For the past four years, the season’s final two tournaments have been something of a procession as Djokovic has swept virtually all opposition aside on his way to four consecutive ATP World Tour Finals crowns and three consecutive Paris Masters titles.
This year it could all change. The Serb’s form has dropped sharply, for a variety of reasons, and Andy Murray has capitalised. When Djokovic lost in the Wimbledon third round, the Brit went on to win the trophy and, since then, has continued a seemingly unstoppable march towards World No.1. To hold onto top spot, the Serb may have to win in both Paris and London.
Djokovic should pass his first test in the French capital – against either Nicholas Almagro or Gilles Muller – with ease. But he might face a sterner challenge in round three if Grigor Dimitrov makes it that far. The Bulgarian has enjoyed an impressive resurgence in the past three months and could upset the World No.1.
It will get even harder if the Serb reaches the quarter-final, as he is likely to face either Goffin or Marin Cilic, who are both battling to reach the ATP World Tour Finals. And Djokovic may need to produce his very best to win a potential semi-final clash with Stan Wawrinka, who troubled the World No.1 even when he was at his most dominant. If he makes it to the final and faces Murray, he will be the underdog.
Wawrinka almost followed up his stunning US Open triumph by winning the St Petersburg immediately afterwards. But he was surprised by young star Alexander Zverev in the final and his performances have taken a bit of a nosedive since then, as he lost to Gilles Simon in the Shanghai third round and then Mischa Zverev in the Basel quarter-final.
However, that is very much the story of the Swiss number one’s career, and it does not make him any less capable of beating everyone en route to a major title – as his three Grand Slam wins demonstrate.
Up first for Wawrinka in Paris is a match against either Jan-Lennard Struff or, more likely, Ilya Marchenko. The Ukranian took a set off the Swiss at Flushing Meadows, but the World No.3 should still beat him comfortably. Any one of three potentially tricky opponents – David Ferrer, John Isner or Mischa Zverev – may await Wawrinka in the last 16.
If the Swiss emerges unscathed from those encounters, he will probably face either Thiem or Richard Gasquet in the quarter-final. The Austrian’s place in the ATP World Tour Finals is not yet certain, so he will have plenty of motivation, while the Frenchman holds a 2-1 head-to-head record against Wawrinka and will fancy his chances of beating him again.
If he makes it that far, the World No.3 might get an opportunity to beat Djokovic again in the semi-final, before a potentially very exciting final against the summit-chasing Murray.
Raonic has already had an excellent season and, with his place in the ATP World Tour Finals secured, he seemingly has very little to play for in Paris. His biggest motivation may be the search for form and fitness – both of which have been in doubt in recent weeks as he has suffered one retirement and two early-round losses.
The Paris draw has been kind to the Canadian, so he may be able to ease himself into form during early round encounters against the likes of Fabio Fognini, Benoit Paire and Pablo Cuevas. Even if he regains form, it could become very difficult for Raonic if he reaches the quarter-final, as he will almost certainly play either Nishikori or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The Japanese has only played two tournaments since his run to the US Open semi-final. He was forced to retire with injury in Tokyo, but produced some superb tennis to beat Juan Martin Del Potro en route to the final in Basel last week. To reach the quarter-final, Nishikori may have to beat in-form Victor Troicki – who reached the last eight in Vienna – and Tsonga.
The flamboyant Frenchman summoned some of his highest-quality displays of the season to reach the Vienna final, and then played brilliantly in the second set against Murray to take the Brit all the way to a tie-break. Any one of Raonic, Nishikori and Tsonga could emerge victorious from this quarter to earn a probable semi-final against the World No.2.
Murray’s incredible 2016 gets better every week. Since his narrow Davis Cup loss to Del Potro, the Brit has won three titles – in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna – and 15 consecutive matches (one was a walkover). Even more incredibly, he has only lost two sets in that time.
The World No.2 seems unstoppable right now, and is bearing down on the No.1 ranking like a runaway train. To achieve it in Paris, he has to win the event and hope Djokovic goes out at the semi-final stage or earlier. If both of these things happen, Murray will be top of the rankings when last year’s ATP World Tour Finals points are removed from the equation before the November 7th update.
However, he cannot worry about what is going on with Djokovic in the top half of the draw. He just has to focus on getting to the final. He should have no trouble with either Robin Haase or Fernando Verdasco in round two, nor Lucas Pouille or Feliciano Lopez in round three.
But Murray could face a testing quarter-final, with Berdych, Gilles Simon and Roberto Bautista-Agut all in contention to reach that stage. The Frenchman took a set off the World No.2 in Vienna, while the Spaniard pushed him all the way in the first set of the Shanghai final.
If Murray reaches the semi-final, he will be presented with another challenge against one of Raonic, Nishikori or Tsonga, before probably squaring off against either Djokovic or Wawrinka in the final.
The Paris Masters runs from 31 October -6 November.
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