One event, two men, and a fight for the No1 ranking – that’s what we can look forward to this week at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris-Bercy.
Add to that the fact that seven players are still mathematically in contention for the remaining two ATP World Tour Finals spots in London and we could get one of the most exciting Paris Masters we’ve had in recent years.
Maybe it’s just me, but the word ‘exciting’ is not necessarily the word you’d typically associate with the Paris Masters. It’s so late in the season, with only one week separating it from the season finale at the O2 in London and so often you can expect high-profile early exits or withdrawals.
This year is different though with lots on the line for many of the players. Andy Murray, riding a 15-match winning streak, is a mere 415 points behind Novak Djokovic in the ATP Race to London and the Scot could leave Paris as the new world No1 for the first time in his career, having spent a total of 76 weeks in the No2 position.
Murray is carrying some incredible momentum, and has been the in-form player of the past six months. He has won his last three straight tournaments, in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna, and is tied with Djokovic as the players with most titles captured in 2016, having each captured seven trophies. Djokovic on the other hand is title-less since Toronto in July, and has admitted to some mental fatigue and lack of motivation.
The way the Serb has described his current struggles, it almost sounds like he’s painting a bleaker picture than there actually is. He had personal problems that might have affected his early loss at Wimbledon, he won Toronto, had a terrible first-round draw in Juan Martin del Potro at the Olympics, lost a close one to Stan Wawrinka in the US Open final, then fell to a fired up Roberto Bautista Agut in the Shanghai semis. Add wrist and shoulder injuries to the situation and you’ll find that Djokovic is far from being in crisis-mode.
Murray breathing down his neck in the rankings could actually fuel Djokovic’s desire in this home stretch of 2016. With no indoor matches under his belt, Djokovic opted to play doubles alongside his compatriot Nenad Zimonjic on Monday night in Paris (they lost to Halys/Mannarino), and he is clearly serious about his title defence in the French capital this week.
On his part, Murray is staying realistic about his chances of replacing Djokovic as No1.
“I can obviously try and win my matches, but even if I win all of my matches this week, I still might not get there,” the reigning Wimbledon champion told reporters in Paris on Monday.
“So it’s in Novak’s hands. He’s ahead obviously just now, so if he wins his matches and gets to the latter stages of the last two tournaments, then he’ll most likely keep the No1 spot.
“I don’t feel any differently now to how I did kind of six, eight weeks ago. My goal wasn’t to finish as No1 at the end of this year. I wanted to finish this year as strong as possible and I think there is a lot stronger chance of doing it in the early part of next year, which is what I targeted rather than this week.”
Meanwhile, a host of players are looking to join Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and Gael Monfils in the elite-eighth season finale in London.
Contenders Dominic Thiem, David Goffin and freshly-crowned Basel champion Marin Cilic are all in the top half of the Paris draw while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Lucas Pouille and Roberto Bautista Agut are in the bottom.
If I had to pick two of those to play in London, I’d probably pick Pouille and Tsonga simply based on the fact that their style of play and flair would fit nicely with the atmosphere at the O2. Is three Frenchmen in London though too much for the tournament to handle? Who knows…
I would have gone for Thiem had this been a tournament in the first half of the season. The Austrian unfortunately mis-managed his schedule in 2016 and has run out of steam. This will no doubt prove a life lesson for him for the future.
Race to London:
Seven players can clinch one of the two remaining ATP Finals spots. Here’s how they can guarantee qualification:
Dominic Thiem – Must reach the Paris final
Marin Cilic – Must reach the Paris final
Tomas Berdych – Must win the title
David Goffin – Must win the title
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
Roberto Bautista Agut – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
Lucas Pouille – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
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The ball hit the tape of the net, bounced high up then landed on Angelique Kerber’s side to give Dominika Cibulkova a lucky break on her championship point that delivered the Slovak No7 seed the biggest title of her career.
Luck may have helped her out on the last point of the WTA Finals tournament, but it had little else to do with Cibulkova’s marvelous 2016, which she finishes at a career-high No5 ranking in the world.
After losing her first two round robin matches in Singapore to Angelique Kerber and Madison Keys, Cibulkova beat Simona Halep to squeeze into the semis, before defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova in the last-four and exacting her revenge on Kerber in the title decider.
Cibulkova spoiled two storylines in Singapore this week but ended up gifting us a remarkable one of her own.
With Kuznetsova pulling off a do-or-die title victory in Moscow and qualifying for Singapore just one day before the tournament started, the Russian making the final would have been a surreal and brilliant scenario. But WTA Finals debutante Cibulkova had other ideas as she knocked her out in the semi-finals.
