What a difference a day makes?
Before play began in the third round of the Paris Masters on Thursday morning, there were five men with a theoretical chance of winning one of the three remaining places for tennis’ World Tour Finals.
By 11am in the UK, Andy Roddick had resisted a spirited comeback by Ernests Gulbis with a straight sets win, and his reward was qualification—for his eighth consecutive year—for the year-end fireworks. His many fans will hope that injury does not get in the way this time as it has on the last two occasions.
But it was the next match on Centre Court, all two-and-three-quarter hours of it, that would seal the fate of all the other contenders. It played out in dramatic form, too, in keeping with the stakes for which they fought.
Fernando Verdasco played as though his life—rather than a place in London—depended on beating Gael Monfils. The incentive for the Frenchman, however, was just as great. Monfils had missed out on the 2009 Paris title by the skin of his teeth, conceding to Novak Djokovic in three sets. He clearly wanted another bite of the title cherry.
In a match just one game short of the maximum, the fortunes of the two men swung back and forth as they exchanged breaks of serve. Monfils lead both tie-breaks 4-2, dropping five points in a row to lose the first and winning three in a row to take the second.
Verdasco constantly seemed on the verge of gaining the upper hand only to offer up strings of unforced errors. That has been the story of the Spaniard’s summer and autumn, and it continued to the bitter end. Monfils saved two match points at 4-5 in the decider and then broke to lead 6-5 as a result of another error from Verdasco.
With the crowd cheering his every move, the Frenchman served out the match 6-7, 7-6, 7-5. The Spaniard’s loss closed the door on a top eight place, and effectively did the same for Jurgen Melzer as well.
The Austrian, in fact, was involved in his own three-set epic on the next court while his fate was being decided on Centre Court. He was up against David Ferrer, also hoping to confirm his London place. The two men conceded nine breaks of serve in the opening two sets with Melzer—the aggressor—making numerous unforced errors and Ferrer looking unusually sluggish.
Melzer, though, saved five break points in the final set and then broke to reach the quarterfinals, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3.
Although he is out of the top eight in the race for London, it is worth his while to keep fighting towards the Paris finishing post as he could still book a ticket on the plane as the first reserve. In fact, he’s on the plane anyway—he has qualified in the doubles competition already—so why not aim for both?
Despite the result, it is No. 7 Ferrer who will take part in the WTFs for the first time in three years. On that occasion, he reached the final only to lose to Roger Federer, and he was thrilled at the prospect of another shot. “Last year I was watching the final on TV. I am so happy to be playing in London this year.”
For a man who was contemplating retirement at the end of this year, things have turned out remarkably well. He won titles in Acapulco in February and in his hometown of Valencia last week. He also reached the final of the Rome Masters. His early exit in Paris will give him a bit longer to recharge his batteries for a rather different conclusion to 2010 than he had promised.
Also on the plane, though not from any great performances in Paris, will be No. 6 Tomas Berdych. He’s had a tawdry time claiming his first appearance at the season finale, despite reaching his first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon this year, being runner-up in the Miami Masters and getting to the semis at Roland Garros. Until this week, he had won just two matches since his first-round exit in the US Open.
His fate was determined, in the end, by Verdasco’s loss, which was just as well. After a strong start against Nikolay Davydenko in his third-round match, Berdych lost the second set in a tie-breaker and fell apart in the third set, 6-0.
Looking at these two in Paris, it seemed counter-intuitive that Berdych should be the one heading for London while the WTF defending champion was out of contention. But Davydenko was sidelined for three months with a wrist fracture in the early summer, and the uphill race to the top eight has proved a step too far for the Russian. It will be the first time since 2004 that he’s been missing.
So what of the action elsewhere in the Paris draw, the matches that had no impact on the WTFs but may give some hint at who is finding their best form for London? Or, just as important, which matches indicated who might be heading for the last Masters title of the year?
Robin Soderling seems to be in ominous form, beating Stan Wawrinka in straight sets. He now faces Roddick, who served at 79 percent in his Gulbis match. The rallies could be very short in that matchup.
Federer continued his hot progress into the quarterfinals with a convincing win over Radek Stepanek, a man who thrives on the fast, slick courts that Paris has offered.
It’s a rare pleasure to see a man, and one who is now well into his 30s, resolutely serve and volleying with the sort of skill that made Federer produce some of his own best tennis for the second match in a row. If there was any worry for the Swiss, it was a nasty tweak he gave his left ankle towards the end of his 6-4, 6-3 win. His first serve stats, though, should make the pain a little easier to bear: almost 70 percent.
Conversely, No. 2 seed Djokovic fell to another 30-year-old with a classic and classy serve and volley game, Michael Llodra. The French were ecstatic, and if Llodra meets and flying Monfils in the final, the roof of the raucous Paris stadium might just burst off.
But first, Monfils has to overcome Andy Murray who, at well after midnight, eventually got past Marin Cilic in three tough sets.
The Eight for London
Possible reserves: Fernando Verdasco, Jurgen Melzer