The Masters 1000 event in Paris, France was dealt a significant blow when world No. 1 and former finalist Rafael Nadal withdrew. Citing a shoulder injury for his withdrawal, Nadal's top seed in the tournament was taken by Roger Federer.
The last regular event of the season will provide a do-or-die week for six players. With three spots remaining for the World Tour Finale—Tomas Berdych, Andy Roddick, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Mikhail Youzhny, and Jurgen Melzer will all hold a mathematical chance of qualifying for London.
Defending champ Novak Djokovic will look to extinguish the hopes of the London contenders by capturing his sixth Masters title. The Serb has elevated his game by winning the title in Beijing, while reaching the latter stages in Shanghai, Basel and New York. Djokovic's serve appears to have found the rhythm that it lacked at the beginning of the year, and the rest of his game has followed suit.
Andy Murray's dedication to the event remains in question, considering his sub-par effort in Valencia. Never advancing past the quarterfinals in Bercy, Murray's mindset may be focused on the O2 Arena in London. Bagging the Shanghai crown in October, Murray remains a dangerous contender for the title, but I'm not convinced that a fifth gear performance will be put forth in France.
With that being said, this event could be blown wide open with more than a few landmine results, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see a lesser ranked player take home the title.
Let's now take a look at the top and bottom halves of the draw, while attempting to predict the outcome of the 48-player field.
Remember good old Julien Benneteau? Well, the crafty Frenchman is not in the draw this year, but he did lay claim to ousting Federer from the event in 2009.
Remaining one of the few Masters events the Swiss hasn't won—alongside the Monte Carlo and Roma Masters—Federer's quest for French glory could be derailed early. Facing either Nicolas Mahut or Richard Gasquet in the second round, Federer was once again dealt a formidable home-country favorite. Lurking in the not-too-distant future for the top seed could be either slap-happy Nicolas Almagro, or London hopefuls Ferrer or Melzer.
Although Federer does possess a favorable record against all of the players in this quarter, one must keep in mind that his inability to advance past the quarterfinals in seven previous appearances.
I'm not suggesting that Federer can't ramp up his game and bid for the title, but how many of you out there picked Benneteau to clip him in the second round last year?
There's something to be said about previous results, and whether or not the bounce or speed of the court in Bercy, coupled with its closeness to the World Tour Finale, have Federer prone to early departures—his discomfort at the event has been well documented.
Looking at the bottom quarter of this half, Murray and Verdasco are the highest seeds. While Murray was anything but his best in Valencia, Verdasco continued his struggles on Tour. Losing five of his last six matches, Verdasco will need a home run effort in Paris to qualify for London.
Murray, who will be the front and center attraction at the O2 Arena, would be well advised to build up his confidence before flying home. Never forgetting the pressures that Murray faces in England, an early exit in Paris could leave the Scot up for further scrutiny prior the culminating event of the season.
When looking at dark-horses in the half, how about David Nalbandian? A former winner of the event, Nalbandian is exactly the type of player who can dust the best players in the world when they are either on top form, or caught napping. Nalbandian has stated that his goal for next season is to return to the top 10, and a solid result in Paris would aid him towards that position.
Last year's finalist Gael Monfils will also be one to watch in France, but a recent blowout loss to Soderling would suggest that his inconsistent ways are still present. The recent Montpellier champ put on quite a show against Djokovic during last year's final, but a quarterfinal encounter against either Murray or Nalbandian would be difficult to overcome.
All in all, I'm feeling an old school rivalry coming back to life in this section, which would feature a semifinal showdown between Federer and Nalbandian.
It isn't 2006, but the Swiss and Argentine could provide an entertaining final-four battle.
Picks: Federer, Nalbandian
Could we see John Isner reel in a career turning performance, or, will Djokovic, Soderling, and Roddick reign supreme?
While Isner physically hasn't been the same player since his epic Wimbledon contest, the three top seeds in this half have provided enough warning signs that their confidence is on the rise. Djokovic could get a taste of Isner's serve in the third round, while Roddick and fellow London contender Youzhny could lock horns prior to the quarterfinals.
On paper, Wimbledon finalist Berdych appears ready to qualify for London because of his stellar play from the spring, but the towering Czech has been anything but a Grand Slam finalist in recent months.
I was impressed with Soderling's demeanor in Valencia last week, and if the skyscraper Swede can keep his detonating ground-strokes in the court, then two successful weeks on Tour could be achieved.
There's no question that Djokovic will be the man to beat in this half, but something tells me that his success in Basel, along with his upcoming events in London and Belgrade, will have his mental and physical state occupied.
It's always difficult to determine the commitment level of the game's best players during this time of the season, and although Djokovic did come up aces in Paris last year, the extra mental strain of the Davis Cup final will continue to weigh heavily on his shoulders.
Furthermore, I could see Djokovic falling early to Isner in a potential clash, while Soderling's power and recent control appear ready to penetrate the top of the rankings.
Watch out for lefty dynamo Michael Llodra to potentially catch fire as the dark-horse candidate, while American Sam Querrey will attempt to battle his Masters event jinx.
Picks: Isner, Soderling
Finalists: Nalbandian vs. Soderling