By Karen Helf
The Rolex Paris Masters began with qualifying rounds, Saturday, October 27th. At end of play Sunday, Feliciano Lopez, Nicolas Mahut, Benoit Paire, Joao Sousa, Robin Hasse and Peter Gojowczyk advanced into the main draw. The indoor event hosts matches on three show courts inside the modern Accor Arena. For fans attending the event in person, the Paris Metro Line 14 make the trip to Bercy a breeze.
This year Paris may hold more clout than prior years for several players. The year-end No. 1 spot is in contention between current No. 1, Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Novak Djokovic. While Novak has an opportunity to set a record by winning the event for the fifth time, Nadal has yet to add the Rolex Paris Masters trophy to his museum case in Mallorca. Historically, five players have ascended to the number one spot in Bercy, Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The ATP Year-end final spots are also in play for Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori. Last but not least, American Jack Sock is the defending champion. While Sock has had a stellar doubles year, winning both the Wimbledon and US Open titles, singles success has been elusive. Jack is currently ranked No. 23 and may face Nadal and or Thiem to reach the final.
SUNDAY PRESS CONFERENCE HIGHLIGHTS:
As expected, Novak fielded questions surrounding the planned Saudi exhibition match with Nadal. In his own words, “Well, I personally always try to be very apolitical. I don’t like to involve myself in any political exchange or situations. And it’s unfortunate that we are both drawn into this right now. All I can say is that we have the commitment with them for over a year, actually last year when we were discussing this potential match-up, we agreed that it’s going to happen in December as a kind of a lead-up to the beginning of the season. And it was my professional tennis decision to do that.”
“And of course I know, I’m aware of what’s happening, and it’s sad. It’s the only thing that you can feel when you see something like that and when you hear [about] something like that. But I can’t say more than that. My team right now is in touch with the people in Saudi Arabia as well as Rafa’s [team] and we are all talking to understand the situation better. Because right now we just don’t have obviously enough information, and we have to look into that a bit more and then we’ll make our decision soon.”
As international outrage grows over the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a tennis response remains a quiet mystery. While Novak and Rafa’s legal teams are undoubtedly scrambling, many people await an answer that seems obvious. While there is something to be said for keeping commitments and professionalism, doing one’s job and and doing the right thing are sometimes in conflict. Given the history of Arthur Ashe, and humanitarian gestures by John McEnroe and Andy Roddick, there are tennis precedents that make it difficult for many to understand how this question remains unanswered.
It’s no surprise that Rafa is taking his return to Paris one day at a time and is focused on staying positive. However, serious matters weigh heavy on his mind. The Saudi exhibition in December is a difficult and complex situation. Rafa discussed his awareness of the death of Saudi journalist Khashoggi and that “something terribly wrong happened.” He also revealed that he committed to play the exhibition match one year ago. While he gave no definitive answer, he shared that discussions concerning his participation are in progress with his team. In his own words, “It’s terrible that one journalist lost [his] life. I know something very bad [happened] there.”
The other weight laying heavy on his heart is at home. A compassionate and subdued Nadal spoke of the destruction in the wake of the recent torrential rains in Mallorca and specifically the town of San Llorenc des Cardassar. Beyond his local ties, Rafa explained that the area is home to some of his family on his mother’s side, including his grandmother. He spoke of the people who lost everything, especially the irreplaceable lives lost. Rafa shared he has a personal connection to the five-year-old boy and his mother who were killed during the October floods. He stated, “For me one of the most important things that I have in my life is the family and the friends that [come with] being from a not-big city. I have the chance to be in touch with all of them.”
Rafa also discussed the importance of doing the right things for the children that attend the Rafael Nadal Academy. It is clear that he understands that parents are trusting him and his team with the most precious thing in life, their child. He reflected on this responsibility stating, “We want to have the right services for all of them because, of course, they are young, they are kids, families. They send the kids, their son or daughter in our academy. So they send probably the [ones] that they love most in their lives, no?”
Despite his new role of dad to Hunter Grace, John appeared fresh and ready to complete. He shared his thoughts on playing in the era of the Big Four. “It’s lucky in the sense that players like myself have been able to compete against guys like Rafa and everyone else,” he said. “Because when you do get to play those players, it’s such a big moment, a big occasion on the big court and it’s a lot of fun in that regard.
“You could also argue that it’s unlucky, because those guys are pretty selfish and they take all the titles away from a lot of us.
