It's the final act before the World Tour Finals in London, and unusually, there are three spots still up for grabs in the season-ending eight-player event. Who fills them will all depend on how things play out in Paris, with some intriguing subplots ready to unfold over the next few days. The cast of contenders also has a distinctly French-speaking flavor and a mix of attractive playing styles, which will only add to their appeal for the locals.
The leading role will be played by Roger Federer, and not just because he speaks the language fluently and is as beloved in France as any of the country's own national sports heroes. The 17-time Grand Slam champion is the most high-profile player scrambling for one of the last few spots in the season-ending finals, thanks to a poor season that has dropped him to No. 7 in the year-to-date race standings that determine who qualifies for London. But things are a lot more comfortable after reaching the final in his hometown event in Basel last week -- the result has left him within a match of guaranteeing a place in London and feeling a lot better about his level of play as well.
"Overall, it was a great week," he said after losing the final to Juan Martin del Potro, his third three-setter in five matches. "I'm happy to have come through tough matches and withstood the challenge."
He's followed in the standings by compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, who took a memorable path to the French Open quarterfinals this year and hails from Lausanne, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Wawrinka, the understudy to his legendary countryman for so long, now not only has a chance to qualify for his first World Tour Finals at 28 but also end the season by overtaking Federer in the rankings for the first time. He had similar opportunities in Basel but faltered badly in front of the home crowds.
"I was too nervous," Wawrinka said. There will be marginally less pressure in Paris, though the quicker indoor conditions may not be to his liking.
Andy Murray's absence following back surgery has opened up an extra spot in the London field, and an all-French battle is brewing over it. It's between No. 9 Richard Gasquet and No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who are countrymen but also a study in contrasts. The shy, soft-spoken Gasquet was a child star long cast as the savior of French tennis, and after struggling with the attention and demands at the top of the tour, he is now 27 and showing greater competitive drive to go along with his brilliant shot-making. The late-blooming Tsonga, meanwhile, has always embraced the crowds and the pressure of playing at home, and he just announced he will start working with not one but two coaches as he tries to rev up his bold, powerful game once again.
Their potential meeting in the third round has been the focus of attention ever since the draw was made. Both the situation and the quick conditions would favor Tsonga, but Gasquet has been the more consistent player this season. The winner is likely to take the last London spot and also end the year as the top-ranked French player. Gasquet insists being the No. 1 Frenchman "is not an issue," saying, "Staying in the top 10 and to go to the [London] Masters, that's what's important to me." Tsonga, meanwhile, said, "I want to qualify, [but] about Richard, I don't specially want to talk about the fourth round meeting."
Still, their much-anticipated encounter would be a very prominent national happening, and neither will want to give up ground to the other on such an occasion.
The last of the serious contenders, Canada's Milos Raonic, also speaks a decent amount of French. He spent time at the national training center in largely bilingual Montreal growing up. He's a little further back in the running, but could get into London for the first time with a big result in Paris. Being in the same half of the draw as Gasquet and Tsonga means that only one of the three could make it to the finals.
It's rare for so much to be undecided going into the final week before the season-ending event, but things tightened up because of Federer's struggles combined with a recent string of good performances from those stacked up right behind him -- Wawrinka (US Open semifinals), Gasquet (US Open semifinals, Moscow title), Tsonga (Shanghai semifinals, Vienna semifinals), and Raonic (Montreal semifinals, fourth round US Open).
But the plot thickened further last week as Raonic and Tsonga pulled out of their scheduled events in Basel and Valencia, and Gasquet and Wawrinka both lost in their opening matches at Basel, leaving the field clear for Federer. Federer took advantage by getting all the way to the final (only his third this year), but he stopped just short of clinching a London spot. Winning the final would have done it, but he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in three sets.
That leaves the players heading into Paris with some complex calculating to do about whether they will make the final eight, as the following unofficial scenarios illustrate. (Points up for grabs are as follows: W 1000, F 600, SF 360, QF 180, 3R 90, 2R 45, 1R 10. The top eight seeds receive a bye into the second round, with 10 points for losing in the opening round.)
Roger Federer (3,445 points) -- win a match
The way he can qualify is very simple -- win one match. The way he cannot is complicated -- he loses his first match, and Wawrinka reaches the semifinals and Gasquet reaches the semifinals and Raonic wins the tournament. As long as all four of those things don't happen, Federer will make the year-end event for the 12th straight year.
Stanislas Wawrinka (3,150 points) -- outlast Gasquet or Tsonga, stay within a round of the rest
Wawrinka can afford to have one player overtake him but not more, so he must try to finish a round ahead of Gasquet or Tsonga (at least one of the two will go out by the third round). And if Raonic, Haas or Almagro gets to the finals or wins, Wawrinka must try to finish not more than a round behind them (semifinals if any of them reach the final, final if any win the title).
Richard Gasquet (3,120 points) -- match or outlast Tsonga and get to the later rounds if those behind do
Since Gasquet is in the last qualifying position, he cannot give up any ground. He must try to beat Tsonga, if Tsonga reaches the third round. If Raonic reaches at least the semifinals, Gasquet must also try to finish not more than a round behind. If Haas, Almagro or Youzhny win the title, Gasquet must try to reach at least the semifinal.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (3,055 points) -- outlast Gasquet or Wawrinka, stay close to Raonic
Tsonga needs to move ahead by at least one spot, so he must try to get further than Gasquet or Wawrinka and stay ahead of those behind him if they make a move. That means winning at least one match if Haas or Almagro or Youzhny win the tournament, or reaching at least the third round if Raonic reaches the semifinals, and no more than a round behind Raonic if he gets any further.
Milos Raonic (2,770 points) -- try to make the final
If he can reach the final, Raonic is in unless Gasquet makes the semifinals and Wawrinka makes the semifinals or Haas wins the title. If he can't reach the final, there's little chance.
Tommy Haas (2,425 points) -- win title, get early losses from others
Must win the title, have Gasquet and Tsonga lose before the semifinals, and Tsonga before the final.
Nicolas Almagro (2,200 points) -- win title, get early losses from others
Must win the title and have Gasquet lose by the third round or Wawrinka lose his opening match.
Mikhail Youzhny (2,135 points) -- win title, get early losses from others
Must win title, have Gasquet lose his opening match and Raonic not reach the final.
All these goings-on mean that the overarching storyline on the men's tour this season -- the resumption of the rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal -- is not on center stage as the week begins. But Djokovic is the tournament favorite after dominating the Asian events and still has a chance to overtake Nadal for year-end No. 1 if he doesn't lose more than a match or so. The Serb also has the additional task of trying to remain fresh for the Davis Cup final after London, so there is still a lot left in the season for him. Nadal, meanwhile, will be trying to end his season strong after a so-so post-US Open swing coming in.
On top of everything, the Paris Masters is known for throwing up surprises. David Ferrer beat qualifier Jerzy Janowicz in the final last year -- so there could easily be some unexpected events in store as well.
The curtain may be coming down on this tennis season, but the stage is set for an intriguing finish.