and poor on this surface to begin with, Cuevas certainly looks like a potential knockout in round two. He will play another non-hard court type in Paolo Lorenzi, who beat Benoit Paire in round one on Monday. The injury for Cuevas was not disclosed last week, when he pulled out in Vienna, so we’re not quite sure what to expect. When healthy, he had never lost to Lorenzi with all their meetings coming on clay. With his status up-in-the-air, you have to think the Italian has a good shot if Cuevas is even able to go this week.
Mini Quarters Preview
Quarter #1: Novak Djokovic (1)
Seeds: Djokovic, Goffin, Cilic, Dimitrov
Dangerous Floaters: Muller, Karlovic, Mahut
Djokovic has a workable draw if he’s properly motivated. He’s 24-1 against the other seeds in this quarter with Dimitrov owning the only win against him on clay back in 2013. Goffin has probably played him the toughest consistently of the seeds, so that might be the toughest roadblock to the semifinals. Keep an eye on Mahut and Karlovic in the botom half of the quarter, if an unseeded player makes some noise, one of them could fill the bill.
Quarter #2: Stan Wawrinka (3)
Seeds: Wawrinka, Thiem, Gasquet, Ferrer
Dangerous Floaters: Kohlschreiber/Sock, Isner, Struff
On paper, Wawrinka is clearly the class in this quarter. His end in Basel last week is a bit concerning, but it also could simply have been Stan being Stan in non-Slams where the GAF level is lower. If he avoids the early pitfall, he’s got this quarter as his to win. Any disinterest could potentially open this quarter up for someone like Gasquet. The Frenchman has made the quarters in Paris two of the last three years and he won an indoor title in Antwerp a couple of weeks ago. The Kohlschreiber-Sock survivor from round one seems the most dangerous floater to me.
Quarter #3: Milos Raonic (4)
Seeds: Raonic, Nishikori, Tsonga, Cuevas
Dangerous Floaters: Carreno Busta, Ramos-Vinolas
This quarter is loaded with some of the better talent and two of the top three seeds here arrive off the back of recent finals appearances. That would be Nishikori in Basel and Tsonga in Vienna. Raonic’s recent run doesn’t inspire me to believe he’s going to turn the switch on this week, but he does have the better draw if he avoids losing to Carreno Busta. Raonic might get to pick over the remains of a a potential Nishikori-Tsonga match in the third round.
PCB looks the danger of the floaters with an early win over Raonic perhaps serving as a catalyst to a bigger run. Don’t sleep on Ramos-Vinolas either in the top half, the lefty from Spain could see Tsonga for a second straight week and has played him fairly tough despite an 0-5 record against the Frenchman. This still feels like a Nishikori or Tsonga quarter and Nishikori has owned JWT on hard courts with a five of his seven wins vs. Tsonga on that surface, including two in Paris in 2013 and 2014.
Quarter #4: Andy Murray (2)
Seeds: Murray, Berdych, Bautista Agut, Pouille
Dangerous Floaters: Simon, Lopez
Murray should be pretty pleased with this draw. He’s beaten Berdych five straight times and seems to enjoy pummeling him for poaching Dani Vallverdu from his camp last year. Murray has clobbered Pouille both times they played this year and has never met Bautista Agut. RBA’s style would seem to fall right into Murray’s wheelhouse though, so this quarter looks a tasty treat for the man chasing the top spot in the rankings. Even the “dangerous floaters” in this quarter aren’t a huge danger. Simon did play Murray tough for a bit in Vienna, but went away in sets two and three as Murray seized control. It would be stunning if Murray were not at least in the semifinals and you get the feeling that a 1 versus 2 in Paris again this year would suit everyone.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTONM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO ….
It’s difficult to look beyond the form players this week as the top contenders. Murray obviously is the lead there and is licking his chops to get that top spot. Logic is that Djokovic will be eager to fend him off with the bigger fight likely to come in London. That means Djokovic needs to make the final this week. An interesting psychological battle could be Djokovic vs Wawrinka in the semifinals, but that’s far from a given. Murray’s toughest fight before the final might be a semifinal against Nishikori if the fifth seed can make it that far. In the end, it’s hard to trust Djokovic’s resolve until he proves he’s back on track, so Murray looks the solid favorite with someone like Nishikori seeming like one who could steal it if things go wonky.