“But for me personally, it’s been a great pleasure to be [on tour] 11 years now, and those guys have been at the very top of the game ever since I entered…It’s been a very fortunate thing for me…[Seeing] a guy like Roger – because he’s 36 or 37, and I’m 33 – do the great things that he’s doing at his age is very encouraging for me. So that helps push me along.”
John also revealed that upon graduating college, he thought playing tennis professionally would be a “brief” respite from finding a real job. In that context, his career is beyond anything he envisioned in his twenties. Justin Gimelstob‘s belief in him and Andy Roddick‘s support and friendship are two of the pillars that keep him going. About Roddick, Isner said, “When I first came on tour he was the No. 1 American for so many years. Someone that I aspired to be like and wanted to try to beat as many times as I possibly could.”
“He did such an incredible job of being the top-ranked American for so long. Very underrated in my opinion, because he went up against Roger so many times.”
Regarding his 2018, Domi remarked, “[In] the Grand Slams I didn’t have the up and downs, but it’s also easier to avoid them because of the best-of-five. For me it’s more difficult to perform well in the Masters 1000s, because many times I need a while until I’m in the tournament – even in Madrid when I made the finals, I was almost out in the first two rounds. And this for sure I have to improve. Also, I was little bit unlucky. I injured myself in Indian Wells, [and] because of that I missed Miami, and [during] Toronto and Cincinnati I was sick. So I basically almost missed four Masters 1000s. “
Concerning his Grand Slam chances, Thiem said, “I was pretty close [to winning] the French Open, and it’s the Grand Slam where I’m going to have the biggest chances…Of course my dream is to win a first Grand Slam title next year, but I’m not going to say it has to happen next year because [that] wouldn’t be fair to the achievements from these big players.”
When Marin was asked about players breaking through as teenagers in the future, he said, “You can’t say it’s never going to happen, [although] Rafa is one-of-a-kind definitely. He’s been…playing so consistently through the years, always with his incredible spirit to adapt, to train, and to get better. [But] why not? We can maybe see some youngsters in the future that are going to be able to do that on the same level.”
MONDAY MATCHES: WISDOM AND EXPERIENCE PREVAIL
The main draw order of play was punctuated by veteran-young gun match-ups.
Joao Sousa d. Marco Cecchinato 7-5, 6-3
Ranked No. 20, Italian Marco Cecchinato has had a stellar rise in the rankings, starting the year at No. 109, but Portugal’s Joao Sousa moved well and pushed Marco to long service games throughout the match. Cecchinato showed his frustration at the end of the first set, receiving a racket abuse violation. On the changeover he found composure and a love hold to begin the 2nd set, but Sousa would not yield any service games, and he broke Ceccinto to go up 4-3 and eventually collect the match. Cecchinato’s first serve did not join him on Court One today. Sousa will have his hands full in round two against Novak Djokovic.
Feliciano Lopez d. Alex de Minaur 6-7(4), 6-4 7-6(6)
The 19-year-old Australian followed Lopez onto Court One, outranking him 33 to 71. During the warm-up de Minaur showed aggression, hitting powerful shots while Lopez hit with a more casual ease. This was perhaps a sign of rookie inexperience. Where de Minaur played with an eager power, Lopez showed finesse, and despite outbursts, managed his emotions to hold at critical points and save all seven break points faced. At 37, Lopez is not showing a lack of stamina. As a qualifier he had already played two matches back to back before stepping on court today.
Richard Gasquet d. Denis Shapovalov 6-4 7-6(3)
At the start of this match Shapovalov appeared pumped and firing on all cylinders. A focused Gasquet overcame a three-game deficit to take the first set. Riding high on confidence, he went for shots and remained composed as the air visibly deflated from Shapovalov’s sails.
While the Canadian teen continued to fight, he made far too many errors to capture the win. His return point percentages fell markedly in the second set. His serve was, in a word unstable. There were pressure moments when he pulled out an ace, but also key points where he double-faulted. Credit to Gasquet for mixing up his shots, moving well and capitalizing on backhand opportunities. Next up for him is defending champion and 16th seed Jack Sock.
Frances Tiafoe d. Nicolas Mahut 7-6(1), 6-2
American Tiafoe closed the Monday evening session on Center Court, defeating home favorite Mahut. The first set was marked by efficient holds of serve. Tiafoe began the tie-break with an ace, then went up 3-0 and never let go. Set point was another Tiafoe ace, and Mahut’s hopes seemed deflated. Tiafoe will be tested in round two as he takes on fourth seed Alexander Zverev.