Paris Masters: Novak Djokovic has World No 1 ranking in sight, Kei Nishikori, John Isner resume ATP Finals qualification battle

It’s been nearly two months since there's been a tournament featuring all the members of the Big 3. Are we going to be lucky enough for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to descend on to Bercy and make the year’s last Masters event an unusually star-studded one?

I say ‘unusually’ because the Paris Masters has been something of a hospital-cum-war-zone lately. After an entire season of highs, lows and grueling toil, the battle-weary players almost seem like they are dragging their feet to the last stop on the regular calendar.

 Paris Masters: Novak Djokovic has World No 1 ranking in sight, Kei Nishikori, John Isner resume ATP Finals qualification battle

File image of Novak Djokovic. AP

In 2017, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori were all absent, the last four due to injury. Rafael Nadal did make an appearance, but withdrew after two matches. With so many players trudging unhappily towards the season’s finish line, the semi-final line-up went like this: Jack Sock vs Julien Benneteau, Filip Krajinovic vs John Isner. Suffice to say that’s not a list of names you expect to see on the final weekend of a tournament that is mandatory for all top 30 players.

The draw sheet this year still doesn’t have Murray’s or Wawrinka’s names, and now Juan Martin del Potro is missing too. But there is reason to be a little excited: as of this moment, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Nishikori are all entered to play.

That might change slightly over the weekend. Federer has been a little coy about his participation, and a lot will depend on whether he wins Basel or not. If he does win his hometown event, it is likely that he will pull out of Paris.

Even without Federer though, the Paris Masters this year has quite a few intriguing sub-plots. Djokovic can regain the World No 1 ranking with a good run here, while Kei Nishikori and John Isner will be entering the homestretch of their battle to qualify for the ATP Finals.

Here’s a look at how the draw is likely to unfold over the next week:

First quarter: The land of opportunity

World No 1 Rafael Nadal is the leading man in Paris, but he has only just started practicing after returning from his injury-induced hiatus. Tournament director Guy Forget confirmed at the draw ceremony that the Spaniard had arrived in Paris, but it is possible that he could withdraw from the tournament if he doesn’t feel match-ready.

If Nadal does play, he will be the runaway favorite to reach the semi-final. He has played some sizzling tennis on quick courts lately, and as a matter of fact hasn’t lost a completed hardcourt match this year (his two losses, at the Australian Open and US Open, came via retirement). While indoor surfaces have traditionally been a bit of a challenge for Nadal, it’s hard to imagine any player from this section knocking him out.

But if Nadal doesn’t play, who can make best use of the opportunity? Defending champion Jack Sock is in this quarter, but recent evidence suggests he’ll be lucky to win even one match. Shanghai runner-up Borna Coric is also in contention, but it’s unclear whether he has recovered from the injury that forced him to retire from his Vienna quarterfinal against Kevin Anderson.

Dominic Thiem is theoretically the best placed to make a move, being the second highest seed in the quarter. However, his confidence might have taken a beating after the 6-3, 6-1 thrashing he received at the hands of Kei Nishikori in Vienna.

Taking all this into account, it might be worthwhile to keep an eye out for the long list of brimming-with-talent names. That list includes Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev and Fernando Verdasco, along with a quartet of local heroes: Richard Gasquet, Jeremy Chardy, Lucas Pouille and Gilles Simon.

Quarter-final prediction

(If Nadal plays): Rafael Nadal def. Daniil Medvedev

(If Nadal doesn’t play): Daniil Medvedev def. Richard Gasquet

First-round match to watch: Lucas Pouille vs Gilles Simon

Second quarter: Which version of Zverev will turn up?

Watching any Alexander Zverev match these days is like a fun little guessing game. It’s almost impossible to predict which version will show up on the court: the aggressive, hard-hitting serve-bot that can win Masters titles without dropping serve, or the passive, tantrum-throwing brat that can choke away the biggest of leads out of sheer indifference.

If the former makes an appearance in Paris, he should make light work of this quarter. But if it’s the latter, then John Isner might be tempted to start looking at flight tickets to London.

Isner is locked in a neck-to-neck contest with Kei Nishikori to secure the eighth spot at the ATP Finals, and he has to be feeling good about his draw. He faces the winner of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Mikhail Kukushkin first up, followed by either Kyle Edmund or Karen Khachanov, and Zverev or Diego Schwartzman after that. These are all winnable matches for the American on an indoor court, especially if his serve is clicking.

Also there are youngsters Frances Tiafoe and Alex de Minaur, who would be itching to lay down a marker about their indoor potential.

Quarterfinal prediction: Alexander Zverev def. John Isner

First-round match to watch: Filip Krajinovic vs Karen Khachanov

Third quarter: The designated flame throwers’ corner

For some strange reason, tennis draws frequently tend to throw most of the big-hitting giants together. Maybe seeing what happens when a bunch of cannonball-hurlers keep trying to bruise each other is Fate’s idea of perverse entertainment.

Kevin Anderson, Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Marton Fucsovics, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Fabio Fognini – all of these players can do some serious damage to the ball with their hammer-like racquets. While Fognini and Basilashvili are not as physically imposing as the others in this list, they can hit just as hard as their taller counterparts – Basilashvili in particular.

Federer (if he plays) and Kei Nishikori will have the unfortunate job of defusing the power of these monster hitters. Even if Federer does make the trip to Paris, he will have his task cut out; his form in both Shanghai and Basel has been thoroughly underwhelming, and it is unlikely to get any better on the back of half a dozen grueling matches.

That leaves us with just Nishikori. But when has the Japanese ever shrunk from a challenge like this?

Quarterfinal prediction: Kei Nishikori def. Fabio Fognini

First-round match to watch: Milos Raonic vs Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Fourth quarter: Will Djokovic resume his love affair with the No 1 ranking?

If Djokovic needed any motivation to play his best in Paris, a look at his draw would be helpful. He is slated to meet Marco Cecchinato and Stefanos Tsitsipas – two players who have defeated him this year – in his first two matches. And you know what they say about revenge being best served cold; or in this case, served in a chilly indoor stadium during a Paris winter.

If Djokovic still needed more motivation, there’s the small matter of the World No 1 spot being up for grabs. The Serb is just 215 points behind Nadal at the moment, so even if he merely reaches the Paris final (worth 600 points) and Nadal doesn’t meet him there, he will return to the top of the ATP rankings next Monday.

There’s nothing more dangerous in tennis than a supremely motivated Djokovic, so the likes of Tsitsipas, Dimitrov, Bautista Agut and Cilic ought to be quaking in their boots right now. Cilic in particular must have a lot to think about even if he hadn’t been unlucky enough to land in Djokovic’s quarter; the Croat is on a torrid four-match losing streak, and would be desperate for any kind of lucky break.

Quarterfinal prediction: Novak Djokovic def. Roberto Bautista Agut

First-round match to watch: Roberto Bautista Agut vs Steve Johnson

Semi-final predictions: Alexander Zverev def. Rafael Nadal / Daniil Medvedev, Novak Djokovic def. Kei Nishikori

Final prediction: Novak Djokovic def. Alexander Zverev

Updated Date: Oct 27, 2018 19:21:13 IST