A Kerber triumph in the season-closing championship would have capped a phenomenal year for the world No1 who won the Australian Open in January, made the Wimbledon final in July, took Olympic silver in August, and won the Australian Open in September. Winning Singapore would have been a fitting finale for the German, but again, Cibulkova thought differently.
For someone who was ranked as low as 66 in the rankings just eight months ago, and had Achilles’ surgery last year, Cibulkova has certainly been an example for perseverance in 2016. She seamlessly took her consistency from one surface to another, and ends the season with the second-most match wins on tour (53).
Kerber was considered the overwhelming favourite, having beaten Cibulkova in their last five consecutive meetings but if we’ve learned anything from the WTA this year, it’s to expect the unexpected. Maria Sharapova got suspended for committing an anti-doping violation, Victoria Azarenka got pregnant, Serena Williams played just eight tournaments all season and vacated her No1 spot, Karolina Pliskova and Cibulkova made their top-five debuts, Madison Keys and Johanna Konta entered the top-10 for the first time, Garbine Muguruza won her maiden grand slam title… the list goes on and on.
The WTA Finals gave us a sneak peek at what the women’s tour could possibly look like without Serena. Even though the American was not present in the tournament last year, this year, in Sharapova’s absence as well, things felt different in Singapore. The entire field felt closely bunched together in terms of competitiveness and almost every match was a toss-up.
A look at the season as a whole shows a degree of dominance and consistency from the top players. The slams were won by Kerber, Serena and Muguruza, the four Premier Mandatory tournaments were won by Victoria Azarenka, Halep and Radwanska, while the Premier 5s were won by Carla Suarez Navarro, Serena, Halep, Pliskova and Petra Kvitova.
With young players like Keys and Jelena Ostapenko making finals of Premier 5ss, and teenagers like Belinda Bencic and Naomi Osaka reaching finals at Premier tournaments, there’s been a very solid mix of dependability and unpredictability in 2016. Add to that the successful comebacks of the likes of Cibulkova and Caroline Wozniacki and you realise this year on the women’s circuit delivered, with interest.
She was the last to qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore – securing her spot just 24 hours before the tournament started – and is the first one to make it through the round robin stages and into the semi-finals. Svetlana Kuznetsova is without a doubt THE story of this season finale.
The Russian’s career is like none other; it literally had everything. She won a slam as a teenager at the 2004 US Open, waited five years before she won a second major, this time at the French Open, got injured and missed half of 2012 to drop out of the top 80, and finally returned to the top 10 for the first time in six years this season.
Her only chance of making Singapore was to defend her title in Moscow last week. She did just that to reach the season-ending championship for the first time since 2009.
Kuznetsova had never made it out of the group in any of her previous five appearances at the WTA Finals. This week, she has finally ended her group stage hoodoo as she dug deep to win her opening matches against Agnieszka Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova, to reach the last four.
She was down a set against Pliskova, and was down a break at 4-5 in the decider against Radwanska. This is a player who lost a semi-final in Tianjin on a Saturday, won a final in Moscow the following Saturday, and played her first match in Singapore on Monday. She was asked if her past week was made into a movie, what would it be called.
“Life of a Hustler” replied Kuznetsova. It’s an apt description of her 2016 season as a whole.
Although it wasn’t a grand slam-winning year for her, this could arguably be considered Kuznetsova’s best season to date. Not
because of results but because of how she has approached it.
She’s talked about how resilient she’s been. Her coach told her: “You never gave up in one match all year.” It’s true. She’s also been focusing on the journey rather than the ending.
She’s been trying to enjoy every moment on court, knowing that she is closer to the end of her career than the beginning. She describes herself as “an artist” and takes pleasure from every topspin that comes off her racquet.
Granted, she hasn’t fully ditched her erratic behaviour. The Russian still suffers mid-match meltdowns, and as we’ve seen this week, she can cut her own hair during a changeover. But that’s what makes Sveta, Sveta, and whatever her process is, it’s been a privilege to witness it.
The players can learn a lot from her too. Garbine Muguruza, who crashed out of the WTA Finals after going 0-2 in her first two matches, has admitted to struggling since her French Open title triumph in June.
The Spaniard has been trying to take pressure off of herself but has failed miserably in doing so. As a slam champion, she almost didn’t even qualify to the Finals because he results year-round have been sub-par.
It feels that with Muguruza, it’s all about the big stage. If she started focusing on enjoying every single match, irrespective of the tournament or setting, perhaps she can get back to what got her into the sport to begin with: her love for tennis.
If she’s short on inspiration, she need not look any further than the woman across the net from her on Friday. Her name is Svetlana Kuznetsova.