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Monday, October 13, 2008
Murray seeking third straight Masters Series title

By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com

Tournament: Paris Masters
Surface: Hard indoors
Prize Money: $2.9 million
Draw: 64
Top seeds: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray

The end is nigh on the tennis circuit, with this week's Paris Masters capping the men's regular season. While most are probably pondering their beach holidays, the likes of James Blake, David Ferrer, Gilles Simon and Juan Martin Del Potro have much to play for, chasing the final two, realistically, of eight spots at next month's Masters Cup. Andy Roddick sits snugly in sixth.

How will the big four perform?

World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, feeling the effects of an arduous six months, wasn't 100 percent at last week's Madrid Masters; Roger Federer, hinting in early October he might skip the remainder of the campaign, competes for a third straight week; surging Madrid champ Andy Murray is also in action three weeks in a row. Perhaps Novak Djokovic has the most to play for, since his last title came in May.

First Quarter: More Frenchmen for Rafa
A smooth entrance for Nadal? Nah.

After road-runner Simon indulged him in a 3½ -hour workout in the semifinals of the Madrid Masters, Nadal may face the unpredictable Michael Llodra and surging Gael Monfils in the second and third rounds, respectively.

A classic serve-and-volleyer, doubles standout Llodra claimed an indoor title in the Netherlands, then lost six in a row. He enters Paris riding a three-match losing streak.

Monfils is more of a threat. The former junior champion is slowly living up to his potential, at a career-high 17th as of last Monday and on a roll since the Beijing Olympics. Playing at home can be tough for Frenchmen -- just ask Richard Gasquet -- but Monfils thrives. Recall he was a semifinalist at the French Open in June, falling to Federer in four stimulating sets.

Five of the six qualifiers surface in this quarter, and another potential Nadal roadblock, Tomas Berdych, meets one in his opener. Berdych continues to frustrate, winning the Japan Open before exiting in the first round in Madrid and Basel, Switzerland.

Sixth-seed Nikolay Davydenko needs a good week, though he's suffering from a wrist injury.

Gael Monfils
Gael Monfils has reached the quarterfinals or better in four of his last five tournaments.
Prediction: Monfils

Second Quarter: Majestic Murray
Taking much pleasure from flaunting his biceps whenever possible, Murray is letting everyone know he's fitter. He didn't need to exert himself in defending his title in St. Petersburg, Russia, over the weekend.

Only one of his matches lasted more than one hour, 20 minutes and he didn't concede a set.

Murray figures to ease into the third round, as his first foe is either the rusty and injury-prone Marcos Baghdatis or American Sam Querrey. Querrey blew a break lead against Murray in the opening set at the summer's Cincinnati Masters and was pummeled in the second.

If the seeds stick, he'll draw Spanish lefty Fernando Verdasco, no stranger, in the third round. Verdasco is 0-4 versus the Scot and lost to him again this past Saturday 6-0, 6-3. He won 10 points in the first set.

Murray and Del Potro entertained in their seesaw U.S. Open quarterfinal and are possible foes at the same stage in the French capital. Before then, Del Potro may tangle with fellow Argentine David Nalbandian for the third week in a row. Nalbandian succumbed to Federer in Sunday's Basel final.

Prediction: Murray

Third Quarter: Intriguing matchups
Roddick's tilt with cognitive Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the second round at Wimbledon -- at least from the U.S. No. 1's standpoint -- was downright ugly. Roddick, who was on the mend following a shoulder injury, struggled returning serve and went 0-for-8 on break points. Tipsarevic converted both his chances.

The rematch takes place in the second round here, as long as Tipsarevic overcomes in-form Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Lopez reached the quarterfinals in Madrid and fell to Federer in the semifinals in Basel.

Get set for a potential showdown with Djokovic versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Round 3. Djokovic rallied to down Tsonga in the Australian Open final in January. But the gifted Tsonga avenged that loss, downing the Serb in last month's Thailand Open final.

Simon began his impressive sequence in Madrid by saving four match points against feisty Russian Igor Andreev. If Andreev tops the declining Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round, they'll battle once more. Simon's three-set magic finally came to a halt in Lyon, France, undone by Robin Soderling's brutish game in the semis.

Prediction: Simon

Fourth Quarter: Federer's waltz
If he maintains the form he showed against Nalbandian, Federer should breeze: His quarter features slumping seeds Blake and Ferrer.

Sure he was upended by Blake at the Beijing Olympics, but Federer was in the midst of a slump. Even with that defeat, he is still 16-1 against the duo and 7-0 against Soderling, his probable second-round opponent. Soderling excels indoors and triumphed in Lyon, yet fizzles against the elite.

Marin Cilic just might be the dark horse. He blew three set points on his serve against Murray in the opening frame of their third-round encounter in Madrid and pushed him to a tiebreaker in the second set.

Blake won't be too disappointed if he winds up with Finn Jarkko Nieminen in the second round. Blake's 5-0 in their head-to-heads. Ferrer has a tough start in either German Philipp Kohlschreiber or Russian Mikhail Youzhny, hampered by injuries in 2008.

Prediction: Federer

Semifinals
Murray dismantled Monfils in the quarterfinals in Madrid 6-2, 6-2, breaking six times. Having the crowd behind Monfils, it can't be that lopsided again, can it?

Simon was still a relative unknown when he ousted Federer at the Toronto Masters in July, despite winning in Indianapolis the week before. He's no surprise package now. Federer squandered a set and break lead in Toronto and couldn't protect another hefty advantage in the third set.

Prediction: Murray, Federer to advance

Final
Federer and Murray enthralled in the Madrid semifinals. Federer had the better start; Murray gradually wore down the world No. 2 and routinely threatened returning his serve. He's 3-1 in his last four against Federer, the lone reverse, of course, coming in the final of the U.S. Open, where the schedule didn't do him favors.

Prediction: Murray

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.